An article that popped up in my Facebook feed recently made me pause and reconsider the things I write about in this blog. The essay, written by Ruth Graham for Slate, asked, “Why do parents make parenting sound so god awful?” Graham, a young woman who says she would like to have children at some point, is troubled by the proliferation of confessional mommy blogs that focus relentlessly on the negative—the lack of sleep, the isolation, the excrement, etc. “Is anyone writing about joy?” she asks. “Is there a way to do it without seeming obnoxiously smug or totally dishonest?”
I had to roll my eyes a little; the “bad” stuff is where the funny is, after all. And it’s not really our problem if the subject matter is traumatizing the youngsters.
And yet I do empathize with Graham. Before I got pregnant, other parents were practically falling all over themselves to inform my husband and me that life as we knew it would soon be over. The unsolicited bits of doom and gloom only increased after I got pregnant, which struck me as kind of mean and not particularly helpful. And what’s up with all of the articles, books and studies devoted to proving that people without children are happier than those who have them? Why can’t we shut up about how hard parenting is?
And so, while I don’t think there’s any real harm in engaging in some haggard-mommy humor, I have been more mindful lately of the positive things: the beautiful, miraculous moments of joy that all too soon will be swallowed up by time and relegated to the keepsake box. I’m not going to talk about any of those moments right now. However, in honor of Graham and all the other future moms and dads out there who have been emotionally scarred by parental over-sharing, I’d like to talk about what has been, for me, a surprising and pleasant side effect of parenthood. I call it the ‘Having a Child Helps Keep the Crazy in Check’ theory.
As Graham herself points out, mommy bloggers are hardly the sh*tty moms they profess to be. “They are competent, loving parents who occasionally feel overwhelmed,” she writes. “They are parents who think and read and write about parenting. Almost by definition, they are doing just fine.”
I’d like to go a step further and propose that I am actually more sane now than I was before having a child.
It’s like this: one of the first rules of parenting is that you can never let your child see how crazy you really are. For example, you might be terrified of your baby falling down and hurting himself but, in an effort to avoid passing on the crippling anxiety you’ve struggled with your whole life, you pretend to be cool about it. “Babies fall down, it’s what they do,” you might hear yourself saying. “What are we going to do, make him wear a helmet all the time?” Soon, like building up a muscle you never knew you had, you find yourself actually feeling more calm. The posturing becomes reality. Presto! You’ve tricked yourself into (relative) sanity.
Working in tandem with this phenomenon is the fact that you simply don’t have as much time or energy to worry about yourself anymore. It’s a potent combination that has helped ease a variety of phobias and neuroses. Here are just a few:
1. Fear of flying
In the past, a calming cocktail of Klonopin and Bloody Marys was my sedative of choice, but when traveling with a toddler it’s usually a good idea to remain conscious. Happily, the very act of getting a toddler and all of his accoutrements through airport security and onto a plane leaves little energy for pondering one’s doom. And during the flight itself, you’ll be plenty occupied with keeping the toddler entertained and happy. You might even find yourself saying, “We’re here already? I hardly even had time to worry about bird strike or a sudden drop in cabin pressure!”
2. Inability to tolerate messes
Even as a child, I was very devoted to organization and order. I was the sort of kid who tucked my shirt into my pants AND my underwear. But I had two younger brothers and our house was, understandably, kind of messy a lot of the time. I guess the chaos just put me over the edge one day because I have this memory of throwing a Mommie Dearest–style tantrum during which I told my mother, “I just can’t stand this mess!” Unlike Joan Crawford, having a child has helped me ease up on the neatness obsession significantly. Sure, I might organize the kitchen drawers every now and then just to, you know, blow off some steam. But check this out: there has been a pile of clean, un-folded laundry balled up and hidden in my closet for almost a week now, and I feel really OK about it.
3. Social anxiety
If you’re an introvert like me, one great perk of having a baby is that you now have a legitimate excuse to occasionally duck away at parties and other social engagements. “So sorry, I think I hear my son crying” is a much more graceful way to exit an awkward conversation than, say, slowly sinking to the floor and crab-walking out of the room. (Although I would love to try that someday.) The astute reader will note that in this case the baby isn’t helping the problem so much as enabling the old behavior. But whatever, it’s working for me.
I can see why having a baby can be tough on a marriage, but it can also strengthen the bond between partners. Fortunately, my husband and I have experienced the latter. We might not go out as much as we used to or have romantic candlelit dinners at the top of the Empire State Building every single night, like people without children do, but our relationship does feel closer and more secure than ever. Of course we still have our moments, but we have learned to catch ourselves when we are taking our baby-related frustrations out on each other. In those moments we take a step back and remind ourselves that we are united by a common enemy, and that enemy is the baby.
5. Negative body image
I may not look as good as I did before I had a baby, but I also worry about the whole thing much less now than I did then. This might be cold comfort to young women who are still very much attached to their flat, pre-baby abs and perky, pre-baby boobs, but honestly, ladies, it’s not the end of the world. Also, you look much better now than you think you do. Try to enjoy it.
6. Fear of balloons
I’m not sure how this one got on the list because I am still very much afraid of balloons. And having a child has actually made this one worse, because my exposure to balloons has increased exponentially over the last two years. Perhaps I should treat it as exposure therapy and hope that, eventually, I will become inured to the possibility that one of those rubbery time bombs could pop at literally any moment and scare the bejesus out of me. Or I could start taking a Klonopin before going to a child’s birthday party. Some things are better left to pharmaceuticals.