Ah, the joys of parenting. Ever-changing, ever-challenging, ever-pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-one’s feet. I once compared my children to endlessly mutating viruses, changing and adapting just when I think I have them figured out. But I recently realized that comparing them to pathogens isn’t really a fair analogy. Deadly viruses, however destructive, are generally much neater creatures and will eventually kill you off in a gesture of mercy. Not so with children.
Maybe this is summer fever talking. Maybe too many afternoons spent squinting into baseball sideline sunshine or too many hours shuttling kids from one sleepover to another have addled my brain. Or maybe I have just seen the light, but whatever the reason, I have made a monumental discovery this summer with regards to my offspring. They are the worst roommates. Ever.
Nearly two decades ago, Jim and I said yes to a lifelong commitment of compromise and mutual self-sacrifice. At the time, I thought marriage was about the big stuff, sharing values and worldviews, all the “in sickness and in health” business. And of course, it is. It’s pretty hard to be annoyed with someone for leaving their socks on the floor, again, when they have run off with the mailman to join a tree worshipping cult in Uganda. But once you settle in for the long haul, marriage is really about figuring out how to make yourself as non-irritating as possible while hoping your partner will do the same. If both spouses are all in, it’s a pretty good gig. For us, it’s about diversifying responsibilities and everyone pulling their weight. “I’ll make the food most nights. You do the dishes. I’ll do the laundry when there is no more clean underwear. You mow the yard before the neighbors start to complain. You make most of the money and I will attempt, and fail, to balance the check book on a semi-annual basis.” A flawed system, but it works. That is, it did work, until we were overrun by children.
Now here is the part where you say “But Amy, you chose to bring these beings into this world. Surely you understood the commitment you were making.” Show me someone who says they understood the demands of being a parent before becoming one and went through with it anyway, and I will show you a pants-on-fire liar. Of course, you have a grasp of the general concept, but having a general understanding of parenthood is a lot like understanding sex; you can read about it all you want, but the experience is an entirely different matter. Sure, you might understand the basics, but parenting is the gift that just keeps on giving. Like the gift of hosting a parasite.
When they were little, my expectations of my kids were pretty low. Anyone who can’t manage to get a cheerio in his mouth in under five minutes shouldn’t be expected to contribute all that much to the overall running of the household. But I now have four partially grown human beings who have no trouble shoveling copious amounts of food into their gaping maws and yet somehow they can’t manage to put a spoon into the dishwasher. Never in my wildest of wild dreams or nightmares would I have imagined parenting young people could be this maddening. It isn’t the sleep-deprived madness of the early years which is such a paradoxical mixture of soft snuggly wonder and tear-inducing disaster that only an infinitely creative and comical God could have come up with it. It is an insanity of a much more subtle and sinister nature.
To illustrate, imagine a seemingly rational person who lives in your house. A person whom you provide with not only shelter but clothing and food as well. You not only give this person a great deal of your financial resources but also your emotional resources. You love this person, care for this person, listen to this person when they try to explain the plot of a very complex TV show mostly using sound effects and phrases like “you know.” Now imagine that you approach this person, cautiously and respectfully requesting that they put away the clothes which you have not only purchased for them but which you have recently laundered and folded as well. Any normal person would assume that this well-looked-after dependent would gratefully receive the clothes and perform the chore in a calm manner. Well, normal person, guess again. In this case, the dependent is much more likely to: (a) act as if you are a mere figment of his imagination and proceed along his merry, computer game-playing way or (b) act as if you have just asked him to create a life-sized replica of the Great Wall of China using bricks made of his own sweat and tears.
Obviously, people have been complaining about their near children since Moses forgot to put his staff in the closet. But here is the mind-blowing, guilt-freeing, deeply unburdening revelation I had this summer while picking up yet another wet swimsuit off the bathroom floor: I am responsible for being my children’s teacher in life, for guiding them in the matters of right and wrong. I am not legally or morally obligated to like them all the time.
And when they, say, leave a lunchbox full of leftovers in their closet all summer long as a surprise for me to find, not liking them is probably rather good for me. It’s all part of growing up. My not so little viruses are eating away at the selfish flesh of my heart, the part of me that wants everything to be easy and tidy and not smell like gym socks on steroids. I am slowly becoming immune to impatience and frustration as the kids, hopefully, grow in responsibility and sensitivity to others. We are slowly making progress, very slowly, as in Chinese-water-torture slow, but progress nonetheless.
Amy, this is delightful. One of your best.
Tess (Diana Verhagen’s mom)