Friday, 13 September 2013

Exiting the cave

When you are pregnant, people who are already parents say to you things like 'everything changes' and 'it turns your world upside down'.

I was informed that its very challenging but that despite all the ups and downs, chaos, exhaustion, etc etc no parent regrets their offspring's appearance. They would say 'Enjoy your freedom while it lasts' and 'sleep while you can because once baby is born you won't be sleeping properly for the next five years' before laughing madly.  Or that 'motherhood involves unquestioning slavery, never having a second to yourself and constantly worrying, but its okay because it only lasts until they go to university....oh no actually it never ends'.....cue more insane giggling. Finished off, always always, with 'but I wouldn't have it any other way.'

I always assumed that the deranged giggling that followed these proclamations was caused by the speakers self-satisfaction with the excellent joke they had made. What fun, lets goad this innocent pregnant lady by scaring her with exaggerated descriptions of the size of the challenges that await her. A bit like how at a theme park they blow smoke and play creepy sounds by the rollercoaster to get your adrenaline up a bit. Or how you might tell a wide-eyed five year old that if she rides her bike too fast she might fly off into space. Good harmless fun so long as you don't take it too far. And frankly, I thought that sometimes they did take it a teensy bit too far. Pregnant ladies need to be calm, they oughtn't be teased you know.

The thing is.......THEY WEREN'T JOKING. The mad laughter is not caused by anything being funny, its merely a side effect of already having to endure said fate. They were trying to warn me and I didn't listen. Curse naive Ellen for not listening! The thing is.......I wouldn't have it any other way.
Now, reader, I suggest to you that this is a rather paradoxical situation. Parents acknowledge that parenting is hard. It demands levels of energy, courage, patience and strength that most of us think we lack. It deprives you of most of the things you used to think made life worth living. It punishes you and challenges you every day, for most of the day, and then most of the night as well. It uses up your money, sanity, time and energy until, well, it could be said that it ruins your life. Except of course that its the best thing that ever happens to you. Now all of these attitudes are utter cliches. Everyone knows them, even non-parents, because parents bang on about them so much. But they're also totally contradictory.

As a pre-parent, I heard these contradictions stated - that parenthood is *huge list of damning adjectives* but also the best thing that ever happens to you. And i guess i reconciled them in my mind by assuming that the former part, the bad bits, must be exaggerations. All the complaining must be a symptom of martyr syndrome, i thought. Stay at home mums trying to make themselves look less lazy. To allow them a little bit of pride in the humdrum and (fairly easy) work that they do.
Well, that was then, and I try not to weep as I write these words. Suffice to say I was wrong. But now that I'm on the other side, what of the contradiction? How can any activity be both the best of times and worst of times - WHICH IS IT? It really is both.

So does parenthood ultimately just make one irrational then? Do parents have irrationally ordered preferences?

 I've come up with a Plato-inspired explanation. Pre-parent-people are in the cave - an emotional cave. The joys that they feel, the aspirations they have, and they pains that they experience, they are shadow emotions. Their feelings have the same shape as true feelings, but are only reflections, happenchance impressions cast by the real thing. Caring about that girl, the boy, hurting after he leaves, getting angry with your boss, even wanting to save the world. They're just practise emotions. Childless life is like playing at living. Riding around with the stabilisers on.

Then you have a child and you are born into the real world. You leave the cave and look around, blinking, and realise that there is a terrifyingly large domain of emotion whose extent you never could have imagined possible, a brave new world in which the breadth and vividness of the pain, fear, hope and joy that can be experienced makes plain that everything you knew before was mere shadow. And there is no going back: its not humanly possible to apprehend the vastness of true emotional potential and then wish to return to that dark, cloistered cave.

Parenthood does ruin your life. Your old life. And it gives you a much richer one in return.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that... oh wait I'm not really alive so it does not matter what I think.

Ellen Clarke said...

Lol, of course you're alive. Its just your imagined emotional universe that doesn't exist (assuming you don't have kids!)

Anonymous said...

Ah well... at least in my cave I know how to use an apostrophe. It's some small consolation in my otherwise worthless existence!

Anonymous said...

Except of course that its the best thing that ever happens to you.

Bull. Parenting sucks for a great many people. Claiming it is the "best thing" is ex-post rationalizing a shit situation of stupid parents' own making. You were warned, but did not heed. Bed. Made. Lie.

Keep telling yourself it's the best.

Ellen Clarke said...

Dear anonymous (latest: I don't *think* you're the same as the earlier), I read your post and wonder if you yourself are a parent and hope very much not.

Because of course you are correct that some parents fail to enjoy parenting. Especially the not inconsiderable number who experience postnatal depression. This is a sad, and uncomfortable truth. I want to contend that it isn't the majority experience, but i'm not sure what this would prove.

I'm confident that for at least many parents the content of my last paragraph in the post is true: that in some hard to explicate sense, parenthood takes away most things that you enjoy but somehow leaves you better off.

For all those to whom this does not apply, I extend my sympathy, my compassion and my optimistic hope that something could perhaps be done (by them, by medical science, by society?) to send their parenthood journeys along a more positive trajectory.