Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Irony of Parenthood

There is a certain irony in being a parent. Many parents are simply made for the job: they know as young children that they want to be a parent one day; they are attracted to babies long before they are able to have their own; and they seem to have a natural way with babies that the rest of us can only learn.

But for so many more of us, having a new baby is nothing less than a severe shock to the system. While we may admire babies from a distance and perhaps even hold one now and then, many of us have no idea about the reality of parenthood. Sure we take the Lamaze classes and read all the books, but nothing gives us a taste of the reality of parenthood until we experience the real thing; much like learning how cold the water is only after you've jumped off the boat and watch pitifully as it races away.

Many people don't really enjoy babies. Sure, we love our own - it's hardwired into us. We can't help it. Our own babies smell like pure joy. They are the most beautiful creatures to ever exist on this planet and we wonder at how we are the fortunate ones to be blessed with such a perfect gift. We marvel at how smart and beautiful our babies are compared to the babies of everyone else. How can it be that we got the best one?

Love is one thing; enjoyment is quite another. By the time the novelty wears off and baby begins to sleep through the night, we get the joy of seeing the first smile, hearing the first laugh and all the other wonderful firsts that accompany that first year. Yet we don't experience life with our baby occasionally and then go about our merry business. Rather, we are immersed in the life of this tiny new creature who demands to control every aspect of our lives including our meals, our physical appearance, our amount of sleep, our social lives, our budget, our careers, and our homes. There is very little, if anything in our lives, a baby will not touch in some way.

We are awakened each morning by cries for nourishment, clean britches, comfort, entertainment, and socialization. This small person cares not that we were up late finishing a report for work or having a fight with our spouse. He cares not that we might want to go for a jog or even have a bit to eat, ourselves. He will scream mercilessly until his needs are met and then he will want more. If we can coax the little tyrant into nap time later, we might catch up on some of our own life during that precious hour, but more likely we'll fall asleep with him and be awakened all over again when nap time is over.

The irony is that we are delighted by these tiny people. We laugh at their demands, their angry screams and their happy coos. We may not enjoy the monotony, the never-ending cycle of drudgery that comes with raising a baby, but somehow we love them too much to care. Many of us entrust our babies into the capable hands of nannies or day care providers, but we struggle with leaving them, even before they know who we are. We worry that our baby will become confused and not know who his true parents are; we actually want our baby to know that we are the ones solely responsible for his sustenance, shelter and entertainment. We want him to remember to whom his demands must be directed.

As we (and they) grow older and they become more independent, we are saddened by our babies' growth, as if we really want to go back to changing diapers and being awakened at all hours of the night. We look at other peoples' babies and feel nostalgic. We smell that scrumptious one-of-a-kind baby smell and swoon. We hold others' babies and imagine that we might take the little beauty home and pretend we don't know the parents; we think we really want a part of this baby thing again.

But then the baby will cry or soil his diaper and we chuckle and hand the baby back to the exhausted parents who look hollow-eyed and stunned by life. Somehow in their weary state, they welcome the soiled, crying baby back with open arms and coos of love and affection. They may be fatigued but they clean and comfort their precious little one with no thought for themselves. That is the definition of true love and irony, all rolled into one.

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