I am speaking of parenthood, of course. After my first child was born, I was hoping I’d turn her over and see an instruction manual printed on her bum. The print would’ve been small, of course, but I could’ve found a magnifying glass, no problem. Any help would’ve been appreciated back then; now, almost twenty years later, it would be invaluable. When my second child came along a couple of years after our first, he also arrived without instructions. And without much of a bum, come to think of it.
Perhaps “Warning” labels attached to your newborn would be better anyway. “Warning: Projectile Vomiting Ahead”; “Warning: Will Consume Your Income with Impunity”; “Warning: Human Brain Will Be Replaced With Malicious Alien Brain in 13 to15 Years”.
There are a lot of potential hazards to this parenting biz. When you are young and in full child-creating mode, you are vaguely aware of these things. Certainly, you see friends who have had children and their utter exhaustion and frazzled expressions should be an appropriate source of birth control. Yet countless millions of us continue to produce offspring. With quixotic optimism we each believe that our experience of parenting will be the Exception and our progeny will be the Exceptional.
Miraculously, after very little effort from the dad (sorry, guys) and a very She-Herculean effort from the mom (way to go, ladies), another being appears that magically transforms a couple into a family.
And then the chaos ensues.
I’m grateful that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin recently gave us a pithy new phrase to add to our pop-cultural lexicon. When I heard their description of what the rest of us would call “divorce”, I thought to myself that my wife and I have never once considered a “Conscious Uncoupling” but I know for a fact that we’ve experienced more than one “Unconscious Coupling” in our lives together. Those were the times when two deliriously exhausted parents-of-small-children still desired some time of intimacy with each other but both awoke the next morning with the same thought: “Did I dream that or did we actually…?”
It is ironic that the same act that created the child should be fraught with so much difficulty once that child arrives.
This is not the only hazard on the parenting path, of course. In fact the path is so full of hazards it’s more like one of those insane obstacle courses in which the participants slowly lose all vestiges of civilization and end up looking like mud-slathered extras from a film version of “Lord of the Flies”. Speaking of which, I am willing to bet that William Golding came up with the idea for his book after a particularly realistic nightmare about his own children taking charge of the family home. This is not hard to imagine as our children not only occupy all waking moments but show up frequently when we’re sleeping, too. My wife once scared the holy-Moses out of me by jumping up in bed and searching frantically for our infant daughter in our bed sheets. My daughter was safely in her crib and my wife, as it turns out, was “sleep panicking” – that’s like “sleep walking” but with a lot more anxiety. I’m happy to report my wife doesn’t remember this incident at all. I, however, was wide awake and on full parental alert. Sigh…
Sleep deprivation is a common hazard of parenting that most of us are fully aware of even before we create little versions of ourselves. But we aren’t always aware of a complete loss of rationality that comes with the job. As parents we’ll say things to our kids like, “If you touch that one more time you’ll never get ice cream after supper again for the rest of your life!” Good luck keeping good on that threat when your child is middle-aged.
When it comes to parenthood, there are hazards you expect and anticipate and hazards you cannot see coming. I am currently the parent of two teenagers (and I know that if you could, you’d be giving me a reassuring hug right about now). Frankly, my two kids are very atypical in many ways. Their teenage-hood has not been a horrific experience. Yet I’ve discovered that raising a teenager comes with much more emotional and mental anguish then I could have ever imagined. I have been through the middle-of-the-night wake up call that is the sound of your child beginning to hurl in their beds, but I did not expect to wake up in the middle of the night, when all is quiet in my home, with my heart racing and mind spinning out of concern for my teenage children and their well-being.
My children are now at the age between childhood and adulthood; that time when you feel them separating from you on one level and yet unable to fully separate at the same time. It is a time full of parental angst – you want them to spread their wings and fly but they are so, so vulnerable still.
Last summer my wife and I had a very visible, tangible example of this play out in the yard around our house. Crows had decided the pine tree just outside our bedroom window was a great spot for a nest. Not a problem; we like to accommodate wildlife when it is realistic to do so. What we didn’t expect was the scenario when the baby crows left the nest. It turns out that they don’t fly so much as drop out. It also turns out that, even though they are almost as big as adult crows, their wings are not in any way ready to support them for flight. So these adolescent birds quite literally stumble and fumble their way around on the ground, looking for all the world like injured birds. And the adult crows? They can spend up to two or three weeks – yes, weeks – hovering around these young ones, cawing and concerned, making a hellacious racket when anything comes near them, in full parental protective mode. Those adult crows seem so stressed out, so frantic, so overwhelmed. We wondered if they ever slept properly.
And as we watched these immature crows totter around on the ground, so completely vulnerable, we wondered, “How does any crow survive to adulthood?”
But survive they do. And thrive. And become part of the crow community, fully adjusted and ready to do crow-like things for all their days.
This avian drama that played out for us was something of a gift for us in our own struggle with parenting teenagers. The parallels were so stunningly exact that there can be no coincidence to the fact that those crows set up shop so close to our house. My wife and I want so desperately for our children to be able to make it on their own one day. But until that time, our current parental hazard is one of great anxiety and watchfulness, letting them stumble and fumble their way to maturity. Like those adult crows, we have to let them go through this time between nest and full flight. But it ain’t easy.
The greatest hazard I have found in my years of parenting was the most unexpected of them all: Loving another person so deeply and completely that you are forever changed. When I saw both of my children for the first time, this love was instantly there and has not left me for a moment, even when I am frustrated with them, stressed, upset and irrational. Up until the point when I became a Dad, I had experienced love in many forms – in friendship, in romance – but the love that took me over when my kids appeared was beyond anything I was prepared for. It grabbed a hold of every bit of me and hangs on to me still with an iron grip.
So, if I had known what I was getting into would I do it all over again?
Yes. Yes. A thousand times, Yes. There is no greater challenge to the heart than the hazard of parenting. And I willingly put myself to the hazard.