mother load

The topic of having children in relation to  sustained or occasional unhappiness, I have found, is as controversial and rife with potential trip-wires as any involving sex, politics or religion.  People don’t discuss the correlation freely, really, and those who do are lambasted as anti-child.  There is so much poppycock around having children that when you reveal the actual truth to the uninitiated, it feels as if you’ve broken some unspoken pact, a complicit glossing-over of how hard and often how awful childrearing really can be.  It’s like we live in a group-dream (perhaps as part of the preservation of the species?) that keeps us believing – much like issues in religion and politics — how fulfilling and wonderful it is to have and raise babies. To say otherwise is tantamount to treason. What I am about to write next will probably mean I’ll get a little flak, in other words, but please read to the end before you get too disgusted with me.

When a friend without kids told another friend with kids and me that she was sort of, kind of, maybe contemplating children and did we have any thoughts to share, my experienced friend and I took a deep breath and looked around, whispering sotto voce, ”Do you want us to tell you the whole truth?”  Well, of course — who wouldn’t want to know that?!

So we did. We told her the dirty little secrets about babies and small children.  We launched into unsanctioned territory, threw stones at that temple with a vengeance…and probably went too far.  We told her how alone you feel when you’re a new mom. How you may not even love the little mewling, demanding creature you birthed, though you feel passionately mama-bearish about its welfare. That breast-feeding is really difficult to master and might not actually work for you. We told her about unrecognized post-partum depression and unreasonable fears for baby’s safety making you a crazy woman. About sleepless nights, very strained marriages and even divorce, as in my friend’s case.  How you give, and you give, and you give so much more than you thought you had in you to the point of potential loss of yourself.

Early childrearing, we told her, is a mind-melding blur, the lines of your personhood so merged with that of your child or children that you literally cannot see straight.  And you may even believe you are the only woman in the world who feels unhappy with this little “bundle of joy” that feels as if it will be hanging around your neck 24-7…for the rest of your natural life.

Beware, we told her, of all the focus on pregnancy and birth, because the end-product of both is an actual baby, one you have absolutely NO idea how to care for (other than a random lesson or two on taco-wrappng and belly-button cleaning from a nurse as you lay dazed in the hospital post-partum) nor how it will really truly affect you and your primary relationship.

Our basic, uplifting message? Have a baby and go directly to jail, do not pass go and definitely do not collect $200. Call it verbal birth control. I mean it’s not like she was pregnant and we were unfairly freaking her out after the deed was done…forewarned is forearmed, I felt!

“So, do you regret having children, then?” she asked, saucer-eyed after what we’d just dumped on her.

We both were silent for a second. But only for a second. What may surprise you (although it is what society would expect) is that we both answered a quite emphatic “No!”

Because what we hadn’t told her yet was the good stuff (I guess we felt she could get that somewhere else…everywhere else, in fact). We didn’t tell her that there is a light at the end of that dark, babyhood tunnel. That what you reap you do sow (at least until they turn 12 or 13 — but that’s another story), sometimes a lot sooner than you think you will.  You begin to see something rise out of the fog and the mist of early parenthood: a little person, more and more separate from you, who you can’t imagine living without; someone who gives you far more joy than gritted teeth; someone you actually like hanging out with (okay, not all the time, but you do catch glimpses).  And as you look back on those early years, they may have been rough, but they really weren’t all bad, and you do miss those sweet baby kisses and hugs, the funny questions and cute drawings, little feet and hands, sweet-smelling heads and delicious, chewable arms and legs.

Then, too, there’s that  hot, fierce love that has grown so strong inside of you — on what used to feel like such thin soil — that it sometimes hurts.  It’s a breathtaking thing, when you look at them sleeping or playing peacefully, and know deep down that without them, life simply wouldn’t have had as much meaning, such richness. In fact, they have pretty much become the most meaningful thing in your life.

A couple weeks after that discussion, which I’m sure was a very confusing one for my child- contemplating friend, I read about new international studies showing that parents are significantly less happy than their peers who don’t have them.  Hello.

But, the kicker of these worldwide studies is this: it only holds true until retirement, when those with kids surpass their childless peers in the happiness quotient, by quite a bit.

I wasn’t surprised. Despite what we said to our friend in an effort at full-disclosure, and despite a recent spring break trip to New York so filled with juvenile whining, complaining and dragging feet I wanted to put myself out of my misery on the subway tracks, I can see it and even feel it because it grows in that direction every day.

Raising children is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It is and will be the longest commitment (other than my marriage) I’ve ever taken on. It has pretty much defined my adulthood – made me an adult, frankly – and has taught me more about myself, my parents and other people than I could have possibly have learned without doing it.  My working life/career pales in comparison as far as self-formation goes.

I hope my childless friend will read this for a little bit more perspective – both sides of a single story, if you will. For it is truly only one story, and may not be anything close to what she might experience or will experience. Could be early parenting for her is a piece of cake, full of butterflies, rainbows and light, airy days of utter delight.

But if it isn’t quite like that, if it’s a bit more difficult, I just wanted her to know she’s not alone.

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