We have been told so many times that being a parent is the most important job we will ever have that most of us think it’s true. It is. There is no doubt that parents – particularly in the early years of development – have more to do with shaping a child’s future than any other influencing factor. We have taken this so much to heart, however, that an undercurrent of anxiety, something approaching low-level panic, seems to run through the lives of many parents today, a Stygian stream of self-doubt and second-guessing.
‘Attachment? Breastfeed ‘til the age of three??? Spock: Dr. Benjamin or Mr. Vulcan? Should we go organic? Fish is brain food. Fish is full of toxins. Why do I feel guilty about going back to work? To spank or not to spank? Loose and laidback or strict and upright? Oh God, do my kids like me?’ Parenting magazines, media portrayals of family, blissful blogs about the special relationship we have with our children (“We’re more like friends and equals, really.” Well, I’m sorry, but you’re probably not a great parent then), about how amazing it is to be privileged to be a parent, all conspire to make many of us wonder: ‘Is there something wrong with me? Why am I so tired? Why do I get so irritated with my kid sometimes? When I lose my temper and shout, am I a bad parent? If I need some time alone and feel relieved when I get it, do I not love my kids enough?’
This discussion begins with a confession. Like the majority of fathers these days, I was present at my son’s birth. Unlike the majority of fathers, if they are to be believed, I had mixed emotions about the whole thing. It was indeed wondrous. It was also frightening, frustrating, and not just a little disgusting. Frightening, because there is the ever-present terror of something, anything, going wrong. Frustrating, because in the presence of your wife’s pain the only thing you can do is sit back helplessly and witness it. And disgusting because, let’s face it, while birth may be accompanied by joy, it’s also accompanied by blood and piss and poop and other items that end up in the medical waste bin. It’s perfectly natural, but it’s not particularly pleasant. I know, sacrilegious and, probably, sexist and insensitive. I’m probably the only father who’s ever felt this way and I’m sure there is something terribly wrong with me.
‘The Miracle of Birth’ is a phrase that has been drubbed into our psyches. So much so that it seems blasphemous, monstrous even, to entertain doubts as to its legitimacy. When you think about it, however, ‘miraculous’ may be overstating the case somewhat. It is, after all, something that happens with the approximate frequency of someone being served a Big Mac. I think a miracle, by definition, would have to be something exceedingly rare. And when you ponder it, the mind-boggling logistics – the factory farms, the slaughter houses, the pharmaceutical companies, the corn fields, the vegetable growers, the twisted intestinal loops of supply chains, the pure volume of machinery and manpower and movement required to put that particular Big Mac into that particular hand in Moscow or Tokyo, or wherever – the delivery of the perfectly replicated hamburger seems far more incredible than the relatively simple process of cell division. I don’t mean to detract from what is indeed a remarkable and fascinating process. But if what is miraculous is the purely physical complexity of gestation and birth, then there is nothing less miraculous about the birth of a cat, a giraffe, or a shrew.
But let’s not quibble over terminology. I have no real problem with calling the birth of a child a ‘miracle.’ My point is that we are led to conform to a certain perception of birth that may be at odds with our personal feelings or experience. This means that any emotions other than complete and unadulterated elation are viewed in our own minds with suspicion and self-reproach. Of course the birth of a child is a momentous occasion, but really only to its parents, their immediate families and close friends. To the groaning planet it is another mouth to feed, another body to clothe, and another demanding consumer of dwindling resources to supply. To the tax folks, it is a temporary loss of returns balanced by the prospect of future revenue. To the rest of the world, it is a matter of utter indifference. We feel pride, anxiety, the brimming world of possibility and, truthfully, the burden of sudden and complete subservience to the needs of a being dependent on us not only for comfort and love, but its very life. It is indeed joyful, but a joy perhaps tempered by a pang of regret for the voluntary surrender of personal freedom. If we entertain these thoughts, however, they are to be immediately banished behind curtains of guilt.
Here’s another heresy. Newborn babies are not cute. I know, their little fingers, their tiny toes. We are meant to ooh and ahh. And while I was captivated by the little creature wriggling in its bed, I did not find it beautiful. These are thoughts we can entertain about other people’s babies – we are allowed to think they look like a par-boiled chicken even if we are not allowed to say it, even in private – but not about our own. If we do, there must be something wrong with us. My sons, I think, are fine-looking boys. It’s difficult to be objective about this kind of thing, but I believe my assessment of their appearance is pretty accurate. For the first few days, however, they were blotchy and wrinkled and looked either under- or over-cooked, I couldn’t decide which. I find nothing wrong with this. It’s perfectly natural, and in time they grow out of that fresh-squeezed alien look, but at first, well…. I have tentatively ventured this viewpoint at dinner parties, and been greeted with condemnation, derision, uncomfortable silence, or the kind of looks one reserves for squished slugs. My question is: Why? Why must we all, at the moment of the emergence of our own offspring, become blinded by the holy light of child-love?
The answer is: We don’t. All parents entertain doubts, regrets, moments of anger and frustration along with the periods of intense love and protectiveness. It’s just that we sublimate the negative feelings because most of us feel they are unworthy, even shameful. They are not. After all, your relationship with your children is much like any other relationship, with all its ups, downs, its infinite complexities. It is an overwhelming, magical thing to have another human being call you ‘Mommy’ or ‘Daddy.’ It is also an astounding and daunting responsibility. What it is not, is an esoteric mystery, or a clinical, quantifiable science. It’s messy. It’s unpredictable. It’s hilarious and harrowing. It’s a wonderful, wondrous pain in the ass.
I guess my point is simply this, and it’s a point I have to remind myself of constantly: Don’t compare yourself and your family to the travel poster of the impossibly good-looking family of four frolicking fair-haired and carefree on that white-sand beach. (Those people are professional models, and they’re not even related.) Your kids are going to moan that the water is too cold. They’re going to get sand in their sandwiches and in their eyes, and cry about both. You’re going to look at your husband and see a burgeoning paunch above his swim trunks – you’re going to look at your wife and see that her breasts sag pendulously in her bikini. Despite repeated slatherings of sunscreen everybody’s going to get sunburned and have an uncomfortable night. On the ride home your boy is going to projectile vomit sandy peanut butter-and-jelly and seawater all over the back seat. That’s what they don’t put in the travel brochures and in the parenting magazines. But frequently that’s the way it is. The trick is to relax a little, laugh a lot, and look back and think, “Man, that was a great day at the beach.”