Caveat — this post is all about the crappy things about parenting. But, please don’t think that I think it’s all crappy, or that these things outweigh the good stuff. I don’t regret having children — most of the time. But, there seems to be an overabundance of places where you can hear all the touchy-feely good things about parenting, but precious few places to hear the nitty gritty bad stuff, which is just as much of parenting as the sappy stuff. I know so many people having babies for the first time, and I’m torn between laying all the crappy stuff out for them, so they know what’s coming, and just smiling and nodding, as other parents did with me when I was pregnant. One friend who just had a baby told me that when she was upset or having problems with motherhood, I was the only one who told her that yeah, it sucks sometimes, and that’s OK. It was a relief for her. I can relate, because recently I read this article on happiness studies done around parenthood, and it shows that parenting does not make you happier on a day to day basis. On a long-term existential type level, people with kids are happier. But day in and day out, they’re not. I was so glad to read that article, because I felt like it meant I wasn’t a terrible mother, or a freak of nature with no maternal instincts, or someone who doesn’t deserve to have children. Lots of people feel the way I do — tired, grumpy, and anti-social.
So this is a post that lays out the crappy stuff. There are plenty of places to go to find the happy stuff. Your local Hallmark card store, Christmas specials, placenta-eating seminars, whatever. And those happy things exist. But so do these. At least for me.
1. Parenting sucks sometimes. And sometimes, it sucks a lot.
I guess it’s probably self-evident that parenting is about delayed gratification. But I didn’t realize how much. Yes, there are adorable baby smiles, and baby yawns, and baby giggles, and your child will often say cute/funny/endearing things. However, it’s very difficult to remember those times when you’re up at 3:30am for the 3rd time that night, and you know you’ll be up at 5 and at 7, and then start the day and do it all over again. You put in so much work up front — nighttime feedings, soothing colicky and sick babies, not yelling when your 3-year-old asks the same damn question for the 4th time in a row. But you don’t see the payoff on those things for years. YEARS! You have to just trust that the suckiness is someday going to create a person that you’d like to hang out on the couch and drink a beer with. But you have no idea if that’s the case. And you don’t often get a sweet baby smile just after you’ve gotten up in the middle of the night, so you just have to trust that tomorrow you’ll get one, and you’ll feel a little less cranky about it all. Which brings me to….
2. Yes, you will be sleepy. No, you don’t understand how sleepy.
I know. Everyone says you’ll be sleepy. That seems to be as far as parents will go in complaining to someone about to be a parent: “Sleep now. Trust me.” As if you could stockpile or something. But they say it because it’s true. And I know — I know that you’ve pulled all nighters all week during finals. I know that you have been up until 5am every night on your vacation in Cancun. I know that your dog was sick once, and puked every 45 minutes all night and you stayed up with him. Still. This is different. All those things were finite. You could say to yourself “If I can just make it through finals, I can sleep all day next Saturday,” or some such. Not so as a parent. There is a certain Macbethian “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” about it all. You know that someday, some glorious day, your baby will sleep “through the night.” (note — “through the night” is defined as 5 hours at a time). You have no idea when that is. And, even when they do, it’s not like they’re 2-year-olds lazing around, sleeping until noon and watching Lifetime on the weekends. They’re still up at whatever time (too early, whatever it is), no matter what time you’ve gone to bed. And you can kiss lazy recharge weekends goodbye. For me, that’s the worst of it. Not just the lack of sleep, but the lack of time to recharge and regroup and spend some time alone. There’s no time to just sit and relax and do whatever I want and know that I can finish it. Want to read the paper leisurely? Lock yourself in a closet that your child doesn’t know about.
3. You will never feel sure about anything you do again.
I understand that this could totally just be me. I’m sure there are parents out there who are certain that they’re doing the right things, and that they are the most qualified people to be doing it. Me, not so much. I remember once when Darwin was younger, he had a doctor’s appointment just at nap time. So, I put him down for a nap a little early, and he actually went to sleep. I had this feeling of “Hey, I did the right thing, and I know I did!” and until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I had not felt that feeling for about two years. This was just over putting a child down to nap early. There’s so much information out there, which is a double-edged sword. It’s helpful to have so many resources. But, at the same time it’s a cacophony of advice that all contradicts each other: You should all sleep in a family bed or you don’t love your child. You should never allow your child in your bed or he’ll grow up with weird sex issues. You should let them cry it out. Never let them cry it out because it scars them. Who knows what the right thing is? You just have to pick what works for you on any given day and run with it. And the next day, you may very well have to make those choices again. And second-guess them again.
