Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Joining The Club

The couple downstairs from us have just had a baby.

"It's great," the proud father said. "He doesn't cry at all."

The baby was all of one day old and it was all I could do not to smile. "That'll come," I couldn't help saying.

"No, I don't think it will," our neighbor contradicted. "I think it's just his nature. He's very placid."

Bless him. I said the exact same thing myself once and I vaguely remember being infuriated by the amused and knowing looks people gave me. People who had real, seasoned children instead of newborn babies.

When you decide to have a baby, you join one of the biggest clubs in the world. For most of us new members, learning how to be parents is a fiddly, exhausting business with a steep learning curve. Half the world seems to know how to do it better, seems more efficient, secure and successful. And they're just itching to tell you all about it, too.

When I look back on our first day with a new baby, I marvel at the extent of our ignorance. I recall how we longed to recognized as full-fledged members of the club. To be appreciated for our efforts and applauded for choosing the path we had taken. So I congratulated our neighbor and I hope I didn't look too cynical at what he said about his baby having a placid nature.

We've come almost full circle now, my husband and I: we have just celebrated our eldest's 17th birthday. Cliche that it is, the past seventeen years have gone by so fast, we can hardly get over it. We both clearly remember when we were expecting her -- the sense of joy and anticipation.

Our washing machine broke down only a week before our daughter was due, and we were anxious to get it fixed in time. The repairman was a dour fellow who did his job well. "That's done then," he told us, washing his hands. "Ought to work fine now."

We were relieved to hear this and we told him so. "I guess it's obvious we're having a baby," my husband said proudly as I stood there next to him, positively sumoesque.

The man glanced at me briefly and nodded. "You're in for it," he muttered darkly.

"You have children, then?" my husband asked, despite himself.

"Oh aye," said the man. "Teenagers. And I wish they'd never been born."

He said this with such conviction that we were stunned. We didn't get it: we couldn't wait to be parents, couldn't wait to hold our new baby in our arms and get on with the business of raising her. Why were so many parents so negative about their children? Every day we heard parents snapping at their children in supermarkets, yelling at them on the streets. The people who lived just behind us, an otherwise pleasant couple, were forever screaming at their toddlers: two-year-old twins. Why?

In another couple of years, we were beginning to understand why. Kids don't necessarily do what you tell them to do no matter how well you phrase it. We found ourselves sounding a lot like our neighbors and had even come to respect them for their admirable patience. One feisty toddler can be a headache a minute when you're trying to mow the lawn: two in one go doesn't bear thinking about. And seventeen years after our repairman's passionate and negative declaration, we have come to understand what he must have been wrestling with too. We've been there, and it isn't pretty. No doubt we have more to come, too, as our youngest wades her way through adolescent angst, and all we can do is support each other through it and hope for the best. What else can we do?

No matter how frustrated we get, though, we won't let on to our neighbors. They've just joined the club and they need all the encouragement they can get.


Carole said...

Parenting--Just shoot me now. It never ends. They get older and have babies and the whole love/hate thing starts all over again. Good stuff.

Eryl Shields said...

Happy belated birthday to your girl!

I made a conscious decision to stick to one child when I noticed that mothers of more always looked tired and irritated. So I've had a pretty easy time of it. Of course, now I wish I'd had at least three!

Brave Astronaut said...

I used to have concerns about having children. What kind of father would I be? Could I do a better job than my own father? Would I be able to provide?

When I found the right woman (after the first one didn't work out) it took some doing to have our first child. But it was the best thing that could have happened. We were content. We stumbled through figuring out as we went along. We were blessed with a "good sleeper" (he used to cry and hang on the gate to go to bed) and a very good-natured boy.

So we decided to have another. So far, so good.

I have a friend who is also my age (about to put a four as the front number of her age) who is expecting identical twin girls in late August. Makes me laugh every single time I think about it.

I love the club, but I am still looking for the handbook . . .

Alice said...

My daughter didn't make a peep for the first 3 days of life. Then she decided to scream for the next two months. Yowza!

(*side note* - I'm glad I found your blog, I enjoy your writing!)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- You are right: it never ends: we just keep stumbling along and hoping for the best, and each generation manages to screw it up a fair amount, despite their best intentions. I'm convinced that most of us secretly hope we will be able to do a better job than our parents -- I know I did. Now I am filled with awe that my parents managed to do so well, and I wonder what the future holds for my children and their progeny to come.

