They tell you: your life will change forever; get ready for complete exhaustion; you won’t enjoy a full night of sleep again in years; the relationship with your partner will never be the same… They—your parents, your close friends, your doctor—they certainly tell you these things and others of the like.
And yet you don’t believe them, you choose to ignore them. It cannot be that bad, you think. They have to be exaggerating, you say to yourself. Hyperbole: all there is, in these warnings and comments, is the inescapable amplification of personal experience. There are similarities with the person who is involved in a car crash: he cannot believe the accident is going to happen until it is too late, when the car, stubbornly disobeying the orders, is about to be wrecked.
Allow me to use another driving simile. (Over the years, I’ve found that driving metaphors can explain anything that happens in the world.) You are driving southbound in a highway and at one point the northbound lanes are closed—no accident here; workers are just fixing the road. As you keep moving south, you realize that northbound traffic is backed-up for miles: one, two, three, four, five, six… a six-miles traffic delay. You drive passed the point where the vehicles started forming the line. As you keep moving forward, you cross the vehicles driving north, freely at that point, accelerating and passing and switching lanes. Of course those drivers are blind to the reality of things: they don’t know what is coming their way. A couple of miles down the road they will be stuck in a fifty minutes, maybe an hour, painful halt. Unaware of the fact that a traffic jam will be blocking their way, they expect to get to places, to do things, to see people. Similar is new parents’ perspective on life: they push the accelerator pedal of parenthood at ease, unknowing that they are going to be stuck in the traffic jam of early childhood for years to come, condemned to the slow motion of raising, protecting, and educating small children.
So you truly believe they are just warning you so you get ready for the next stage in life, and you think your experience of dealing with a newborn (and then a baby and then a toddler) will certainly be different: more pleasant, more balanced, all—at least most of it—rosy. Then the newborn arrives; suddenly he or she is already home. In two or three months at most the heart of the matter is not if the warnings were true, but how to cope and juggle with all those issues when finally they start to arise: a complete life-style change; total exhaustion; sleepless nights; a relationship with your partner that doesn’t seem to replicate the ease and joy you once attained—once in the past (it seems centuries ago), before that day when you finally felt the excitement of the pregnancy test nodding its head at you, whispering: “Get ready, ‘cause you are going to be a parent.”
I believe now that parenthood is the best test in life to strength of character. In terms of human experience, it is probably secondary in power and impact only to the experience of war. War completely alters the order of civilization, makes men change into beasts. With its brutal dynamic and its obscure energy, war transforms life into an unpredictable whirlpool of violence and chaos. The same to parenthood—but only in parenthood all this transformative power takes place at the scale of people and couples, not societies, and goes about its business without the intrinsic brutality and pain war always carries on its wake.
To the problems in life we face, we say love is the answer. And love is indeed the answer. But “Love,” romantic love, represents a selfish experience by its own nature: in the so-called half-orange, we are looking for the attributes and characteristics that we know will make us happy, will improve our own self-being. At the end—we should confess—romantic love is a game of self-retribution, of complying with our own and solely needs through the finding of the significant other. “Love is the child of illusion,” wrote Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. (The quote goes on: “And the parent to disillusion.”) And illusion it is, love: one big, selfish, egotistic, self-gratifying mirage.
But war and parenthood all are but selfish experiences. In a piece appeared in the May, 2010, issue of the Atlantic, writer Jon Zobenica underlines the altruistic nature of war when he writes: “When you are in an army, and particularly in combat, you quickly learn that it most definitely isn’t all about you. If anything, you’re made acutely aware of others and of your place in a larger scheme.” He continues, “The nature of the sacrifice made in the moment, is a forgoing of safety and a willingness to bear the taint of killing, the pain of suffering, and potentially the loss of lives dear, including one’s own, at the behest of others” (97).
