Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Decision to Have Children

Last August an old friend asked me to write about the decision to have children or not to have children.  He and his wife do not have offspring yet and had spent several weeks living at a friend's house who had a toddler.  Needless to say they came away from that experience exasperated, anxious, annoyed and just plain old exhausted and it wasn't even their child.  This harrowing time made them question whether or not they should be procreating.  After watching the beloved friend wrangle with a strong-willed human who stood two feet high, they had some serious misgivings about the whole process.

When he first asked me to write a blog post about this subject, I dove right in.  Asking for input from friends who chose not to have children as well as input from friends who chose to be parents.  But when I sat down to actually put words to screen...I fizzled.  I fizzled a whole giant bunch.  Each time I tried, I'd find a way to avoid, stop, or just forget all about the post.  Something was stopping me.  It was as if a black writing cloud hung over my head every time I opened this particular file and I couldn't quite put my finger on why.  

Yesterday, as I was showering, (I do a lot of planning for my writing there...it is a rare moment of uninterrupted time) it came to me why I was avoiding the simple request from a friend who is very much the thinker that I am.  I realized that I wasn't sure I could write an unbiased post, and I didn't want to be the one to sway this couple (who would just be the coolest parents) either way.  Recently I've been sucked up into the center of the teenage tornado and well...all that spinning might make this writer a tad cynical and bitter...(just a tad).  But parenthood couldn't have been ALL bad.  Could it? So while rinsing the conditioner from my hair I made a pact with myself, for the sake of this couple, that I would wander back and look at all sides of having children...the good, the bad, the ugly AND the beautiful.

Parenthood is like being a participant in an Iron Man competition.  You start off swimming with this infant, and there are obstacles that you have heard about and semi prepared for like constant breast feeding, diaper changes, piercing cries and sleepless nights.  But there are also treacherous waves that you don't expect that no one tells you about.  As a woman not only are you swimming against a current of being a new mother, you are also trying not to drown underneath massive physical changes like dropping and rising hormones, hair loss, breasts that are so hard and swollen it is difficult to put your arms down to your sides, leaking milk, and a sore whoo whoo that needs about as much attention that a brand new baby needs.  As a man, you have to learn to navigate the dangerous seas of a hormonal woman who may be experiencing postpartum depression. You'll need the patience of Job and a depth of understanding that rarely a man finds quickly (sorry...that is a sexist comment...but a true one in my experience.) You will find that you have a sense of urgency and responsiblity for this child and his or her well being that is so all consuming you could possibly lose what used to make you YOU in the process. You will have trouble adjusting to the realization that the woman who was just a year ago prancing around in Victoria's Secret lingerie and going out dancing with you on Friday nights, the one who lived to please you and only you has now replaced you with this small helpless human that she will forever feel responsible for.  Men, you will now be an after thought, in second place when before the child, you were in first.  Will you be able to adjust or do you have to be the winner?  Most of the time, each parent will keep their minds on their strokes and kicking legs in order to propel themselves forward toward the shore.  You will be tired, always tired.  Swimming the waters of new parenthood isn't anywhere near the dog-paddle days at your local lake.  You'll suck in mouthfuls of water when what you really need is air.  You'll be sure that all that kicking is getting you nowhere.  You'll spend nights and days just treading water waiting for the crying to stop, getting swimmers' ear from the noise and stomach cramps from the tension.

But if you are a smart swimmer, if you have the wherewithal to stop, you may look up from that frantic breast stroke and take in your surroundings.  You are a parent now.  Responsible for this teeny tiny angelic human.  You will undoubtly be feeling a kind of fierce love that will scare you.  A love that I am absolutely sure one doesn't feel when looking upon any other human.  Oh sure there is best friend love and romantic love and love for sisters and brothers and parents.  But love for an offspring, that is a love like no other, and one I am sure changes who we are.  This little one that you check on 70 times a night to make sure he or she is breathing, this little one whose chin quivers make you giddy, whose chest rising and falling on your shoulder bringing you a peace and calmness that is new and welcome, this child made by you will seep its way into your consciousness and stay there...forever.  And you will be happy that he or she is here.  You will learn the meaning of sacrifice for this tiny human.  You will come to know what all parents know that THIS kind of sacrifice, giving of your WHOLE self for the sake of another human doesn't feel bothersome, but in fact feels wonderful and wise. 

