A Few Stray Thoughts on the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting

People with children always smile at you with an odd mixture of actual apparent happiness and schadenfreude when they learn that you are expecting your own child. It’s a warning, really, along with the empty phrases about how your life will be upended.

Obviously, any prospective parent is likely anticipating “a major life change” when the baby arrives. But there are many moving parts that no one really tells you, and maybe no one can. Or maybe you’re better off not really knowing. Regardless, here’s my feeble attempt to fill in a few blanks.

First, it’s terrifying. Ok, that may be self-evident. But what was news to me at least was that the scariest part was not the responsibility per se, but my new vulnerability from loving another new person that incredibly much. The equation, mathematically speaking, was her vulnerability (as a brand-new naked presence in the world), to the power of my vulnerability (basically, a bottomless love). Put a number on that and tell me what it adds up to. Please.

Second, it’s exhausting. Past the power of words to describe, really. At 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 in the morning. It’s a long performance beyond the realm of any reasonable physical endurance. Sometimes, you doubt you can do it. You pray for relief, and think your limbs will, quite literally, fall off. Yet most days, the energy for being present comes from somewhere, into your hands, and you work with whatever shows up for you in that moment.

I always think of the time, sitting across from an acquaintance with two kids, when Maya was eight months old, and I asked a little piteously, with a perceptible tremble in my voice, whether the sleeping got any better, any time soon. She didn’t want to say at first. She just had pity in her eyes. When I pushed her, she sighed. “It does get better,” she said, “and then again, it really doesn’t.”

Third, you disappear, never to return. Having a baby at the age of 38, after a decade of a career, and drinks whenever I wanted with friends, and a life of sparkly self-absorption, was, it should be clear, a bit of an adjustment. The sheer ego displacement, in which space once explicitly reserved for “me” is now almost fully occupied by someone else, can feel as though the oxygen has left the room.

The air does slowly come back in, and physical and mental space gradually reappears. But the person left now in the room is different, less complete. There will always be my heart somewhere out there, walking around outside my body.

Fourth, for parenting to work at all, you have to wear it lightly. With intention, but riddled through with joy. Despite the intensity of the emotional tightrope you walk, your child must feel the bond of an attachment that is supportive, not clutching, that celebrates without fear, one that extends itself without concern for loss.

And this is the most selfless, and self-abnegating act of all, because to do it well means the credit will never be yours. To bear everything, to figure out how it must work, and never leave it on the too-slim shoulders of a child.

To be the authority you never really wanted in your life, and then to let it go, to claim the power and give it away, as the adventure asks. And to do it all with ease, with grace, as though there was a plan, a script, some place the two of you just might be going that, as it so happens, you’ve never really been before.

So thanks, dear Mom and Dad. I don’t need to tell you that I may have thought I knew some things. But this, I didn’t know.

6 thoughts on “A Few Stray Thoughts on the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting

  1. What a lovely and truthful insight. Fathers follow along the same path, only with less stretching. Some aspects kick in earlier, like when the mother becomes pregnant and you feel that you have to protect her like there are saber-tooth tigers lurking in the Whole Foods’ isle waiting to pounce and eat her and your unborn.

    Dad’s also get dazzled by the awe of creation. Seeing the whole process happen is hard to get your mind around. I think it makes us a little jealous that we only provide a few tablespoons to the miracle. I have seen enough guys in my life leave an enormous turd in the toilet for everyone to see. I think these guys secretly crave pregnancy.

    We also also know that this leads to a bond between the moms and our children that we will never have. The bond of being the same person, to feeling a pellucid’s individuality by means of Kung Fu kicks to your kidneys, to the cutting of the umbilical cord, to the craving to be back with closeness you shared during pregnancy, only to climax when one day your teenage daughter scream “I am not you. I will never be you!” Awe the circle of life.

    I am glad I had a boy. I can be there for him when he wallows in his inability to create life other than toenail fungus. Then after proper consultation, we can have a burping contest and take his signif (who acts just like his mom by the way), a pickle, or some ice cream with ketchup, or whatever alien oddity mom’s crave for their pallet of creation.

    “Isn’t childbirth amazing son? Now go cut the cord.”

  2. Lovely, astute post.
    I have often thought being a grown-up means faking it, pretending we know what we’re doing. Then I realize everybody’s faking it. It’s scary, but also comforting.

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