Eryl -- Thank you! She milked it for all it was worth; she figures she might be leaving home pretty soon and she won't be able to hit us up for so many treats.

Just having two kids has been plenty hellish, but I wish I'd had more too. In for a penny, in for a pound and all.

BA -- Oh the envy I feel for any parent with a good sleeper! Mine have NEVER been good sleepers, but I have my own DNA to thank for this. Insomniac parents don't do well with insomniac kids, sadly. Their non-sleeping time never coincides with your own.

My father-in-law always insisted that the only problem with the handbook was that the baby never read it. Every baby is different and handbooks can only tell you so much. Grandparents are great, as long as you can keep them from offering gratuitous advice and crowing "I told you so!" Which, of course, you generally can't. And figuring it out as you go along is what parenting is all about, isn't it?

Alice -- Thank you for commenting!

My babies started off very placid and each time I felt smug and certain that mine would be the amazing non-crying baby. What a nasty shock I had when that didn't happen.

laura said...

This is so close to a post I did on Feb 14 (Valentimes Day? Just a coincidence, believe me!). My first was so fussy that I wanted to take him back and exchange him. And all the well intentioned advice that I received only served to make me feel more inadequate. How we all survived, I'll never know!

ChrisEldin said...

I love stories like this!! We all go through that, don't we? Thinking *our* children are somehow different. (ie better)


Sarah said...

I think teens are fun! Lots of fun. I have 6 kids and 3 are teens at this moment. *grin*

My oldest is now married. (I married very young--19--so I didn't say a thing when she married at 20.)

I'm wondering about how to be a grandma, because it is different than being a parent--when I live on a different continent. Of course, they might decide to wait a few years. I might figure it out by then.

Susie said...

Maybe I'm still too new to parenting to post a response (I've got an 11 month old)...but here goes.
I love your writing, Mary. But...this time I was so sad reading this post. Obviously you're writing from your experiences and you have every right to do this. It's just that I'm hoping to raise my daughter minus the screaming and yelling. Of course there will be times when it happens, but I'm really hoping to continue to grow as a person and continue to work on my patience and communication.
I feel like I was yelled at a lot as a kid and I even got the 'wish you weren't born' line a few times. It sucked. Don't get me wrong, my parents loved me and did as best as they could and they're great to their Grandbaby and really love their family. you've said I want to do things differently.
So...what am I trying to say? I think your neighbors do need encouragement. New parents need more than...'you're in for it.' I think it sucks when kids are yelled at for being kids and I still love your blog even though this post made me a bit bummed out.
Any thoughts I just too new to this parenting thing?

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- Our first baby had terrible colic and cried constantly whenever I put her down. I hardly got a baby- free moment the first six months and I remember bitterly regretting that she came without an off-switch. I'm just glad that we all got through it okay, but it really was touch and go at times.

Chris -- When our youngest was eight years old and really difficult, I happened to find a diary of my mother's from when I was about the same age. Boy, was I ever a brat! Reading that diary, I felt a profound connection with my mother, who had infinite patience with me. I'm sure she thought I was going to be special too, poor thing.

Sarah -- If you've got six kids, three of whom are teens, I take my hat off to you! Actually, I do think teens are fun. I love my own, and I enjoy talking with their friends. But they can sorely try me at times...

Susie -- My father was a strict disciplinarian and yelled at me a lot, and I vowed I would never do what he did. Most of the time I have managed this pretty well, but the fact is that I do yell at my kids. I have met people who get through parenting without yelling at all -- I know a woman who has seven children and gets them to mind her by whispering. I am filled with respect for this woman, but for whatever reason, this has been impossible for me -- and my husband.

Every single child is different, and so is every parent. I threw terrible temper tantrums as a child and my mother was quiet and gentle with me, singing hymns when I got into a state. I have struggled to emulate her and I like to think that without her good example I would be a lot worse than I am, but our second daughter threw unbelievable temper tantrums (she bit the wall on one occasion and would frequently scream, struggle, and sweat so much that she would slip right out of my arms). I'd be lying if I said we had an easy time of it. Our neighbors in Wales mainly yelled at their twins when they were using the lawnmower. We could not understand this until we had toddlers who were on the go all the time, constantly getting into things no matter how carefully we child-proofed the house.

