Recently, I asked a newly married friend of mine if he was planning on having kids. It was a harmless question, and one I assumed he would readily have an answer to, so it amused me when he twisted in his seat and stammered a bit before saying, “I know, I know, I should have kids because kids are rewarding.” He said that last part as if it had been beaten into his brain since his wedding reception.
He looked at me, clearly waiting for me to remind him of his civic duty to have children.
He was going to have to wait a long time for that.
I have a 5- and 7-year-old who push my buttons on a minute-by-minute basis, and I’m way too tired to talk anyone into parenting. If you don’t want kids, don’t have them. Everyone will be better off, except possibly the therapists who will have fewer clients as a result.
But if you do want kids, then I think it’s critical to understand that having them might not be rewarding. Not in the sense that I think of rewarding, anyway.
To me, “rewarding” implies that if you work hard and remain committed even in adverse conditions, at some point, you will experience a feeling of success, even if it’s just because you’ve finished the task.
No need to bore you with facts about how hard it is to have babies; exhaustion and sore nipples are well documented. I also think it’s pretty clear that there’s loads of sympathy given to new parents.
But what they don’t tell you is that very quickly, the compassion ride is over. Society expects you to stop using your kids to complain. Case in point: There’s a dad in my building who, at our co-op meetings, grumbles about dust from neighborhood construction sites and lobby safety. And when doing so, he refers to his 2-year-old (who can run and wears a bowler hat, mind you) as a newborn, and it makes me want to poke his eyes out.
Clearly, he missed the memo that by your child’s 2nd birthday, you’re no longer allowed to complain. You are expected to put a framed picture of your kid on your desk at work and tell no more than one story per week about how super cute your kid is. And that story better be hilarious and self-deprecating or folks will stop listening. Under no circumstance should this story be a real example of how hard parenting is.
If you think I’m wrong, think back to the last time you saw a real-life Facebook status like this:
“Today my son was a total asshole. He punched his sister 25 times. He screamed at me on the subway because I wouldn’t let him play Subway Surfers on my phone. He screamed louder because he knew we were trapped on the train. He finally calmed down. Then he farted. On me. And everyone stared at me for the duration of the ride because I smelled.”
People don’t talk about the pressure of trying to shape the mind of a little person so they will end up with good self-esteem, and they also don’t think about pushing people onto a subway track.
The sheer weight of that responsibility leaves me feeling as if I am always doing it wrong. And by “it,” I mean everything. I see echoes of all my negative thoughts in my kids’ behavior, whether there is a correlation or not.
I try my best. I follow the experts’ advice. For example, when using the “1, 2, 3” technique, I do not yell, “Jesus Christ! Stop pulling your brother’s pants down in front of that creepy old man or I’m throwing your ratty Barbie in the trash!”
Instead, I take the mandated deep breath and say, “If you want to keep your Barbie, you will keep your hands to yourself.” And the first time I see my daughter’s tiny little hands go near her brother, I say, “One!” in a low and authoritarian voice. By “two,” she figures out I mean business and moves on.
So I win the great parent award for the night because I taught my kid boundaries and that there are repercussions for her actions. The next step is to go home, pour myself a large glass of wine, and take two sips before falling asleep holding my Kindle.
Sure I will go home and pour the wine, but in the brief moments before I fall asleep (and also during the next five hours of dreams), I will torture myself, worrying that I just created a daughter who won’t stand up for herself and will be easily swayed by peer pressure.
To confuse matters more, my son is nearly unbreakable with “1, 2, 3.” And when I look at him, I wonder if he will end up a wild man that has absolute disregard for rules and authority or if he will someday rule the world.
The answer is: I have no idea. And there’s no guarantee that I will be around long enough to see how it all turns out.
My stepmother was the same exact parent for both her kids. Her son, while a nice guy, ended up in prison because of drugs, and her daughter ended up a successful CFO type. But she was killed (alongside her entire family) in a freak car accident.
I wonder if my stepmom feels parenting is rewarding?
What I can say about parenting is this: It has pushed me beyond anything I thought I was capable of. It expanded my capacity for love. I have never loved anything as much as I love my children.
It expanded my level of compassion. Of anger. Of hope. Of fear. Of joy. Of empathy. Of the need for control. I’m now like a walking bundle of feelings that live just below the surface of my skin.
Just after my daughter was born, I was on a plane home from a work trip when we hit a serious pocket of turbulence for several minutes on end — the kind where the plane drops, then recovers in a frantic fashion. At the first sign of trouble, I pulled my seat belt as tight as my stomach would allow, gripped the armrests, and proceeded to silently sob because an image of my wife holding my daughter’s hand popped into my head for just a second.
There’s just so much to lose now.
Parenting has pushed me to constantly question myself and say, “Was that the best I can do?” Often the answer is “no,” so I pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again. And I’m a better person for it.
And on rare days, I get to see beautiful things. This summer, I watched my 5-year-old son get off the swings at Coney Island, then run around to help all the other kids out of their swings. And one day at the playground, I looked on as my daughter saw her brother on the sidelines of a soccer game, sad because he wasn’t invited to play. She walked over, stopped the game, and told the boys that her brother wanted to play. The moment she said, “They said you could play!” and he hopped off the bench elated, I started to cry. (Don’t worry, I pretended it was super dusty and there was something in the contacts that I don’t wear.)
One might argue that those examples are the very definition of the word “rewarding.” And maybe they are.
Does that mean I’m wrong, and parenting is, in fact, rewarding?
I can’t say for sure because I don’t know how it’s all going to end.
This post originally appeared on Medium.