The same with parenthood: selfishness is antithetical to it. Just to be clear, I am not arguing that parenthood and war are the same; I am not that dramatic. While in the former the rewards outweigh the sacrifices, in the latter suffering and pain outweigh everything else. I just believe that, although different in nature, both experiences lead to the most profound transformation of the self. To know your place in the larger scheme of things: the significance of both experiences is that you transcend your own self. They put you in circumstances so extraordinary as to make you seek a sense of purpose. They help find some type of meaning to your daily actions and thoughts. They both bring to the fore an old, inescapable truth: that without unselfish sacrifice life is not worth living.
Parenthood is a transcendent experience not only because of external reasons—that is, not only because of the moral, social, or ethical implications we attach in our society to being a parent—but also because of its following four major characteristics.
First, parenthood is tentacular. As one enters new parenthood, the category “parent” quickly takes over all other facets and aspects of one’s personality: husband or wife, friend, co-worker, relative. Your profession and your hobbies, your deep silent ambitions, suddenly matter less. The time and energy parenthood demands ends by weakening your attachment to other people and other activities. Singles and married couples without kids often complain that the only thing people with kids do is to talk about their children. The claim is true. This is a direct result of the sweeping nature of parenthood, and how it tends to suck the life out of the other concomitant sections of a new parent’s life.
When my first child was born, a good friend of mine gave me the following two-parts advice: Try not to change your life too much. Keep doing what you were doing before your child was born. Easier said than done: part of the frustration that sometimes takes over new mothers and fathers is exactly that it is impossible to keep doing what you were doing before. This comes from the nature of the beast: parenthood is one giant octopus—a wild, nasty, hungry cephalopod that envelops you and changes your life drastically.
The second characteristic of parenthood is its relentlessness. After a day of hard work and hurries and exhaustion there is another morning of hard work and hurries and exhaustion. Parenthood is a battle without a cease-fire. Or maybe you would rather prefer this image, less warlike: If life is a train that never stops, then kids are the best coal there is to feed its steam engine. There is no pause on the effort, no break, no end to the constant worrying about what is the right thing to do, what the best way to educate your children, how the best way to keep them safe and healthy.
So Sisyphus does not push a giant rock any more. Today’s Sisyphus is taking care of two or three children—breastfeeding included—all of them under the age of three. When one of the children turns three, then he or she automatically goes back to the hospital’s nursery: he or she becomes a newborn, the whole process starting over again. Night feedings. Sleepless nights. The arduous process of teaching a six-month old how to eat, a twelve-months old how to walk, a fifteen-months old how to speak, a two-years old how to use the potty…
Sisyphus’ parents are not ready to help with their grandchildren, nor he has friends or neighbors willing to sacrifice their life for him. (Zeus would fulminate them automatically on the spot if he knew they did.) Because his sole task is to raise these children, modern Sisyphus is severed from the work force. Hence, there is no money available for him to hire babysitters. Thus Sisyphus is denied access to leisure and to the pleasures of self-development so publicized by contemporary culture: no traveling, no fine dinning-out, no time for reading, for yoga or meditation—no working-out either—, and of course no mingling with members of the opposite sex, no irresponsible behavior late at night in pubs and clubs—the “giant rock” will be ready to roll again the next day early in the morning. Babies crying in the crib, ready to be picked up and start the day; someone please get them ready, prepare breakfast, plan what they are going to do during the day, what they are going to eat… Sisyphus will.
New parents will undertake the same series of tasks, will experiment the similar worries, same feelings of anxiety and tiredness they experimented the day before—tomorrow at sunrise when everything is doomed to start over again from scratch.
The third characteristic of parenthood is its ever-changing nature. As soon as new parents think things are under control, their child’s behavior changes and evolves into a complete different stage they don’t know at first how to approach, the behavior morphing into something they don’t recognize any more. Thus the parent, like an equilibrist over a thin rope, is always off-balance, trying to catch up with a kid’s development. The prestigious Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development puts it the following way: “Just when you are finally getting the hang of parenting, the playing field changes and you’ve got to relearn how to be a parent. Many of the old rules don’t work anymore” (212). The quote refers in particular to the transition from infant to toddler, but it’s clear that it applies to any other phase in any child’s growing process.
