I remember being offended, before I had a kid, at the idea that I couldn't possibly know what it was like to have a kid. I'd been a kid. I'd been in love. I'd had vulnerable and beloved creatures in my care. And I had powers of empathy and imagination. So, sure, I couldn't know exactly what it was like, but surely I could imagine something close enough that my opinion wasn't totally discountable, right? The thing is, now that I am a parent, I really can't remember what I thought it was going to be like, so I have no idea how close my imagination got. My sense is: not very.
For one thing, loving my child is simply not like any other love I've felt before. It's not just a different flavor; it's a totally different food. Sure, it has things in common with loving a spouse, loving a parent, loving a pet -- it's still love. But it's profoundly different. Nobody else's suffering or delight could come close to affecting me the way his does. He belongs to me and I belong to him in a way that's nothing like the connection I feel to other people I love. (And that's not to disparage my other relationships. I have good, close connections to the important people in my life.)
I'm also responsible for him in a way that's unlike any other relationship. It's a responsibility that's hardwired, that I actually feel physically. The sound of him crying out in genuine anguish (as opposed to frustration, discomfort, boredom, or any of the other smaller unhappinesses that are immediately distinguishable from real trouble) isn't just a sound; it's like a klaxon in my spinal cord. But it's not just that. It's always being aware of him, even if we're not in the same town, even if I'm not actively thinking about him. It's like I have radar in the back of my mind, and the little blip that's Ben is always there, blinking.
Being a parent also connects me to the world in a new way, and more profoundly. Partly it's just having a bigger stake, I think, though you'd have thought being alive was a pretty big stake to start with. But it's really not -- not compared to being responsible for a small and completely precious person. For one thing, I don't think it would even have occurred to me to consider what my stake in the world was before I had a kid. So it's that, and it's sharing a deeply meaningful experience with the majority of humanity. In a very real way, I have something in common with parents in Khartoum, in Osaka, in Helsinki. For that matter, I have something in common with leopard mothers and chickadee mothers and coyote mothers. And I'm not talking about some goofball intellectual exercise; this is something I feel pretty deeply, something that's changed the way I exist in the world. And there's something else, harder to define: when it comes to passage-of-life stuff, there's a sweet in the sad and a sad in the sweet that I never felt before. German probably has a word for this mournful joy, but I don't. It's a bit like stepping back so far to see the forest that suddenly you see that joy and mourning are part of the same thing, a connectedness, an investment in the world, an expression of love.
It's tough to talk about any of this without sounding pretty colossally cornball. But I find that I don't care all that much about whether I sound cornball. And I really have no idea whether other parents feel the same way. I imagine there are as many different ways to experience parenthood as there are ways to experience romantic love, if not more. But we all hear about romantic love all the time. It's in every song, in every book, in every movie. People talk about falling in love and falling out of love, and we all have lots of words to describe the stages and problems and joys and minutiae of romantic love. And yes, we talk about parenting, one parent to another, and there are books of advice and instruction, and God knows there are blogs. But it's not the same.
My friend C., the domestic theologian, was looking for examples of literature about motherhood. Can you think of any? It's difficult to think of examples of mother characters, let alone examples where the mother is the protagonist and motherhood is a dominant theme. Kristin Lavransdatter was pretty much the only real example anyone could come up with. For a profound human experience, that's a pretty big gap in the market. I think talking about the big-picture, major-theme stuff of parenthood feels corny because it's been more or less exclusively the province of greeting cards and inspirational wall-hangings. Which I just so fundamentally don't understand. I look to literature to help explain my world, and it's like I just fell in love for the first time, and no one had ever written a book or made a movie about romantic love. And worse than that: that the very idea of taking romantic love seriously as a literary theme was kind of laughable and embarrassing.
So, a couple of things. First, everybody should immediately read Kristin Lavransdatter, which is a great (and I mean Great in the sense of Major Work of World Literature, as well as great in the sense of really wonderful) book, apart from being the only book I've ever read in which the protagonist's breast-feeding matters to the story. Second, and I mean this seriously: What the fuck? Why isn't there a canon of literature on the theme of parenthood to match the theme of romantic love? Is it as simple and stupid as the lack of female authors? And the fact that until pretty recently, women who wrote books tended to be women who didn't have children? I can sort of accept that explanation, except that fatherhood is pretty profound, too, so where are the themes of fatherhood in our glorious literature of the patriarchy?
It's a head-scratcher.