We had friends who almost never raised their voices when dealing with their little boy. Believe it or not, their son was worse behaved than our youngest, even given such a gentle upbringing. We found this amazing, but tremendously reassuring. Now, their son is a remarkably well-behaved young man. And our daughters, for all our yelling, are generally as good as gold. But we have never, EVER, said anything remotely like "I wish you were never born." It saddens me that you ever had to hear that. I can imagine that my parents THOUGHT it a few times, but somehow resisted the urge to say it.

Some people do not learn from their own dreadful experiences. You sound as though you have; as though you will be one of the people who profits from having had a less than perfect example. But whenever your little girl goes through her rebellion -- and all children MUST do this to some extent -- do try and remember this post!

debra said...

The people who give the most advice about child rearing seem to be those without children, it seems. #1 daughter was also colicky--she had some health issues as a newborn. She also didn't read the book that said that newborns sleep 20 hours/day.
#2 daughter had 2 speeds: fast and sleeping. They are now almost 20 and 16.
the thing about parenting, it seems, is that we all hav to figure it out by ourselves. It is truly OTJ training. Thanks fora thoughtful post, Mary.

Carolie said...

Happy birthday to Eldest Daughter, happy anniversary of the End of Your (Parental) Innocense, and congratulations to you and your husband for allowing her to live to see her seventeenth birthday!

Of course, when *I* have children, they will be different. No, I don't have children yet, but I just know this. Why do you ask?

Stop laughing. I mean it. Get off the floor and stop laughing!

Carolie said...

p.s. -- ack, I meant innocence!

Ello said...

Babies are so sweet. They poop, they eat. They cry and are usually easily comforted. They don't sass you back or roll their eyes. sigh. Babies are so sweet.

The Quoibler said...

I guess I should be happy that our son had raging colic for the first six months or so. That meant no sleep, no dillusions of the "perfect" infant.

Everyone talks about the terrible twos, but when we got there, it was LOVELY! :) The view is much better when you start at the bottom. I actually feel a little sorry for parents who start at the top and work their way down.


Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I had my children fairly late, and I was one of those people who had strong opinions about raising children before I had own. I still remember how patiently my friends with children listened to my nonsense and I am awed by their generous understanding. I try to respond the same way, but it isn't always easy. You are so right about the OTJ training! One of the pieces of advice I intend to give to the people downstairs is to ignore all the advice they are bound to get and play it by ear whenever possible.

Carolie -- Actually, I was laughing so hard I never noticed you had misspelled 'innocence'! (Just kidding!) Why is it that the people who are so careful about spelling always come back and correct themselves? I do this too -- it drives me wild to think that someone might actually think I believe the word I've misspelled is spelled that way!

In fact, every parent has a right -- almost an obligation -- to think that their kids will be different. This is what keeps people having babies, I reckon. Besides, they just might be different! I knew a Japanese woman who had her first baby at the age of 44. Her labor was short and virtually pain-free and you have never seen a sweeter baby. AND he turned out to be a docile toddler as well. Sure, it's like Las Vegas odds, but still -- it could happen!

Ello -- I am almost fanatical about babies. If someone on the street walked up to me and gave me her baby, I'd probably take it. Babies don't diss you, they generally eat everything you give them, and they make outlandish faces that crack you up. And though they are beguilingly honest, they never tell you that you're not cool. Sigh. I love babies...

Angelique -- You are right: starting off with a colicky baby who keeps you up at night crying is a great start because it makes you so grateful when things improve. I have never enjoyed six hours of sleep more than the first six hours I finally got after our eldest FINALLY slept through the night. Pure bliss!

I envy you not having had the terrible twos with your son, though. Our youngest's terrible twos lasted until she was almost nine.

-eve- said...

Your post reminded me of the seriousness of child-raising (so I went and thrashed it out with a potential partner.... and really, there are so many issues to consider! Like you said... the teenage years will be a hard time. Although, it's a little premature for me to be worrying, maybe! ;-) Never hurts to be prepared, though :-)

Tabitha said...

This post had me laughing out loud, because it's so true!! My boys are about to turn 3 and 5 (their birthdays are four days apart, and NO we didn't plan it that way). They've gone through so many different phases in these short years that I'm almost afraid of what I'll see come teenage years!

I've basically resigned myself to teaching them responsibility as best I can, then hoping and praying that they think to USE it when necessary. But I might be too optimistic...we'll just have to wait and see, I guess. :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

If you (and your kids) survive the "teen years", it starts just getting better and better. We're spending 10 days in Hawaii courtesy of one of the offspring.

yeah Ok, so we have to help watch the grand kid while we're here... big deal! We can't wait to for him to become a teen so we can savor the payback our kids will get for what they did to US!! :)

A Paperback Writer said...