Therefore parent and child are like sand and ocean: the ocean advances and retreats at its own pace, leaving marks on the sand—ephemeral marks only to be erased and create anew again, setting with every wave of every tide never lasting limits and borders. Thus that mobile frontier, the inexact demarcation between sea and land, reminds me of the constant flux and adaptation between parent and child.
The child’s constant mutation has this direct consequence in a parent’s mindset: there is an invariable tension between complacency and alertness. Two ad hoc examples. Number one: A couple of new parents finally think things are going their way, so they have made plans to go out for dinner (to celebrate, say, their wedding anniversary). They were thinking they could spend some “quality time” together… “quality time”: the expression, since I first learned it in English, has always made me laugh. Then the baby gets sick or just decides that she will not sleep through the night. Number two: The same couple feels pride and satisfaction at how their toddler has behaved at day care or visiting family members that day, then the day after he misbehaves badly at a mall or when brought by at work to say hi to everybody… It is some sort of chemical reaction: A child seems to smell his or her parents’ feelings of complacency, triggering an automatic “Danger-Danger!” signal. This constant “complacency-alertness reaction” seems to be a mechanism of nature. Its sole goal: to keep parents, especially new parents, sharp and focused at all times.
The fourth major characteristic of parenthood is that is amnesic. Certainly human beings have short memory; there is no other way to explain why over a life span we make the same mistakes twice or thrice, if not many more times. Short memory thus helps explain in great measure the beauty and pain of life. We suffer, we feel, we understand, then we move on and—for the most part—we forget. New experiences add to the earlier ones; new feelings and emotions superpose what we previously felt and lived. It is a process of addition as much as it is one of concatenation. We human beings are nothing but layer upon layer of experiences and sensations, each layer creating the foundation for the new one to come on top. So we must assume that in reality every human being is as complex and layered as the structure of a Gothic cathedral, rising in intricate harmony from floor to top.
Yet the parents’ forgetfulness of the horrible moments they had to go through raising small children is something remarkable—truly a wonder of nature. I have often been surprised at the reaction of friends with grown-up children when I have consulted them on matters related to babies, questions such as what could a fever be a symptom of, how did you organize yourselves to cope with sleep deprivation, how did you control your toddlers’ temper tantrums… They freeze and they look at me with a stare that says: “How could I know?” Then the conversation usually goes: “You have been there. You have three children.” “But that was such a long time ago,” they respond. At first my reaction was one of censure: What bad parents they are: How could they forget basic details of those amazing and moving first stages of their children’s development?
“Memory loss is key to human reproduction,” notes writer Michael Lewis in his witty memoir Home Game. “If you remembered what new parenthood was actually like you wouldn’t go around lying to people about how wonderful it is, and you certainly wouldn’t ever do it twice” (14). Lewis’ remarks could be sarcastic but, on the matters of parenthood’s amnesia, they certainly hit the nail on the head.
At our baby-shower we were given a onesie that read: “No instructions attached.” It made me laugh then; only now I understand the deep truth the slogan conveys. Because I often wonder, what are the tools we are equipped with to deal with new parenthood? And, in reality, how ready are we to run the show when it’s our turn to be a parent? Furthermore, the question of readiness is directly linked to the issue of difficulties: Can we know if we are ready for a task before we understand the nature of the obstacles and challenges that particular task entails?
Overall, I think people often are off-target when evaluating the difficulties involved in raising small children. Changing a diaper, giving a bath, feeding a baby a bottle—those are easy things to do. Those are things that can be taught and learned. (Cutting your antagonizing toddler’s toenails is a more challenging task, I have found.) It is like—to use another autobahn metaphor—learning how to drive a car.
