Because I’m one of the first people ever to have fathered a child, I feel a heavy weight of responsibility to pass on wry anecdotes and unsolicited advice – just in case this “parenting” thing ever catches on with humanity at large.
1: No, parents really aren’t lying to you
Before having a child, every time I spoke to a parent they’d give a 20-minute diatribe about lack of sleep, tantrums, arguments about homework, mess, expense…followed by an unconvincing coda: “but it’s so wonderful – you’ll understand when you have kids.”
I detected a whiff of conspiracy. Did a shadowy figure emerge in every maternity ward, exhorting new parents to insist (in the face of all the evidence) that having children was fantastic? Or did parents just feel a need to tell themselves and everyone else that it was fantastic, to avoid admitting that they’d voluntarily (for the most part) screwed up their lives?
Turns out, no: having a child is exhausting and frustrating and annoying and boring and expensive…and it’s brilliant.
Here’s my best attempt at resolving this paradox.
When you’re child-free, you might spend your weekend going to watch your favourite football team, then going clubbing, then having a hungover game of Settlers of Catan the next day.
During the football match, you experience two moments of pure joy when you team scores. At the club, you have a few more when your favourite songs kick in and you dance like an idiot with your friends. The next day, you have a couple more when you…I don’t know, roll the dice in a way that’s beneficial for your farmer character? I’ve never played Settlers of Catan and I don’t know why I included it in this struggling metaphor.
As a parent, you might spend the first few hours of your weekend rocking a wailing child back to sleep, then having a spirited debate about why Cheerios aren’t for flinging at Mummy, then navigating a tense half hour trying to put on his coat and shoes and gloves so you can go out, then having to take them all off again because he’s done a poo.
To any non-parent, all those things sound terrible. To me now, they still sound terrible. Yet at various points during all those activities, your child will beam at you, or put his hand on your cheek, or gurgle something that you can convince yourself was “Daddy”. Add up those moments and multiply by the sheer intensity, and you’ll experience more joy than you would in the best child-free weekend ever.
2: Repeat after me: “It’s just a phase”
With kids, everything – good and bad – is a phase.
Waking up screaming in the night after previously sleeping through perfectly well is a phase. Saying “no” to everything (even when you get clever and try to trick them by saying “do you not want to eat your broccoli?”) is a phase. Refusing to eat anything that doesn’t have golden syrup on top of it is a phase. Playing delightedly with a tupperware and a spoon for half an hour while you have a little eye-close is a phase. Giving you huge hugs for no reason is a phase.
It’s not easy to do, but I’ve found that reminding myself of this in the moment is an effective way to enjoy parenthood more. The good things won’t last forever, so you’d better enjoy them. The bad things will be over soon too, so stop Googling whether boarding nurseries are a thing.
3: Employ extreme empathy
Toddlers spend an inordinate amount of time doing things that seem expertly calibrated to be as irritating and disruptive as possible. To cope with this, I’ve found it useful to deliberately cultivate an attitude of extreme empathy – rather than the far more natural and immediate reaction of impatience and exasperation.
After all, the world is a confusing and overwhelming place and they’ve had very little time to figure it out so far. I struggle with it a lot of the time, and I’ve got a 35 year head-start.
The noise made by banging a sippy cup against a restaurant table is fun – and wow, doing it seems to cause all these other people to turn towards me and scrunch up their eyebrows in an interesting way!
My parents encourage me to draw with crayons, so why did they just get angry when they saw me drawing on the wall?
By trying to see the world from his perspective (which is the definition of empathy), I find the really bloody annoying things he does less annoying – and instead, feel a responsibility to help him make sense of a confusing and inconsistent world as well as I can.
One of the toddler traits I found hardest to deal with was their trademark ludicrously OTT reactions to extremely minor events. It helped me access my empathy in these situations when I read that children live entirely in the present moment, because they don’t yet have the neural wiring to do otherwise.
So if a cup has fallen off the table or his sleeve is stuck over his hand, from his point of view everything in the world is terrible and will be forever – so his reaction is entirely appropriate.
I don’t always manage it, but I can sometimes use empathy to access his viewpoint in these situations so I can commiserate with him…while being grateful that the same mechanism is responsible for his complete, infectious joy when something good happens.