I feel like I’m the only person who is conflicted with the idea of being a parent, as a parent myself. I sometimes feel like the way that I articulate my experience of fatherhood so far is taken as depressing or negative or some other adjective that is equally dark. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve been told that the way that I talk about parenting is depressing.
But, I know that I am not alone. I know that I am not the only person on the planet who has experienced or is experiencing a profound amount of self-examination, self-sacrifice, and lack of autonomy that I didn’t choose for myself. People argue that I did choose to be a parent by having sex with my wife. That’s not entirely true or fair, but I accept that some people are uncomfortable with actually interacting with the idea that someone might not be fulfilled completely by being a parent. I have some friends that found out that they were having a baby as a result of their wedding night consummation ritual. Did they choose to parent, or become parents, before knowing what it means to be husband and wife? Are they allowed to feel kind of sad about the timing? Or do we all need to be joyful about the news that we are going to have a child? Is that even realistic?
The way I’ve come to talk about my experience of parenting is this: Parenting is all good, and mostly difficult. Now, my kids are only 3 and 2, and I know that I am probably going to experience more enjoyment from parenting as my kids reach junior high, when they develop a sense of humor and their own goals and dreams. These toddler years are just mostly difficult. For me. I know there are moms and dads who mostly enjoy these toddler years, and I also know that those junior high and high school years are probably terrifying for those parents who enjoy cuteness over growing up. But, when we come to the end of our lives, I think that we will say that parenting is all good and mostly difficult.
Because, when you become a parent, significant parts of who you think you are die. Going to the movies whenever you want to with your wife/significant other dies. It’s just not possible anymore. That’s the death of an activity, the death of autonomy.
When you become a parent, sleeping when normal people sleep generally dies. That’s the death of rest, something you don’t cherish until it dies.
When you become a parent, enjoying your food at dinner time generally dies. You either eat previously warm (read: cold) food, or you shovel your food down your throat like a prison inmate who is worried that someone is going to steal it away. That’s the death of culinary appreciation… at least for a time.
Even more than these activities, which define us more than we think they do, a huge portion of our sense of self dies when we become parents. We can no longer be the most important person on the planet. We learn this in small ways when we get married (maybe in smaller ways if you move in with a significant other). We learn that we are the most selfish person we know outside of our spouse. We learn what mutual submission is. We learn how to honor and respect the ones that we love, and that reciprocation doesn’t always happen but loving always must. But when you become a parent, you learn how much you still haven’t learned about self-sacrifice, about selfishness, and about how little you actually matter in the grand scheme of things. You learn that your child’s rest is way more important than your own. You learn that your child’s nutrition is way more important than your own. You learn that your child’s sense of enjoyment is way more important than your own. You learn that your child’s ability to interact with others their own age is way more important than your own.
Because, when you become a parent, you no longer matter as much as you thought you did, and you matter way more than you ever have. It’s all good, and it’s mostly difficult.
The key that I have learned is that you have to set boundaries on your life with your kids. You have to let them know when you need a break, when you aren’t capable of being the entertainer, the cook, the problem solver, etc. You have to take time for yourself and your spouse to be together, without them. If you aren’t on the same page, your kids will exploit the heck out of you, even at the age of 2. You have to, as a father, take responsibility for two little lives that are so intensely counting on you so that your wife can get away, can decompress, can go to the chiropractor or buy groceries without pushing two carts alone through Wal-Mart. And, you have to count on nobody noticing some of what you do to make things happen. You also have to know that you are so incredibly important and so irreplaceable, whether anyone ever tells you that or not. Because it’s all good, and mostly difficult.
This is what I think about as I talk with my friends who are having babies for the first time. I know I’m not the only one, and I encourage you to be real with your friends about the joys and sorrows of parenting, so they don’t feel alone as they journey into the deep darkness that is the first 6-18 months of their new child’s existence. When the fog lifts, and you begin to look at things, you’ll notice how much everything has changed, and hopefully for the better. Because, one more time, it’s all good, and mostly difficult.