“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” –Roald Dahl, Matilda
It is VERY easy for me to see why people who don’t have kids look at the other schmucks, like me, parenting and think how unappealing (maybe even awful) it seems.
You know what I mean? Say you don’t have kids, and you get together with these family folks occasionally. The only time you might notice the kids (unless you are really into kids) is when they are getting scolded or needing their diaper changed or spilling on your clothes or breaking your electronics or screaming or crying or swallowing your loose change and trinkets. And you think to yourself, “That looks like CONSTANT WORK! And NOT fun. And these poor suckers are stuck with these kids for like 20 YEARS!” And it all just seems so other-focused. Your “own time” falls away, and you can’t do whatever you want all the time.
I can see how this looks like a bad gig. The truth, however—and this is something you only learn by having them—is that the appearances were almost completely wrong.
Sure, parenting is totally exhausting and often frustrating, but it is also infinitely rewarding, soul-stirring, and heart-filling. And once you have your own kids, you are thinking, “This feels like CONSTANT LOVE! And SO fun. And I get them FOREVER!”
It actually comes to be seen by the parent as a rather one-sided trade: “All I had to give up was some ‘freedom’ (which I wasn’t actually using very well) for a lifetime of love and connection, of family. That’s a steal!”
At least that is sort of how it worked for me. Sort of.
I never wanted kids. Though I always liked hanging out with the kids rather than the parents at family gatherings and other social events, I never imagined having any of my own. I think it was because I never imagined myself “settling down” and getting married. If I wasn’t ever getting married, I surely was not ever having kids.
I never really had the “Those poor suckers…” thoughts about parents, though. I guess I never realized how challenging it is, so I never felt bad for them. The parents I knew seemed happy to be doing it, but like I said, I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. The path I imagined for myself was much, much different.
Of course, you know how that turned out! It’s amazing what meeting an amazing woman can do to shake up a world and a plan. Once I finally surrendered to the idea of becoming a husband, it was a given that I was also going to be a father. It was a bargain I understood going in, and once I agreed, I was all-in. I knew my limit for kids was two, and that was not negotiable. But I was going to give those two kids every bit of my love, my time, and my patience.
And I have. It has been rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined and beyond anything I have the words to describe to you.
I know it sounds so condescending to people without kids—and I apologize for that–but I really think it is one of those things you cannot understand unless you go though it. Unless you have waited for that child to come into your life. Unless you have rocked that sick baby to sleep and fed her on your chest. Unless you have encouraged those first steps and held onto that bicycle seat until you knew he was ready for you to let go. Unless you have shared your ice cream cone and held her hand on her first steps into the ocean. Unless you have been the only one who can make him feel better when he gets hurt on the playground or scared by a nightmare. Unless you have heard those joyful squeals and seen those eyes filled with sheer delight as they run to you upon hearing you come through the door.
Without the accumulation of these moments and a million more just like them, I think it is difficult to understand. But that doesn’t matter. My point is the same: in return for making the difficult decision to give up my single and childless life, I got this little window with these few people to make an unfathomably beautiful brand of magic. And though I admit to occasional wistful thoughts about the old days of blissful solitude, I would not trade this beautiful window for anything.
Including more of it.
Earlier this year, I came home one day and my wife asked me if I was willing to adopt an orphaned baby whom she had heard about that day. “Not in a million years!” was my automatic reply. It took no thought, and even when I did think about it, my sentiment was exactly the same. No chance.
Then last week, I got two babies dumped on my doorstep along with all of the paraphernalia to raise them for a few days. I had known it was coming for a while, and “dread” is not too strong of a word to describe my anticipation of the weekend. The kids belonged to my brother-in-law: one was seven months old, the other two-and-a-half years. An infant and a toddler. Oi!
I could not begin to imagine what was inside my wife’s head when she agreed to babysit for multiple nights for such creatures. Whatever it was—saintliness or insanity–I was buried in babies for the duration of their stay. It was exhausting! Even though my kids are only a handful of years past that stage, how quickly I had forgotten how absolutely NONSTOP it is with babies and toddlers. Constant vigilance. Constant play. Constant laundry. Messes everywhere. It is a crazy lifestyle.
