The Chattanooga Aquarium offers two buildings to explore fresh versus salt water creatures, a regular schedule of exhibit talks, and a heartbreaking question that haunted me for weeks after visiting.
During the talk on turtles (please don’t ask which ones, they were big, I was listening and also making sure my daughter didn’t wander off into the city of Chattanooga on her own), the speaker mentioned one of the turtles their scientists studied was 150 years old. However, the folks currently doing research were unlikely to see the full life-span of this turtle, as turtles will outlive most of us here! she laughed, because imminent death! So hilarious!
Maybe this tidbit doesn’t wreck everyone this way, but it struck me.
The subject of their study will far out live them.
Yet they study anyway.
Those scientists study turtles with little expectation of knowing the full results of their work. They go into it, aware they won’t be there, at the end, to see how all that work turns out.
Here’s something about sharing custody of your child; there’s so much you don’t see.
Possibly, in ideal divorce and co-parenting scenarios, this is less true.
In my case, and I expect in the case of many people, there’s a natural amount of information and experience that you don’t see when your child is away from you.
For me, my ex and I share 50-50 custody, so that’s a half a childhood unobserved.
Sometimes Dorothy comes home, and I want to put both hands on each side of her face, look in her eyes, and say, “Tell me everything that you did/saw/experienced in the last seven days.”
If this wouldn’t completely (and rightly) freak her out, I’d do it, too.
Instead, I ask about that day at school. We talk about plans for our upcoming week. We start something together, a writing project, reading a new book, baking something.
We get busy living.
Right here, right now.
Turtle scientists don’t walk through their days, watching turtles, writing charts, plotting graphs, whatever turtle scientists might do, while being eaten alive with remorse over all the answers they’ll never have, all the results they’ll never see.
They’re studying the turtles.
They’re busy living.
God willing, we won’t ever know the end of our children’s stories. God willing, we make, build, shape, and study these people, knowing the results of our effort, our time, and our energy will never be fully understood, at least not by us.
Even when they live in our homes, all day long, every day, we raise them knowing they’ll be less and less there, until, at some point, they make their own lives somewhere else. A natural and beautiful secrecy will envelope them, and they’ll become their own creatures, their own individuals.
The act of raising children is nothing if not an act of faith.
Sure, we can find tangible, practical experience in it all.
However, when we step back, and consider it from the turtle scientist point of view, we realize how much we’ve started that we’ll never finish.
How do we do it?
We look at the turtle scientists. How could they get anything done if they let the weight of not knowing shroud them? The uncertainty, the worry, the concern for the turtles, the sadness over not finishing what they’ve created- how could they move under a mantle like that?
I suppose then the same remains true for us. We parent, and love, and discipline, and look after, and shout, and apologize, and start again, because the act of parenting for the length of time we have is enough.
It has to be.
No one would get in the boat otherwise. No one would join the parent parade.
If you believe there’s more after this world, and I do, there’s comfort there too. Yet, for most of us more earth-centered mortals, not enough.
The work itself has to be enough. The time we’re granted, however much in a day, week, or month, needs to be appreciated for exactly what it is: the work of parenting we willingly and knowingly signed up to do.
Those turtle scientists struck me, hearing this noble tale of folks willing to begin or continue work they themselves won’t see the end results of.
With children, God willing, we won’t be around for the finale of anything in their lives. We’ll be turtle scientists, starting the research, giving it a solid foundation, getting it off the ground, and then cheerfully handing it over to its next owner, those kiddos themselves.
And we’ll be hoping they become turtle scientists of their own one day, braving the hard task of starting work they’ll devote their heart and mind to and happily never seed the end of.