I live in Utah, the maternity capital of the world.
However, some people have a sense of humor still. I have seen the bumper sticker that says: teenagers: the reason why some animals eat their young.
And although I am not a mother, I am more than willing to listen to parents who are astounded at what their formerly sweet children turn into once the hormones kick into gear. I smile and nod a lot -- unless they tell me their child is different and will NEVER become like the others. Then I tell them not to speak too soon.

Mary Witzl said...

Eve -- I don't think it is too early to start preparing. A good friend of mine in Japan, a mother of five, used to mentor young couples who planned to get married, through the Catholic Church. She and her husband talked them through various scenarios and she said they always looked a little glazed afterwards. Nothing entirely prepares you for the experience of being a parent, but forewarned is forearmed!

Tabitha -- You did well to have your kids so close together: you might be able to get away with baking only one cake! One of my blogging buddies, Sam, has two children AND a husband all born on the same day. Now that's planning!

Sometimes I despair that my kids haven't learned a thing from me in terms of becoming responsible. Then some stranger tells me that I have the finest, most respectful, friendly children in town and once I've picked myself off the ground I can bask in the knowledge that at least they behave themselves AWAY from home.

Robert -- You get a free ten-day holiday in Hawaii AND the fun of looking after your grandkid? That's a win-win situation, and congratulations on a job well done!

As for the payback thing, believe me, I savor the idea of teenage grandkids whenever my beautifully groomed, well-rested, well-fed eldest gives overworked, unpaid me a scornful look when I suggest that she puts away her laundry.

APW -- You have got to write a book with that opening sentence! Honestly, that's as good as Bill Bryson's first line about coming from Des Moines!

I think we all go through a honeymoon phase with our children. I certainly did -- and planning the honeymoon, I felt even more starry-eyed and idealistic. But our children are like us: only human. We owe it to them to love them as well and as wisely as we can once the stuff hits the fan. You are very good to hear parents out, you know. A lot of teachers have no time for this sort of thing.

Kim Ayres said...

I'm afraid I've become one of those who smiles and nods knowingly, while at the same time wondering how anyone can complain of having as many as 2 kids to cope with.

Having only 2 seems so damn easy, but then that's from the perspective of someone who used to have 5 in the house ranging from nappies through to university drop out via teenage angst all at the same time.

Now the older 3 have all left home, it seems so peaceful and easy having 2.

It's all a case of what you're used to and what you're comparing with :)

Natalie said...

As with most major life events, nothing can prepare you for parenting. When parents-to-be ask me what it's like to be a mom, I always say the same thing: It's more joy and more work than I'd ever imagined.

Happy Belated Birthday to your daughter, and Happy 17th Parenting Anniversary to you and your husband!

Charles Gramlich said...

What a great post. Reminds me so much of my boy, who is 20 now. He "was" a good baby and still kept us up. No matter how placid a baby is he or she will still go through teething and potty training and get ill. But even though my son has given me his share of worry I wouldn't trade it for anything. I love being a father.

The Anti-Wife said...

Parents have my undying admiration. I don't know how you do it. I love my dog!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- You've heard that story about the man who complained his house was too crowded, right? His rabbi instructed him to move in his cow, then his chickens, then his goat -- and so on. Then he had him move each animal out, one by one and hey presto, the man's problems were solved: his house was spacious. I reckon you started parenting with the full house, so of course two seems easy!

Natalie -- You are so right: nothing prepares you for parenthood. When I was a teenager, I volunteered in a pediatric ward for two years. Later I became a very busy and popular babysitter, then I worked in a child care center, caring for babies and toddlers. All these experiences assured me that I was truly prepared for motherhood. I cringe to remember how times I told people this.

Charles -- We had one of those 'good' babies too. I remember what a shock it was to hear the nurses and midwives at the hospital praise mine for being good when she was making enough noise for 50 babies. I suddenly had a glimpse of an idea of what we'd gotten ourselves into.

Anti-wife -- Motherhood comes with a convenient dose of insanity. Dogs don't diss you and sass you back, so in many respects, you've made a wise choice. I have a sister whose cats are very much her children. She pities me, and sometimes I pity myself...