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After Mother’s Day

I sometimes feel that mothering stands in the way of taking care of children. I want to make the world better but parenting is a frustrating way to go about it.

It sounds bad, I know, but I’ve found parenting disappointing.  I don’t mean my children; I just mean parenting. There’s so much you don’t think about in advance.  For example: that there will be years of not seeing your city at night because you’re busy behind drawn curtains hushing and rereading stories that have grown old.  They don’t tell you at the doctor’s office that you’re being enlisted in some horrible race in which all your friends already participate by urging kids past goalposts invisible from the outside.  There’s the smell of lice shampoo, worm treatments, other people’s vomit and the glue that comes with Halloween costumes.  And the boredom: the days standing in a playground with a juice box in your hand listening to a kid howl over a lost stick knowing this is a day that will never now be spent reading or making love.

I mourn the travesty of those conversations with great people reduced to small exchanges of thought about schools and sleep patterns.   And I live in fear of the times I want to be thinking on a grand scale but find myself wondering where to buy a birthday present or how to make a specialist appointment.  They don’t tell you about this, or about all the gender stuff that you thought you’d overcome until the minute when you had to ask permission of your partner to stay late at work or face the fact that something as mundane as going for a run might have to count as your quota of alone time today.

What was I expecting, you might ask?  For of course, there are good things too.  Friendships with the other people, many more than you’d think, who also pass through this continent of parenting as bemused visitors.  The knowledge that if you are going to make use of this day, you’d better do it before kindergarten closing time, is not always bad; nor the sense that you’ll have to face and be nice to people at the end of it who have no patience with the finer points of your anxiety and insecurity.  And parenting, as far as other hobbies goes, involves a pleasantly short run.  Ten years into it, as long as you live somewhere with decent public transport, your kids will begin to leave the house alone for long stretches of time.  Being chairman of the co-op board or volunteer at the local homeless shelter could last much longer.  And the feeling that comes with all public service activities well done – being member of the Greens, Head of Department, or collector of cats, will all serve here as comparisons—is pleasant, maybe even vital, to being alive.

I’m telling this stuff as straight as I can but I’ve realized over the years it’s impossible to tell people not to have kids. I don’t even know if I want to tell that.   I’ve had my little patches of mourning for the full lives of different friends who’ve decided to reproduce.  For my lovely brother, bright and successful and interested in art galleries and other people’s children and late nights at the lab, whose decision to have a baby left me thinking:  really?  Is that all you’ve got?  But I like my kids, and my nieces and nephews too, and I’m pretty sure most of my friends like theirs.  If there’s one thing you can say about kids, it’s that the internal logic of having them works.  And perhaps there is no other way to find out than to do it:  have kids; don’t have kids; I’ve reached a kind of agnosticism about this.

What I’d like to write about, instead, are all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish.  I mean here the writing and inventing and the politics and the activism; the reading and the public speaking and the protesting and the teaching and the filmmaking.  These things are done by definition either by those don’t have kids at home, or by those whose kids are being looked after by other people – by states, grand-parents, friends.  In Denmark, a place I’ve been lucky enough to do much of my parenting, the state works pretty well as a benign mother ship that beams its infant citizens up and early and leaves their parents relatively free to orbit around it, trusting that their kids are on track in a general way they have little to do with.

Such communal caretaking, though we don’t acknowledge it very openly, is necessary:  there are a few things you can do with a kid in tow, but not many.  Most of the things I value most, and from which I trust any improvements in the human condition will come, are violently incompatible with the actual and imaginative work of childcare.  And in these years that I have worked with only one hand free to do them, I’ve looked with gratitude to the people who have worked with two or three on my behalf and I’ve thought: when I have time again, I will write and say that I am grateful.

So this is to the writers whose books bounce to life when their kids leave home; to the politicians whose work happens because of the kids they have not had, to the people in the gay bar across the street who play the music that comes drifting in late to remind me of the world out there; to the teachers I’ve had whose kids stayed late at daycare while they talked to me of Foucault.  Amen to them, I say:  not those whose decision to have kids is so self evidently and publicly validated, but to those who do the work of keeping the world in which these kids must live going.

And thanks too, to the friends who’ve taken my kids for afternoons and weekends; to the men in the Danish kindergarten who look after other people’s kids all day; to the scriptwriters who make all those inane but lovely things my children watch on Sunday afternoons; to my parents and parents-in-law for the times they’ve given me enough space to remember myself being other-than a parent.  To all those who saw that documentary about penguins, in which animals are praised for their special capacity to find and protect their own eggs at all costs, and scoffed. My pledge to you all is to return, when I am done, to a more public sphere:  to a place where the things parenting teaches us can be shared more broadly.  Amen, I say–in the days when election campaigns driven by the rhetoric of the child lead us to the worst of all conclusions–to something that might keep us politically and socially alive to each other on a larger scale than parenting.  And to the work that we do when our children are asleep.

Christina Lupton: Grateful when it works

Image credit: Pieter de Hooch, “Interior with a Mother Delousing Her Child,” c. 1660 

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  1. I love this piece. So much depends on specific conditions — those with healthy parents nearby to help have a much easier time being parents themselves. For the rest of us, especially those of us who have work we care about, there is a massive loss. Loss of free time, of work, of ability to reflect…. even just of eating out in peace. Loss of sleep, and everything that brings with it. I’m okay with it all now, but it’s taken three years, and it’s definitely not the kind of thing one can prescribe for someone else.


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