Soon, just like in that Iron Man Competition, the swimming part is over, your infant will grow into a toddler, preschooler, elementary age KID!  You'll look back upon your journey in the water as one that was difficult, but you will feel exhilarated that you survived, that you swam the whole length and didn't drown, and perhaps, perhaps if you tried really hard, you'll even come out of the water a better athlete, ready to take on the next challenge.  And so you hop on that bike. But be sure to tighten your helmet because the course is riddled with potholes and hills.

As a parent to a school aged child, I will guarantee that you will have to navigate many bumps in the road, and that they'll bring about a briared agony and worry that latch on to every moment of the day.  You'll have to give in to things out of your control...things that may happen to your child or children that will tear your to shreds. You'll learn what it feels like to have your thoughts hijacked by these two persistent emotions. Worry and agony can be useful however because they'll propel you to pedal up that particular hill with all the gusto you can give it. You'll seek the advice of those who have come before you.  You'll read books, blogs, magazines, heck you may even listen to Doctor Phil a few times.  But what you'll find is that with all that advice, who your child becomes really happens by watching you--who you are will shape who your child is, and it is for that reason that a parent finds out that they have a fortitude that perhaps would have never been developed if not for the necessity of a child.  So many times on this journey you will feel like you don't have the strength to reach the top of that bleepin' hill.  But you must.  You have someone who is counting on you, and somehow that knowledge keeps you going up the steepest hill even in a driving hail storm.

But the wonderful thing about climbing a hill is that at some point you must travel down.  And these are the moments that are to be treasured...when you coast and sail with the wind on your face. During the school years you get to experience something that only a parent gets to experience--finding yourself--the essence of you--in a child that you have created.  It may be the way they worry and fret-just like you.  It may be how much they love to read--just like you.  It may be in the way they twirl their hair, or chew their lip or love to sing.  It is those moments of recognition that are omnipotent and surreal, and  bond you even more to this being who you thought you couldn't be any closer to.  As you take it easy on the downhill parts of your journey, you'll have the time to learn something new, to laugh, to talk, to eat lively dinners, to cheer on your little athlete-dancer-singer-piano recital giver, to help with homework, to soothe and coo when they are sick, to tuck in with bedtime stories and kisses, and giggles and doodley-dos (a private joke).  You will have moments of such immense contentedness and when all is said and done, those moments...those amazing, crazy, blissful moments are why we became parents in the first place and what we'd miss out on if we didn't.  Enjoy those downhill, coasting, laid back, wind on your face times.  They will give you energy for the hills and more trying events that are just around the bend.

Marathon runner, Jerome Drayton, said once "to describe the agony of a marathon to someone who's never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind."  Being the wife to a former marathon runner, I agree with this statement.  My first experience watching him run one will forever stick in my mind.  My beloved sister-in-law, Sandy and I drove together as my husband and his brothers ran the course.  We'd get in the car and drive frantically so that every three miles or so we could get out and cheer them on.  I hand Jeffrey a "goo" or a bottle of water and watch as he disappeared around the bend.  Then Sandy and I raced to her car and traveled to the next stop.  This process we repeated over and over.  At mile marker 18 I remember remarking to Sandy that I marveled at Jeff's and Bill's (her husband) fortitude.  They didn't act at all in a way that I had imagined. They were not the serious and focused runners who mentally had to prepare themselves for the grueling task at hand.  Each time we saw them, they were jovial and energetic. That is until mile marker 22.  At mile marker 22, the runners, all of the runners who passed, seemed delirious.  Looked as if they'd been through a war.  No smiles, just gritted teeth and furrowed brows.  Their limbs were rubber and sweat poured down them as if a cascading waterfall.  They clearly had hit a wall...their bodies straining not to give out.  I worried for them.  The last four miles of that marathon would clearly be one of the toughest athletic challenges of my husband's life.

