Real Life 101, Lesson 9: So you want to be a parent

This is the ninth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young adult, you may think that it would be fun and inspiring to have a little baby of your very own bouncing on your knee. There is no question that little babies can be awfully darn cute and that parenting can be a very fulfilling role. Arguably, there is no calling nobler or more daunting than being a parent. The survival of our species literally depends on the willingness of people like you to procreate.

Parenting though is far more than procreating. You should be willing to hang in there for eighteen years, but the reality is that eighteen years is just a start. You need to be able to make a lifelong commitment to your child. You may ditch your spouse at some point but you must never ditch your child. Your child will always need you on some level, even when they are middle aged like me and carry a paunch around their waist.

Being a father or mother is not that hard. It can take as little time as thirty seconds to start the process. Being a parent on the other hand is the ultimate roller coaster ride, and to succeed in parenting you have to hold on until you are dead. My father is age 81 and he is still teaching me lessons. Granted when your child is age thirty or so the work tends to go down quite a bit, but do not assume that at some point you will be all done. Parenting is a lifelong commitment based on a unique and unselfish bond of love.

It is understood that these days parenting is optional. This means you do not have to be a parent, but if you choose to have sex then you better use protection or be sterilized. Do not depend on the rhythm method. Many of those parents who did try it found out, like mine, that it did not work all that great. I am the fifth of eight Catholic children. No form of contraception is foolproof. Even vasectomies have been known to reverse themselves all on their own. Here are the only ways known to guarantee you will not be a parent:

  • Women can have their ovaries and uterus removed
  • Men can have their testes removed
  • Celibacy

A prerequisite for parenting should be to first have your own cat or dog. It does not matter which, but if you cannot make a ten or fifteen year commitment to an animal that only needs you part time, you should not be a parent. If after a couple months or years you find yourself taking Fido or Mittens to the animal shelter, it is time to be sterilized. You should not be a parent.

Assuming you pass the first test, there are two things to think about before getting into the parenting business. The first you will hear at your local Planned Parenthood and is absolutely true: every child should be a wanted child. If you do not really really want to be a parent, you just should just say no. The second is a corollary of the first: you must have a realistic capability to raise your child to at least the same standard of living as you now enjoy. The consequence of the latter point means that your life and job needs to be reasonably settled and you have the means to care for the child. This also means you must have a job that has health insurance.

Here is how the parenting experience will be for you: I haven’t a clue. Parenting is life’s ultimate crapshoot and it can explode all over your face. If you think about it logically, no one would ever be a parent because the odds that you will screw up your child are too large. Moreover, you will screw up your child. The only question is the degree that you will screw them up. You will screw them up for two reasons: you are not perfect and your child will not be perfect either. Actually there is a third reason: you have never been a parent before. You can and should get parenting education before you have a child, but each parenting experience is unique. Just as you can improve the odds that you can drive a car by reading the instruction manual first, parenting education will tell you what you need to do. It will not do much to help you deal with the stresses and feelings that come with being a parent. Some things cannot be taught but can only be experienced.

Parenting can be simulated. I applaud those schools that simulate parenting by giving you a simulated baby to carry around for a few days. They are programmed to wake you up at inconvenient times around the clock and you have to do certain things to make it happy. A few days of this makes most teenagers want to defer parenthood for years. Of course, this kind of inconvenience is the easy part, because you also have to attend to the costs of having a child. If I were dictator, as a requirement for a high school diploma I would require the successful completion of a parenting course. It would include a week spent in a day care center changing poopie diapers and dealing with children going through their terrible twos.

I am probably making parenting sound like a real bummer. It can be. As I said, parenting is a roller coaster ride, full of many extremes. There are awful bone-crushing lows. There are also exhilarating highs. Strangely enough, there are also placid periods. Things rarely stay the same for long though. Children grow too quickly. Most parents have zero time for reflection because they are too busy dealing with the reality of life with children. That is why I am helping you out by giving you time to reflect now.

I am almost nineteen years into my parenting experience. In two days, my daughter sits down for her first college course. My parenting journey is not over yet by any means, but I have come to some tentative conclusions. It has been said many times before but it is true: parenting can be (but is not necessarily) the most rewarding and selfless thing you can do in life. I can guarantee one thing: it will be the biggest learning experience of your life. After experiencing it first hand, you should feel something like awe at your own parents. Maybe they screwed you up a bit but as you will experience just hanging in there at all borders on the miraculous.

You will never know for sure if you are cut out at the parenting business, but once you have started there is no going back. A child will pull you in more directions than you can possibly imagine. Most parents though adapt with time. You may find it easier to go with the flow. Be pragmatic and just accept that your universe is being fundamentally reordered. A relaxed attitude with your children, if you can manage it with all the inevitable chaos, is probably healthy for you and the child. Children know when they are loved, and if so they will respect you and accommodate you.

When the bulk of parenting is behind you, if you are lucky, the experience becomes somewhat nostalgic. I love my nearly nineteen-year-old daughter very much, but I cherish my memories of her at certain ages more than others. In my opinion, age four was my best year of parenting. There are times when I wish children could be like pets that stay at the ideal age forever. For better or for worse, they keep maturing. Therefore, I cherish those memories of our 4 AM feedings alone in the library while I watched the fog roll in out the window. I cherish reading Dr. Seuss to her as a child and feeling her snuggle close in my arms and her eyes light up with the story. I cherish seeing her perform in her first school play. As a parent, you have a unique privilege: to witness first hand the development of a child from birth to adulthood. They will not remember most of it, particularly the early years, but you will. With luck near the end of the experience, you will say with satisfaction, “I wasn’t a perfect parent, but I did a good job, and I consistently loved my child.” It should be that and “Whew! What a ride!”

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