I’ve been in California the past two weeks, helping my sister manage her two daughters: a two-year old girl and a 1-month old infant.
My brother-in-law got an email from a friend inviting him to a bachelor party in Las Vegas. My sister did her best impersonation of Suzy from Curb Your Enthusiasm when she found out:
HUSBAND: Can I go?
SISTER: Well, how long is it?
HUSBAND: Friday night through Sunday.
SISTER: FRIDAY NIGHT THROUGH SUNDAY?!!! DID YOU SAY FRIDAY NIGHT THROUGH SUNDAY?!!! PLEASE, REPEAT YOURSELF, BECAUSE I THINK I JUST HEARD YOU SAY FRIDAY NIGHT THROUGH SUNDAY!!!!
HUSBAND: Uh, yeah. Friday night through Sunday.
SISTER: WHY DON’T YOU JUST KILL ME!!??? WHY DON’T YOU JUST PUT A GUN TO MY HEAD AND PULL THE TRIGGER, ______???!!!!!
I won’t get into it any more—standard stuff for married people with young kids, I think.
The last week’s been interesting, though. Hanging out at children’s parks, kiddy concerts at the mall. Upper-middle class West Los Angeles toddlers, being wheeled around on high-tech strollers where the baby-seat just clicks in with one motion—crib to car to stroller in the snap of a finger! Seriously, the children all look sort of, I don’t know…they sort of look like they work out. No chubby ones in the bunch, immaculately groomed, great hair, hypo-allergenic sunscreen lathered smoothly into their skin. The moms all have their packs with their wet-naps and bottles and crackers and extra diapers ready. I don’t think any of these children are watching eight hours of t.v. a day gorging themselves on Cheetos. (My sister lets the two-year old get 15 minutes of Mickey’s Club House on t.v. a day, max, and that’s only when she absolutely needs to keep her occupied. Side note: Mickey’s Club House is an excellent show—literally transfixing. I could probably watch the whole season straight through without getting off the couch. I may DVR it when I get home).
I can’t remember my very early years too well, but I’m pretty sure that by the time I was four or five my dad was having at least two or three beers a night—I remember smelling it on his breath when he played with me. And when he got together with his friends on the weekends (his church parish friends), I mean, forget it—it was basically the way they portray Irish weddings in movies.
I asked my sister what she’d do if she found out her husband was going to the bar after work every day.
SISTER: I’d kill him.
ME: You do remember how we were raised, right? I think dad was pretty close to drunk on regular occasions.
SISTER: Times are a—changin.’ (Okay, she actually said, ‘Different times.’ It’s the tone I’m trying to recreate.)
What I left unsaid was that, IMO, both of us turned out okay.
My generation seems to be splitting hard on the child-raising thing: either going totally bonkoes over it like my sister, or avoiding it like the plague. I’m always surprised at the number of people who are unsure whether they want children at all. I’ve made zero effort towards starting the process for myself (I guess it would begin with having a girlfriend, convincing her not to dump me for a couple of years, then marry me, etc….), but I absolutely intend to have children, because I am terrified of what will happen to me in my old age. (This may seem like a horribly selfish reason to have children, and it is, but pragmatically it isn’t horrible—I have to treat them decently to have any hope that they will come to the nursing home forty years down the line, and listen patiently while I complain about the nurses stealing my things)
Is it horrible for me to think that you are not necessarily an irresponsible and evil person if you do not totally sacrifice yourself for the betterment of your children? That is somewhat the mindset of the upper-middle class now, isn’t it—what with everything that’s available today, everything that we know, how could you let go of any single opportunity to perfect your child? That idea is partially responsible for the fear many generation X-‘ers have towards child-rearing—the task seems Herculean (and possibly Sisyphean). We know how selfish and self-absorbed we are. We don’t trust ourselves.
But one thing I’m pretty sure of—when it comes to what your kids turn out like, some of it is just gonna be out of your hands. We can do a fairly good job of keeping them from being axe-murderers, but maybe that’s about it. For most single people it seems like life ends for their friends once they get married, and they roam the earth as zombie-moms once they have children. And absolutely the change is drastic and life-changing, as far as I can see. But while there may be a huge quantitative difference in just the sheer amount of time one must devote to making sure one’s baby eats and sleeps and gets its diapers changed and doesn’t fall down a well, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a qualitative difference. There are moms and dads who can talk to you exactly the way they talked to you before they had kids, except now they do it while changing a diaper instead of loafing on your couch playing Halo. Personally, I will admit that I do tend to get a little annoyed when a married person with kids suggests that I’m being irresponsible by not marrying and popping out a few myself–if it’s rude to ask about a couple’s plans for children, why isn’t it rude for someone to assume you are desperate to get married yourself?
So I guess what I’m saying is: almost all of us could stand to lighten up a little bit about the whole thing. Most of us will have children at some point. Some will not. And despite all of our best efforts, not all of our children will be shiny successful people–some may even have, God forbid, problems, or serious problems. When I first got to L.A. a week ago I was following my sister’s kid around like a hawk, with visions of horrible third degree stove burns, falls over balconies, broken bones, and screaming ambulances constantly repeating themselves in my mind. Tomorrow I’m going to hear her wake up at six in the morning and start babbling about doggies and squirrels like a crazy person, and I’m going to seriously consider cracking open a Budweiser to start the day.