Perhaps it’s time to say something about what’s great about parenting. Probably it’s past time, really. I write a lot about the challenges because, in spite of our culture which seems on the surface to be increasingly confessional and explicit, I think we are still fundamentally reticent when it comes to talking about pain, about discomfort, about ambiguity, and about things that are complexly (as opposed to uncomplicatedly) unfair. And parenting holds a big share of all of that. It hurts in big ways and small ways, in unexpected ways, it’s unequally burdensome by gender, and it is all of this even while it is lovely and wonderful and joyous. As a culture I think we are deeply uncomfortable with that: with the knowledge that one of the most amazing things you can experience is also one of the hardest. So that’s why I write about the hard stuff, to try to show more of the whole picture. (Also as a reminder to myself of what, specifically, felt awful at three months or nine months or fourteen. Because it really does blur with time.)
Some days everything feels like a sinkful of dirty dishes, though less artistically filtered.
In addition, though, I don’t write much about the flip side — the wondrous side — because it’s surprisingly hard to write about. Happy families are all alike, blah blah. I’ve never much liked that quote because I grew up in a happy family and I think we are very interesting, thankyouverymuch… but I’m forced to admit there is something about unhappiness that is much easier, somehow, to describe. Happiness falls so often into cliché; it is hard to find a way to talk about it that isn’t boring. (Maybe that’s because writing is a way out of misery, whereas happiness doesn’t inspire the same kind of searching; you don’t care to look very hard for the right words when life is just nice.) Yes, indeed, having a child is “a love like I’ve never known” and “like watching my heart walk around outside of my body” and “unconditional and complete” and she is the “center of my universe” and “my everything” and all that, but if you’ve already felt all that, you don’t need me to explain it, and if you haven’t, I doubt these phrases are sufficient.
So here is what I, personally, love about parenting.
I love Owl. I would hope that goes without saying, but I don’t think it does, because there are people — yes, I know this for a fact — who have wondered how I can possibly truly love Owl when I have struggled so much as a new parent. I don’t love her because I made her and I cherish her smallness and her cuteness and our closeness, although I do feel all of those things. But Owl is a person. I knew this before I had a kid but it is so, so much more astounding when I am living it every day. She has always been a person, alongside being a newborn and then an infant and now a toddler. There were things she did as a tiny tiny baby that I observed and thought, huh, is that a proto- sense of humor? Can she really be that observant? Is she showing fondness for us? And now that she’s picked up some additional communication skills, I see that these things weren’t flukes and are totally throughlines of her character. She does have a very active sense of humor and jokery. She is extremely observant. And she is lovably, lovingly affectionate. I sometimes suspect that people without kids in their lives (not non-parents per se, but people who don’t interact with young kids regularly) think I’m an indulgent mama when I say this, but I am convinced that babies have all the intelligence — analytical, emotional, whatever — that we do, and can understand the world every bit as well as we can, except that they’re just missing a lot of experience and information. I see this with my own kid and others, and I treat them accordingly and so far they live up to that assumption. They know what’s going on and they have a very astute sense of how they fit into the world around them, and they have a lot of opinions on that. And the more they grow, the more they are able to demonstrate that, and that is FASCINATING. I love Owl as a person, not just because she is my child.
I love sharing our life with Owl. I mean, it’s often onerous; that’s true. But we have a beautiful life and it’s fun to have another person in it. It’s a pleasure to introduce her to food, to music, to dancing and movement, to the outdoors, to other people, to animals, to books, to art, to travel, to the joys of being silly with people you trust, to the rewards of careful risk-taking and doing things independently. And every day there is more that I can share with her. A toy that was just pieces of stuff last week is suddenly, this week, a puzzle with moving parts that make sense. A book that had markings in it just a few months ago is now a collection of pictures of things she recognizes. Basically, I get to throw open the door of my good life and say, come in, little one, this is all for you too. You can’t do that exactly the same way with an adult, because an adult already has a life and they don’t necessarily want yours; with an adult, this level of sharing is an imposition, a form of domination. But Owl isn’t yet capable of building her own life, so I give her ours. Over the years she’ll take what she likes, reject what she doesn’t, and seek out her own path until she builds a life that will be — I hope — as fulfilling and interesting and secure for her as mine is for me. Starting her off with our life is a gift I can give her, and whenever she likes it (which is often), it feels like love in action.
