Parenting Is Epic Work

by Gail Cornwall
Originally Published: 
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And I saw Sisyphus too, bound to his own torture, grappling his monstrous boulder with both arms working, heaving, hands struggling, legs driving, he kept on thrusting the rock uphill toward the brink, but just as it teetered, set to topple over—time and again the immense weight of the thing would wheel it back and the ruthless boulder would bound and tumble down to the plain again—so once again he would heave, would struggle to thrust it up, sweat drenching his body, dust swirling above his head.

–Homer, The Odyssey

“How’s it going?” we are asked with regularity. For decades I replied with “fine” or “good,” regardless of my reality. After my daughter’s birth, these pat answers seemed not just inaccurate, but emotionally fraudulent. Yet you can’t unload on a stranger:

“My baby writhes in pain so many hours a day, that I go running just because the wind in my ears dulls her cries. But we’re so blessed that there are treatments for her and that we live in a first-world country with the means to access first-rate care. I’m completely fraught though. Miserable, but also grateful. Thanks for asking!”

So I found a socially acceptable answer that felt right: “I can’t complain.”

As a former professional who stays home by choice, I can’t complain. But I often want to, because parenting can seem an awful lot like torture.

“Mahh,” six years and two kids later, a different baby screams, “mahh, mahh, mahh.” She’s trying to elicit additional grapes when there are no “mahh,” since the groceries have—yet again—gone faster than anticipated. As she continues to blare like a car alarm, “mahh, mahh, mahh,” my 6-year-old starts in on me. I stand on aching feet, slicing chicken-apple sausage into a frying pan, stirring brown rice pasta, and turning Brussels sprouts, as she screams:

“It’s not fair! None of the other kids have to do it! Why did you make me go to the doctor? Why?! You’re mean. You’re the worst mommy ever. If you didn’t make me go, I wouldn’t have to take this medicine. And I hate it. I hate it, hate it, hate it. And none of the other kids have to do it!”

Her hysterical rant continues to cycle through these accusations, she and the baby engaging in decibel one-upmanship. All the while, my 3-year-old bounds about the room, running laps through his homemade obstacle course of overturned chairs.

At about minute four, my eyes moisten. I take none of the criticism to heart, but the tears roll down into the skillet anyway, over-salting the sausage, and I wish that I could be somewhere far, far away.

Losing an hour of sleep. Having to wait to use the bathroom. A tinge of hunger. A little noise. Minor physical discomfort. A lack of personal space. A bit of physical contact. Someone moving around the space you’re in. Being interrupted mid-sentence. These are common experiences for parents.

Together, they also happen to be some of the most effective techniques (so long as you don’t mind false confessions) discussed in the classic police manual Criminal Interrogation and Confessions and used in an “enhanced” fashion in places like Guantanamo.

Interrogators can also increase a suspect’s stress level and make it harder for them to detach, say the head games experts, by switching back and forth between physical gestures of camaraderie and censure or by bringing another person into the room.

Sounds a lot like adding a sibling to the mix and braving toddler mood swings from “Mommy, I love you more than all the catfish under all the seas” to “there is a mean lady and it is you, bad Mama.”

Wait, it can’t be that bad, right?

No, especially considering tales of refugees surviving impossible losses of life, liberty, and dignity, the work of childrearing is most definitely not torture.

But it can be torturous. In a way that cannot be understood by someone who hasn’t unloaded the dishwasher so she can reload it, unpacked the lunch boxes so she can repack them, emptied the trash cans so she can refill them. All while triaging the 15 other things that need doing, and running an emotional gauntlet, every day, for years.

Sisyphus’s personal corner of hell often stands as a symbol for tedious, menial labor. I don’t see how. His muscles strain; he uses all his faculties moving that rock up the mountain. No one part is terribly impressive: a weight, of unwieldy shape, a steep incline, feet slipping on gravel, dust in the air. Yet all together, he’s wrestling a boulder up an impossible slope.

Even this, though, wouldn’t be enough to make us remember his job hundreds of years after its first description. It’s being destined to repeat the feat again and again for all of eternity that makes his work epic. His task is hard, and rendered exponentially more intense by being endless.

So I can’t complain as I stand in front of a sink once again full of dishes, brimming over with frustration, agitation, and even fear, desperate to escape the pressure cooker, to just get the hell out of there.

I know I can’t complain, but I’ve got psychologically sound, cumulative reasons for wanting to.

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