And even though I grumbled in my head about being volunteered for this duty, I had vowed to myself that I would not take that out on the children. I would be present and joyful and engaged. I was, too. We all had a good time.
But. (There just had to be a “but”.) But I could only stomach it knowing that it was all going to end in a couple of days. I can’t imagine actually parenting like that, half the time thinking two major thoughts: “I am too old for this!” and “When are they leaving?”
I thought about my brother-in-law, who had two kids when he was in his twenties with his first wife, raised them to teenagehood and certainly figured he was done, then divorced, married a younger woman, and now has a second pair of babies in his mid-forties. Is he not constantly muttering, “I am too old for this stuff!”? He is not the only person I know who has had two distinct rounds of kids, either married to the same spouse or a different one. I have seen some who seem to resent the younger ones—or at least resent the grind of raising them–and are less engaged than they could be because, in their heads, they were done with their duties after the first round of kids. That’s not good for anyone involved.
I guess you have to decide on your limit and your window for having kids, then dive in head-first and enjoy the exhausting-but-wildly-rewarding ride, and then just chill until grandparenthood comes along. Have you noticed how people love grandparenthood? I am quite sure I will be ready by that time to go all-in on my grandkids, if I am so blessed.
But babysitting? Especially multi-day babysitting? At this point, I am just not there. I have no patience for their demands, quirks, and messes, even if they are just a different version of my kids’ issues. Play dates are the same, and now especially that my daughter has begun sleepovers. It is just not in me. Grrr.
Maybe it is because I had to initially grapple with the idea of having my own kids in the first place before finally embracing the plan fully, but it feels like by going completely all-in with them, I have somehow reduced my tolerance for the challenges of other people’s children. I have to smile through my grinding teeth during certain play dates when the other kid is acting up, and I would be quick to pass on any babysitting opportunity. At the same time, I am still completely patient and engaged with my own kids’ development, including when they are acting up.
It’s like my window for all of this stuff was only so big, and I have already squeezed every inch of my kid tolerance into it with my own pair of rugrats. As I wrote into my journal on the final afternoon of babysitting, “Two days is about 1 ½ days too many.”
I hope my brother-in-law is thrilled with his life choice. It is plainly not for me, though. I will gleefully pilot my two kids all the way to adulthood, but there is definitely no Round Two in my future. See you in grandparenthood, friend! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
How about you? How tolerant are you of other people’s children? Open up your journal and take yourself through your recent experiences with kids. How would you categorize your patience level with them? How closely related to you were they? Is your tolerance level directly proportional to how closely related you are to the children (or at least how much you care for their parents)? If you have kids of your own, do you find yourself to be pretty accepting of their quirks and issues? How much different is it with other kids? Are you more or less tolerant with other kids? In your most private moments, do you wish you had fewer kids than you do? More? If you could give your younger self advice on how many children to have in order to achieve the right balance for your personality, what is that number? How much does that number differ from your significant other’s number? Who compromised the most? Do the effects of that compromise ever show themselves –e.g. lack of patience—in interactions with the kids? Do you like babysitting? How open would you be to my situation of taking on an infant and a toddler for a few days? Could a child’s story be told to you that would be compelling enough to adopt a child(ren) or become a foster parent? Are there other things in life that you sign on for, accept all of the frustrations and issues that come with it, but have no tolerance for beyond what you signed up for? Pets? Yard work? I used to deal with tons of financial figures at an old job to the point that I could not so much as open a bill at home. Similarly, I worked for years in service industries and had to not only tolerate but smile through just about every level of human nonsense imaginable, and I think I hit my quota and have lost my lifetime’s allocation of tolerance for pettiness, narrow-mindedness, and superficiality. How is your tolerance for those? I just had a revelation! I think this is the foundation of me as a grumpy old man. In recent years I have come to much greater understanding about what I love and what serves my soul and my greater good. Along with that comes clarity about what doesn’t. I have no time and patience for those things anymore, and I imagine my impatience for them will only grow as I age and refine my tastes. Thus, the grumpy old man. What do you think? Do you tolerate less and less as you age? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the limits of your patience?
Smile at Life,
P.S. If something in today’s letter hits home with you, I hope you will share it. Peace to you.