The most important thing I ever heard about being a parent was said to me by a friend named Vinny who had just spent a year stoned, lying in front of stereo speakers. I don’t know if he meant it, or understood it, or was merely playing a Franklin Street guru — it was all the same to me: it was truth as absolutely presented as I’ve ever heard it. He said, “Being a parent is one of the three events in life which forces you, without any choice on your part, to make a precise measurement of who you are as a human being. You’ll either be good or bad or mediocre but the point is you won’t be able to hide the information from yourself. If you are hiding from your child, deep down you’ll know it.”
How easy it was to discover the extent of my selfishness once my child was born. Oh, the travail of losing my sleep forever, that sweet errant dreamy morning sleep which can have no end. Why didn’t someone tell me that would disappear along with other self-luxuriating phenomena such as running happy-go-lucky around this country and other countries with my wife? These were important losses.
How to measure the resentment in the heart when one’s vague feelings of being free are confronted head-on with the fact of total responsibility? Well, the fact is, you either come through for your child or you don’t; you either run out in your heart or figure out how not to run, and if you stay, you figure out how to make that choice rich — that choice you made for the most hidden and yet life-insisting reasons. And it’s a tricky business. If you call yourself an artist, for example, and you are the sort of person for whom a life in the suburbs is too unwhimsical and you don’t want to work in an office eight hours a day for most of your adult life, then figuring out how to raise a child with some dignity and a little money becomes the trickiest business indeed. What do you do? As my friend suggested, your answer is who you are, and you get to know the answer. Do you end up with cash in the air-conditioned nightmare, your poems in a desk drawer, or do you stay with your child and your art, somehow making art and children the same thing, and neither of them going in the desk drawer? Good luck. But if you are thirty-five and your child is healthy and you still haven’t let them stick it to you, then that’s who you are.
For better or worse, having a child changes you forever. The risk is everything and the stakes are too high for lies. If your marriage is short on passion before a child is born, then it will be passionless afterwards; similarly, if you secretly long for a security beneath the boasting liveliness of your twenties, then you will find yourself, after the birth of a child, living in the suburbs. The child forces you to take your measure — the chaff flies away and you arrive at a purer notion of who you are and what you should be. The presence of the child carves you into your proper shape, sad or silly or full of juice.
I would say that perhaps one’s deepest sense of humor is enlivened by becoming a parent. All that extraordinary self-absorption visible in healthy children gives us a multitude of insights into who we, the parents, are. What is that coming out of my mouth? — “You better cooperate with me or else!” — did I really arrive finally at those hated words? Am I going to continue to use them? One either starts to laugh at oneself (one’s ludicrous, boiling, red-faced, shouting self) or one joins the ranks of parents who seem to go to shopping centers just to drag apoplectic children through the aisles of air-conditioned stores. The disturbing fact to an adult is that you can’t compete with a child, you can’t win. The more you yell, the crummier they act. If you hit them, they scream. Your only real choices are to laugh at them and with them, and let them control you a little, and make up their own pace. You also have to redefine the meaning of such a hilarious word as “cooperation.” After all, it’s the parent who is causing the trouble — it’s the parent who makes a big deal out of children hiding under clothes racks or spilling food or saying dirty words. The child isn’t doing wrong — he’s coveting darkness, learning about gravity, experiencing freedom.
Before I was a parent the sound of a child yelling put a knife up my spine. Now the sound of children seems like the sound of life itself. I’ve become easier with myself.
I’ve been a parent for seven years and I know three things very well. The first is to keep all children away from television as much as possible. It makes them dumb and passive. The second is to feed them good food and few sweets. They act too silly and out-of-their skins with all that sugar swimming in their bloodstreams. And the third is not to hit them, or at least to stop hitting them as soon as you can. Hitting children will make them either bullies or cowards. There should be mandatory courses for parents to take so they can learn these things. But there aren’t. Instead we raise children blindly.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I am a non-parent by choice. I wanted to write about not being a parent. The children I have known have been interesting people. I love to talk to them. Little (if any) bullshit. My decision was not a hard one. I feel that there are some folks who are just not geared for children. It is sad that many people face a lot of guilt about the decision to have children. A good deal of this guilt is planted by our own parents.
Clovis, New Mexico
Things I enjoy about parenting: serving burnt quiche for dinner and still being told I’m the best cook in the world; skipping up rocky, dirt roads in flip-flops with the giggles; teaching my four-year-old how to clog-dance while listening to Doc Watson and the Red Clay Ramblers; seeing who can be the first to spot the moon in the sky; singing “Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home” until I’m asked to switch to “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Things I don’t particularly enjoy about parenting: giving spankings, even when they have very evidently been asked for and are needed; explaining to little Ruby why she can’t water all the garden (“ . . . you might flood out those tiny seedlings . . . ”) when in reality I just want the pleasure of holding the hose myself; not being able to spend all the time I’d like to with my youngun’ — this seems to be the hardest thing to give, and the most precious; well-meaning ladies at the laundromat who don’t understand why you don’t allow your child sugar candies.