And meanwhile, she shares her preferences with us, which in turn alters our life. It’s an exchange. I spend more time outdoors because she likes it, and that’s good for me too. Watching her perfect body with its perfect flexibility and range of motion and incredible strength — do you know how STRONG babies are? they are way, way stronger than us; they’re just smaller and less precise — reminds me what a gift it is to have a body that can move, and inspires me to want to move mine more and better. I talk more to strangers when I’m out with her, because people will interact with babies in a way they won’t with grown-ups. Sometimes strangers become friends. Owl teaches me about boldness and about being okay with mess; she’s not tentative. The other day we were baking together and because she was there, I let myself get messier than usual and you know what? It was good for the baking; I did it better because I gave into the messiness rather than trying to avoid it. Maybe there is a life lesson there for everyone, but for me as an artist especially, wow. Thank you, Owl.
Caring for Owl requires me to behave differently than I would if it were just me. I am both braver and more careful. I’ve dropped a lot of my lifelong second-guessing and self-consciousness, because I don’t have time or energy for that anymore. There are hard things I do now that I would have avoided before, simply because how can I ever tell her to dare to do hard things if I don’t dare myself? I’m modeling for her how to be an adult, how to be a good person, how to be a mindful person, and I can’t do that without living it. Not that I manage it well or all the time. But life with Owl can make me feel like my previous life was merely the dress rehearsal. I am NOT saying — and I hate when people say this — that life with kids makes you more real somehow than if you don’t have kids; you don’t have to have kids to experience all this. But having a kid is one way to do it, and unlike other potentially transformative pursuits, like free climbing or religion or hard-core animal rescue, you can’t give it up once you’ve started. (At least not morally.) That commitment is itself a teacher.*
Another way of putting it: having a kid cuts through a lot of bullshit that we, as adults, get stuck in. Kids don’t do bullshit and so, if cutting bullshit from your life is a goal of yours (as it is mine), they can help you get rid of yours too. I only hope Owl can rid me of mine before I manage to teach mine to her.
I’ve heard a lot of parents say that the wonder and joy of having a child is that they remind you how to value the little things. I have heard this a lot. Well, that isn’t how I feel at all. I don’t think I ever lost that ability. I mean, I have spent hours at a time — as an adult — stacking oranges on top of each other, or sorting buttons into containers, or finding stick after stick on the beach, and I have recognized these pursuits for the pure existential delight that they are. The difference now is that I have a constant companion for these things.** I think a lot of us appreciate the pleasure of getting into a state of flow (whether it be with painting, a book, or whatever else we’re doing) alongside a partner or friend or colleague who is doing the same. Increasingly, as Owl gets older and entertains herself better, I’m getting little moments where I can do that with her. The other day a friend overslept and stood me up at a cafe, and I am so, SO grateful it happened, because it gave me the discovery that I can draw at a cafe while Owl plays with her food next to me. I had no idea this was possible. But it is!! And that changes everything.
This is by no means a comprehensive (or universal) list of things that are good about having a kid, but I have been wanting to write some version of this for months (a year?) and now feels like the right time. It is a good time, in general, I think. As everyone assured me it would, it’s getting better. And maybe, soon, it’ll get worse again, depending how Owl deals with turning one-and-a-half or two.
*It’s also worth pointing out that having kids doesn’t do this for everyone. Having a kid is one way for some people to live more powerfully. It is not the only way or the best way. And I wish more people would acknowledge that, instead of talking shit about people who choose not to have kids — a valid, smart, and freeing choice for many people for many reasons. (But then, humans are demonstrably lousy at understanding that what’s transformative for one person doesn’t work for everyone.)
**Unfortunately, I am often too tired to really commit to the present moment; often she’s the one getting a thrill out of putting cups into other cups (and taking them out again) while I am horizontal on the bed playing iPad games, because the glow of the screen is the only thing preventing me from falling asleep. I suppose on some level playing solitaire is the same thing as putting cups into other cups. We could say that I am generously playing with my own cups over here so that she can fully enjoy the cups she has. Which may also be true, because if I joined her at her cups that would be a totally different activity than letting her play with them on her own. And I don’t mind being interrupted at solitaire, whereas if I really were pursuing my own line of enjoyment — painting, say — I might be annoyed if I had to stop to nurse her or whatever.