Last night’s Desperate Housewives had an interesting subplot centering on the stay-at-home mom character – the one with the hyper twins and an infant, and possibly a fourth kid? – and how she ends up having a nervous breakdown from the stress of it all. There’s a moment towards the end, when she’s talking to the other two moms about how she feels like a terrible mother because she can’t handle the stress when it seems like every other mother can, that was particularly poignant. They comfort her with their own war stories and she’s like, “how come no one tells you these things?”
And it’s so true, for the most part.
Most people are seemingly reluctant to say anything negative about raising children – well, those with children, at least; those without tend to be full of bassackward opinions and complaints! – to the point that a new parent can feel like there’s something wrong with them when the stress inevitably becomes too much to handle. That feeling of isolation, of inferiority, of failure, can be crippling to the parent experiencing it, as well as to the child[ren] and/or spouse, depending on how they deal with it. Knowing that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies all the time can be the difference between simply needing the occasional night off and putting a bullet in your brain. Or worse…
I remember when Salomé was pregnant with Isaac, one of the things that was most helpful to me from the beginning was The Expectant Father, the only pregnancy book for fathers I found that treated us like more than guilty bystanders. It went into detail about all of the the ups and downs, the joys and frustrations that were to come, month-by-month until the baby is born. It acknowledged the feelings of insecurity that arise, the feelings of jealousy that sneak up on you, the subtle but unmistakable change in a relationship that happens in the transition from husband and wife to father and mother.
And it did it all, honestly and respectfully, from a father’s perspective.
Nowadays, when someone asks me what it’s like to be a parent, I tend to skip over the basics. Yes, it’s a great moment in your life. Yes, it’s exciting and scary at the same time. Yes, it changes everything in your life. Those things should go without saying in all but the most superficial of conversations.
The most important thing I always point out, is sleep deprivation. Not just that it will happen, but how crappy it will make you feel. How, contrary to popular belief, it lasts way beyond the first year. How it will cloud your judgement and make mountains out of molehills. How it can result in misdirected anger or resentment. Most importantly, though, is how all of that is perfectly normal and doesn’t make you a bad parent.
There’s an old saying, something along the lines of “you can’t control your emotions, but you can control how you let them influence your actions.”
I also focus on the little things that most people are usually reluctant to point out, like the dark side of the transition from crawling to walking, the horrors of potty training, the patience-sapping move to solid foods, the incessant talking. Not to be negative, mind you, because I fully believe that being a father is the most important thing I’ll ever do – but to be realistic.
Raising kids is quite possibly the most challenging thing the average person will ever do in their lifetime, and yet millions of people do it everyday, many without a single clue about what’s right, wrong or ultimately unimportant. Most act on instinct, for better or worse, meaning street sweepers are more aware of what they’re doing, and the potential consequences of what they’re doing, than the average parent!
People are rarely surprised that the suicide rate amongst air traffic controllers is so high – they’re under so much pressure! – and yet people are in shock when they hear about a parent doing the same thing. “Cowards! How could they do that to their family?” Not saying that suicide isn’t a copout, of course, simply that it’s a not surprising symptom to an ill our society would rather ignore. An ill that can often be treated with the simple acknowledgement that parenting isn’t easy, that it is in fact one of the most difficult challenges a person will ever face, and, as in the case of the character on Desperate Housewives, doing it alone (practically, in her case) is a Herculean task that will ultimately defeat even the strongest person.
Support our parents! Give a parent you know a hug and a thank you the next time you see them. Let them know you appreciate their sacrifice. Tell them, “Air traffic controllers don’t have anything on you!”