The Straight Poop on Parenthood

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.”

32 thoughts on “The Straight Poop on Parenthood

  1. Thank you for the post. It was a good read. As a father to a 3 year old (still feels like i’m a “new dad”) I often see the stresses that accompany fatherhood, however…I’m 46, and I *know* I am much more patient than I would have been had I had her 20 years ago. I’m also a little more easy going, attempting to laugh at much more than I stress about. She’s healthy, she’s growing, she’s beautiful (even though she’s got my chin which she will hate me for when she’s a teen). She’s far from perfect, but makes me laugh everyday; and laugh hard. If nothing else, I’ll love her endlessly for that and that alone.
    Thank you again, good to read your postings!

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    • Oh man, Shoes, if I’d had kids in my 20’s I would have screwed them up big time. Too self-absorbed, too selfish. And yes, you have to laugh. Tonight, for example. I’m sitting at the table, helping our eldest with his math homework, when my toe settles into something squishy and sticky. I take a look. Tamarind paste, I think. (Although why on earth I would think that, given that we have no tamarind paste in the house, is beyond me.) I give it a sniff. Poo. Poo under the dining room table. Not much, just a dollop. I gently interrogate our 3 year-old about the possible source of this fecal mass. He doesn’t want to own up. Now I know it’s not mine or my older son’s, so I press the point. He says, “I thought I had to pee, but it was…more.” I still don’t understand the circumstances, and have no idea what he was doing or thinking at the time of this untimely and ill-placed deposit, but I just had to laugh. Because it was ludicrous. Because it was irredeemably ridiculous. And because I had poo on my toe.

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      • As much as i get suddenly nauseous when i see (or hear) the response LOL; i am quite literally laughing out loud at your ‘toe-poo’ response. And as i wipe the tears from my laughing wrinkled eyes, i *know* that the karma from such a hearty laugh will find me, and probably quickly at that, from some unexplainable fiasco (similar or not) through my own (recently 3 year old) daughter. They really are terrifyingly amusing!!

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  2. Great post and you hit on so many things! All of the questions I am now starting to think about as I raise my daughter you mention above and luckily she’s only seven months old, so I have a few years to figure it out. All I know is that if she considers me more friend than father, I’m doing it wrong.

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    • Thanks, my good man! Yup, you’ve got some time – they’re not even much fun before 8 months or so. Now you’ve got all the important milestones coming up – first steps, first words, etc. It’s gonna be a blast, so have fun!

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  3. I like how you realized that all families are different, all kids are different, and all relationships are different with each child. Hang in there Dad, it seems your are doing great!!

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    • Thanks, Lady350. I think I’m doing okay, but there’s always room for improvement. Kids are cool, after all, and it’s always an interesting ride. Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments.

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  4. I think it’s really important to keep a grasp on reality when approaching birth, and I think that you’re spot on about certain aspects of birth not being all that pretty (e.g. the blood, pain, poop, wee etc.) even if the whole process is in some ways a miracle. I was impressed at how quickly the nurses were able to give our son a wipe down and have him looking all clean within a few minutes of him being born. He’s five months old now and I can remember looking at him wailing his little heart out in the minutes following his birth like it was yesterday.

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    • Five months – he’s entering the entertaining stage. It gets a lot more interesting after this, and each new milestone is an improvement on the last. Congratulations, and happy parenting!

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  5. I never thought I would recall quoting a Hollywood movie, but that phrase Steve Martin uttered in parenthood, that it is being on a rollercoaster and you just have to ride it, taking the downs with the ups, or words to this effect is so true, and it helped me in the darker moments when it is 2am, you are dog tired and you child has just vomited all over the budget papers you had to present at work the next day. Thanks for the post.

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  6. Yes to alien babies! My first look at Monkey, I said to Hubs ‘he looks like Yoda!’. He was all wrinkly and squished and an odd shade of blue. In the days that followed I was convinced he was the cutest thing ever, but when I look back at the photos? Nope. Freaky wrinkled old-man alien. And I’m not ashamed to admit it!

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    • Good on you! Newbies are kind of gross, but they get exponentially cuter with time. Our youngest is three and I think that if he was any more adorable he’d probably be breaking some laws. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your thoughts!

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  8. I have frequently felt concerned about the unnatural image motherhood is given in women’s magazines. Nannies and a high income go a long way to cushioning the rigours of motherhood this is not discussed. It provides an impossibly high bar for the average reader. I

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  9. Thanks for your comments! It’s nice to hear that I haven’t offended. (Well, I probably have, but they just didn’t comment.) Love your blog, by the way. It’s interesting and very, very well-written. Keep up the good work!

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  10. Fantastic, honest post!!! Loved it! From a woman’s point of view on childbirth? No-one really tells you about the blood. How MUCH blood there is even in a completely straightforward birth. Eurk! It’s just lucky we mothers are on such an endorphin high for the first few days after giving birth or we’d all be so grossed out that there would never be another birth! But lovely, lovely post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

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