Much the same can be said about the last leg of your direct parenting journey--the never ending marathon of raising teenagers.  For me and many other parents that I speak to THIS part of the journey is the toughest.  It has been difficult for me to put into words the feelings one gets sometimes as a parent of an adolescent.  To tell you the truth, it might be difficult because well you just don't hear parents talk like this. I am sure it is considered to be extremely taboo and yet, and yet...It is how I feel sometimes.  It is how many parents feel sometimes, and so, and so...since I have never been one to mix words...Parenting teens makes me weary, as weary as...well...a marathon runner at the 22nd mile.  And why not?  I mean it gets so exhausting being so uncool, embarrassing, stupid, ridiculous and "totally lame".  Somehow, having a teen directly correlates with the moment that a parent loses all knowledge and wisdom.  We suddenly know nothing about the world or life or really ANYTHING.  Our voices, requests, and simple hellos become reasons for deep and disdainful reactions from beings whose existence on Earth is BECAUSE of us.  And I guess, that is the hardest part for me.  (Here comes the TABOO...Leave your judgment at the door.  Thank you in advance.) It absolutely ticks me off, makes me feel completely incredulous...makes me want to pull my hair out that sometimes...heck...MOST of the time teenage offspring have absolutely no respect for the hard work, sacrifices, time and thought we've put into raising them.

If I was following the format of the rest of this blog, this is where I'd be telling you about the multitude of reasons that one SHOULD enjoy parenting those pesky teens.  But.I am sorry dear readers that glimpses are all I can give you when it comes to the pros.  Perhaps it is because I am in the thick of it that I can't see the forest for the trees.   I imagine that it is this way with the marathon runner as well.  While he's running, in the thick of the race itself, the runner must  use every bit of his mental and physical ability to keep running...to keep his or her legs and arms and breath and motivation all in working order.  Perhaps after the run--hours, days, weeks even years after, the athlete will be able to tell you with pride in their voices the amazing moments that he or she experienced while completing one of the hardest athletic tasks ever.  And I suppose it will be the same with me someday...years down the road when the marathon of raising those teens is over, I'll be able to look back and say...oh yes...oh yes...there was this and there was that.  And it was good.  So good.  However, right now dear readers, right now I am in the thick of it and well, it takes all my effort just to keep on runnin' just looking for a glimpse of the finish line.

Glimpses of the finish line--you know its coming when your children speak of college, or when they sit against the teddy bear wallpaper at his or her pediatrician's office looking like some out of place giant.  You know its coming when you stroll along with them at their first college visit.  You know its coming when they come out of the front door of their high school holding hands with a significant other who has substance not just looks.  Those glimpses, glimpses of the possible adult that he or she could be--like when your son sings to a packed house with the certitude and power of a man surprising even you with his confidence.  Or when he or she sits the bench the entire season, but never quits and happily cheers for teammates.  Yes, there are glimpses.  Like when the busy dinner tables, the full-of-kids-backyard, the streets when spring has sprung filled with screeching voices, bouncing basketballs and the sounds of bicycles whizzing by are suddenly replaced with revving engines driving away from the house, tomb-like quiet dinner tables, and an empty home for hours upon end.  Glimpses of the finish line.  Yes, you'll feel it coming and so you press forward, ever forward towards it.  And when you reach that, (which you will...I promise) you'll look backwards down that lonely running road, to the bumpy and thrilling bike path, and way out over the horizon to the treacherous but beautiful ocean waters where you began your journey and you'll feel as the Iron Man athletes feel; that you've accomplished something great and magnanimous.  You may be a little tired, a little haggard, but happy and proud to be standing erect.

Dear friend, only you and your wife know if you are up for the challenge.  The decision has to be yours.  My only firm advice is to choose wisely, because unlike an Iron Man competition where the finish line means that you never have to do it again, the parenting finish line I spoke of is metaphorical.  Your role as parent will be a lifetime commitment.  Are you up for the job?