Parenting can provide the supreme escape from monotony, send one into a long journey of wonder, and give the chance to actually re-live some of what got missed in your own childhood. Of course there are bad, dulled days, but in anyone’s life these will occur. The hope that one feels as a parent helps immunize against the real blows. The challenge is ever there, and the rewards are of the purest and simplest nature.
Montgomery Creek, California
I was decorating a display window at work when Rochelle gave me the news: “We’re gonna have a baby.”
Gut-clutcher; luckily I was sitting already. I don’t know why I was so surprised: we’d planned it. After two-and-one-half years of flawless rhythm a skip from upbeat to downbeat was metronome perfect — first time. I guess, until it worked for us, I’ve never believed it could really happen.
Sometimes it’s sheer panic when I get lost in dollars and sense. Then again it’s contentment, a cycle completing that has wanted completion since the first amoeba made the second amoeba.
And Rochelle . . . my sprite, my little girl. I wonder if I’ll ever place her totally in the present. When we’re eighty she’ll still be a fourth grader in a windbreaker and a baseball cap, faster than anybody on the block. How can she have a baby? “Child with a child, pretending.” Sweet nostalgia.
We’re going to have a baby! A father! I’m going to be a father! I’ll rock it to sleep, change it diapers, get up in the middle of the night with it. I’ll help it cut teeth, learn to walk. I’ll teach that baby how to ride waves.
A baby. . . .
There are lots of surprising things about being a parent. To be precise, all of it is a surprise, every single day. Nothing ever goes as expected.
One of the oddest things is that since becoming a parent, I’m getting to know all kinds of people whom I would never have imagined as friends. What we have in common is that we’re all parents of small children. That fact makes the other elements of a private life (the shards that remain after the continual demands of a small human being) less separative. We’re all so submerged, to one depth or another, in the world of caring for and intensely loving our offspring. With all the attendant chores, joys, and frustrations that go with that, differences in lifestyle usually become so much flotsam and jetsam. These unanticipated alliances surprise me and I’m grateful for them.
I appreciate them all the more because I’m a first-time mother and I share the same state as many mothers, first-time or not: loneliness. There’s also an insecurity about whether I can relate to the rest of the world after being home so much. That condition is self-imposed, I know, but home is the easiest place to be — the diapers and toilet are there. The path of least resistance just happens to be lonesome a lot of the time.
Then, suddenly, your child can walk and the whole world opens its arms and sidewalks and parks to you and you come out and suddenly discover, here and there, other mothers with toddlers by the hand, making their way outside for the first time. You’re so glad. The talk you get into is easy — it’s so effortless to drift off into the most intimate details about your labor. The ease with which you unburden yourself to a stranger can shock you. But you know, in spite of appearances, there is the continual caring and responsibility and exhaustion that you all share, and that is a bond.
It’s a mysterious world. No one ever told me anything about it. (When you try, you sound silly and sentimental, anyway.) I’ve found a voice for singing those good old songs, laughed more freely, spent more time in the park, smiled incessantly and have never been happier or prouder or more exhausted and glad to see night fall since my daughter arrived.
One day this Spring, it was raining lightly and I was letting Suzanne play on our miniscule porch while I was washing dishes. She called for me in her lilting sing-song way — “Mama — Ma-ma” — and I went to take her inside; but she took my hand, instead, and pulled at me to go with her out into the rain. I resisted at first, imagining both of us soaking and miserable, but I went. She’s never walked in the rain before, so off we went in our light jackets, into the light showers, splashing in every puddle in our way, stirring rainbows in the oil slicks, finding such amazing sights and sounds.
What thrilled me the most was being led around by a child, and genuinely enjoying the discoveries, the freedom of vision. It was one of the nicest gifts I’ve ever been given.
It is, of course, not always such a bed of fulfillment. What is? But children are so special. I never even cared for kids in general until I had my own, but now they appear to me as the most special, hopeful elements in the world. Their eyes are lit by such a light — it warms the small bit of world they encounter with such an intensity that it burns into the heart to stay. Their actions — the hugs, the kisses, the kicking and biting — are as effortless as the tides that eddy along a shore under that laughing moon face far away. They turn to us, thinking we can lift them up to touch that face.
They are children because they have no idea of the poignancy of their existence, their state of being. We are parents because we do.
Dee Dee Hooker
I love my son, and a few years ago I learned gradually that I could love myself as a woman and a mother. It’s difficult for me to remember not mothering — it’s been a long road.
It’s essential for me to acknowledge that there are both light and dark sides to being a parent — like all things in life.
The first four years of marraige and motherhood was a time of intense anguish and isolation. I had no friends with whom I dared share the dark side of myself.
Integrating my separate self with my mother self was helped, enriched and in some senses made possible by the strength of love within me for my son. This merging sense has grown over many years.
The ways in which others have and are giving me support is of great importance — friends who say, “Kids are welcome at my house,” or, “I really like your son.” People affirm me as a mother by acknowledging my son and taking time to know him, too. Being a single parent, this kind of recognition of me and my son as being both very much related, and very much separate, is necessary for the balancing, integrating process between separate self and mother self.
I am also in a single-mothers support group in which I explore the multitude of ways of accepting and coping with the common experiences of loving, hating and being ambivalent: all a part of being a parent.
Terry Lynn Imershein