I love being a dad. It’s the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. I love my kids. (That’s a photo of them, on the morning after a gorgeous cold front came in, having decided that when the weather gets cool, the cool pretend to be homeless.)
That’s the proclamation (minus the parentheses). And it may be obvious, but because this kind of thing is rarely said by me or by the parents in my social group I proclaim it now. My experience of fatherhood has been incredible, though I’m not in the habit of thinking about how good it really is. But something happened over the weekend that got me thinking about why some parents, like myself, would undersell the experience of parenthood.
I saw a story called “Parenthood Got You Down?”, answered, “Yes, sometimes,” and read the article. The author states, “It’s really hard, being a parent. At times, it’s crushing. But you’re never allowed to say this.” I read on and, recognizing such sentiments as exhaustion and frustration, figured I’d post a link on Facebook, adding my own comment, “At some level we all know that parenthood is not all roses, but it’s always good to hear it from someone else.”
Soon thereafter a friend did something that flies in the face of Facebook protocol: she offered a different point of view. And it was a welcome one. She said that she didn’t like the tone of the article, that it should be evident that parenthood is driving her crazy, and that she chooses to focus on the love and magic that her kids have added to her life. Her words didn’t make an immediate impact, but I thought about them all day and have ever since.
In the broad culture of parenthood there is one contingency that exerts a pressure on parents not to speak of their hardships, but there is another group that exerts an inverse pressure not to speak of their joys. The NPR reporter seems to be coming from the first world, the realm governed by what Betty Friedan might have called the Parental Mystique, that nagging feeling of empty isolation that parents feel as they strive to show others that all they want is to be great parents and that making baby food and attending play-dates are sufficiently fulfilling activities for an adult. This world would be the one in which a parent may feel that he’s not allowed to speak of the dark side of parenting.
But I inhabit the other realm, in which an ironic, wry detachment characterizes the way we show the world that we’re a different kind of parent. I consort mostly with folks who come from a fine or liberal arts background. We are a classically liberal-minded lot, eager to live in way that demonstrates our immersion in forms of culture that the American middle class in general doesn’t encounter. We attend art openings; we’ve seen A Doll’s House; we’ve heard of Proust. We are therefore loathe to be seen as conventional, and nothing is more conventional than becoming a parent. We mammals are expected to do just two things between birth and death: we have sex and have babies. We artist-types can get away with the former, but then to go and procreate just as we are expected to? How bourgeois! What’s next? St. John’s Bay, Dockers, and your cell phone on a belt clip?
(Btw, that video is the best thing ever made by an evangelical Oklahoma mega-church.) So, to speak for myself, I have erred on the side of appearing not to care one way or another that I’m a parent, as if it’s just one of my several responsibilities in life that I take in stride. I hang around with a lot of artists, most of whom have no kids, and I’ve made every effort to blend in by downplaying the enormous amount of love that fatherhood has added to my life. But, as an artist, my domains are Truth and Beauty. T & B don’t distinguish between what is good or bad, but simply what is and isn’t, so if I don’t acknowledge the broad reality of parenthood as both difficult and magical then I am falling short of my duty as an artist. Parenthood is the world’s biggest half-full, half-empty glass: the potential for despair or elation is as great as life has to offer, and a glass this huge, even if only half-full, offers more than a lifetime’s worth of rejuvenating waters.
I call on parents to speak openly about the best and the worst, and everything between, of their experiences. It’s okay to feel wretched or euphoric about being a mom or a dad. The pressures we feel to appear to be a certain kind of parent are the product of internal forces, not external ones. Under- or over-selling parenthood does the noble vocation a disservice. Maybe, if more artist-parents were honest with childless artists about how magical parenthood is, more artists would have kids and it would be easier for me to find such people to hang out with! Not that the world needs more kids; but it could always use more love.