4. Parenting will find every fissure in your relationship and widen it.
Do you feel underappreciated? Do you think it’s ridiculous that your spouse wears a turtleneck to bed when you are sweating under all the blankets? Do you secretly feel like you’re the one doing most of the work around here? Those things and more will all get worse. This was the biggest one for me that I couldn’t believe no one talked about. Again, maybe it’s just me. Joe and I definitely have always had a more independent relationship that other people, maybe. When we’d spend new year’s eve at different parties, people would ask us if everything was OK. Um, yeah — it’s actually so OK that we can spend new year’s eve apart. But, with a child, there is a level of partnership that I think we just weren’t prepared for. Now, the fact that Joe gets cold when I’m sweating doesn’t just mean that he wears a sweater and I roll my eyes. Now it means we duke it out over whether the baby should have a fleece sleeper and a sleep sack or wear a tank top to bed. Now, when I want to go out for the evening, I hve to coordinate with Joe and make sure things have been equitable and that there’s baby food around and pumped breastmilk and that Joe didn’t already have plans to go out. We actually have to know what the other person is doing. Ahead of time. And it is SO easy to keep score with a baby: “You went out last Saturday, and that one Thursday after work last month when that guy was leaving, and I’ve only been out with my friends that time when we were meeting about the park beautification project so that one doesn’t even count even though we drank wine.” Or “You got to sleep in until 9 this morning, when I got up at 6, so that means I get a 3 hour nap this afternoon.” Or any number of other things — how many diapers one has changed, or how many dinners one has cooked, or how many bedtimes one has put one’s child to bed. Parenting brought up issues I had with my relationship that I didn’t even know I had. And then they get magnified, because you’re so sleepy and cranky. Then, when you do get some time to hang out with your spouse, you don’t have the energy to have those deep conversations you used to have. You sit in front of the TV and hope that you remember to ask about whether the electrician can come by on Thursday. If you are having issues, you (ok, I) don’t want to take up the precious 30 minutes we have for actually spending time together to complain that I’m unhappy about something. And then it just snowballs. Honestly, if it weren’t for Joe, I’m not sure how things would have worked out. Joe, for whatever his faults may be, never keeps score. If you need a nap, you take one. He never says “But I did the dishes last night,” or “But you had all day to vacuum.” Joe has always been the healthier of the two of us about relationships, and always hears me out, no matter what complaint I have (like when I woke him up at 3am on a Wednesday to tell him that I was still really mad we lived at his parents’ house so long without doing any renovations. We’d been home over a year by this time.). He always listens, acknowledges, and tries to make it right. And then makes me laugh. Even more than ever before, laughing is what gets us through. It reminds us that we have little inside jokes, or even that we’re there to support each other. And I really hope that Darwin and Elijah grow up thinking that it’s normal to have a house where people laugh a lot. Even when they’re grumpy.
There’s a book coming out soon that I’m really excited to read — sounds like kind of a Freakonomics for parenting, and it’s called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” It’s written by an economist, and the premise is that parents spend far too much time worrying, and far too little time having fun and enjoying their children, and the worrying doesn’t do you any good, based on the data he’s found. And somehow, the argument is made that having more children is better for the world and better for you. I’m interested to see what he’s basing that on. I hope that those sorts of ideas pick up momentum, things like Free Range Kids and other parents who advocate for worrying less and enjoying more. Maybe that will help all this sucking. And really, it’s a luxury to sit around and think about how it sucks — in the past, I think, you went into parenthood thinking it would be a long haul, but it’s what you did, or you needed farmhands, or successors to the throne, or whatever. But now, we have children and we expect them from day one to make us more fulfilled, happier people than we were in just the hours before they were born. I had a very fulfilling life before having children. I volunteered, I worked, I read, I had friends. Now all those things are curtailed, and I somehow look to my children to fill that entire void. I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation. But they are pretty cute. Especially now, when they’re sleeping.