To stop at a red light and to accelerate at a green light; to shift gears; to park a car in battery; to put a blinker before turning… Those are easy things to learn: to me, they are examples of mechanic, unconscious response. They are simply automatic actions a driver does without even paying care or attention. But to respect at all times the speed limit; always to stop at a stop sign no matter how clear the way looks; to show civility on the road; not to tailgate the car in front of you… Those are the difficult things to do with consistency. These are actions and habits deeply embroidered in the character of the driver, and they show total respect and understanding for the spirit of a code of law. The same with new parenthood: some necessary qualities—extreme patience, empathy, sensitiveness, ability to separate right from wrong, a truly nurturing spirit—are difficult to teach, because they spring from personality, not from simple skill.
Thus, like any other struggle in life, new parenthood is above all a struggle against yourself: it is about how to keep your composure, your self-control, and your positive attitude. At the end, I have learned balance is what you strive for. Because parenthood is the kingdom of subjectivity, and character matters to choose the right course when circumstances are subjective, then parenthood relies decisively in your inner strengths. I actually see parenthood as a hunter of one’s personality, setting traps for you to make you know yourself better. Am I strict? Flexible? Patient? Kind? You’ll soon figure it out.
Be patient and be kind; then you can start being a parent—and not even a good one. This is not some type of advice but the motto, given my irascible nature, I thought of tattooing with fire on the palm of my left hand to remind me of what all this is about.
From the earlier discussion a frightening realization just arises: The question we should be asking is Are we all fit to be a parent? In other words, to put it in a simple metaphor, the issue is not Can the helmsman find his way? but Are we all equally fit to be guiding the boat? Because truth is, few are the real tools at our disposal when we enter into this new stage of life. I can think of four basic ones.
First, having had parents who were good role models can help. (The opposite is also true: bad parenting leaves in one’s heart and mind a permanent record of what not to inflict on children.) So the ideas and the memories—often idealized— you have of your own parents parenting you and your siblings work initially as a map: those flashes of understanding at how your parents handled certain situations and emotions, guide you through difficulties and doubts.
Second, if your own parents’ parenting is a map, then your moral principles are a compass. Moral principles should be kept constantly in readiness for the understanding of all worldly things. Yet for two reasons solid moral principals—the ability to distinguish right from wrong—are particularly indispensable for raising healthy and happy children. One, principles will push you to do the right thing as a parent. Two, they will push you to teach young children proper behavior in all circumstance.
Third, I find intuition to be an extremely useful (and underrated) resource. Those who believe that western contemporary society attaches too much important to reason and too little to instincts will understand my point. We initially react to everything with instinctual thinking. If there is danger in a situation, intuition provides you with an immediate, unconscious response. Given the speed at which kids move, act (and react), instinctual reaction is key, because parents are constantly evaluating the appropriateness of any given situation. How many times, parent, this has happened to you? You say No to something your child is doing or saying or wants, but you don’t know really why. Later, you realize it was the right thing to say—your instincts were right—and the why becomes clear after analysis.
Finally, probably the most important tool we have as parents is common sense. I define “common sense” as that elusive mixture of prudence, reflexiveness, and resolve. We usually consider common sense an innate thing, but that is probably not true. Common sense is formed by education, culture, and good mental habits like reasoning and critical analysis. When parenting, it clearly takes shape as we decide what is best thing to do about our children’s health issues or particular behavior. (The most agonizing challenge, requiring a solid dose of common sense, for a new parent? Deciding when it is absolutely necessary to call the doctor about your baby’s health.) Common sense directly crystallizes in the ability to form an opinion about any given situation or challenge. “Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion,” counsels the wise Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations; “by it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being” (24-25).
So let us conclude the following premises about the nature of the beast: Parenthood is the best test in life to strength of character. It is also the best indicator of one’s personality, its virtues and flaws.
New parenthood comes as a shock: nothing—or no one—can prepare you to the challenges of the task. This is mostly due to the four major intrinsic characteristics of the said task: parenthood is tentacular, relentless, ever-changing, and amnesic.
Every person when becoming a parent automatically enters uncharted waters. He or she is but a Ulysses: a drifting and disoriented sailor, a decision-maker left at his or her own devices. Insanity is never far away. Neither is extreme happiness. Any given day, both emotions—insanity and extreme happiness—cast their shadow in a new parent’s life.