The par­ent trap

All the com­plain­ing left new mom Jen­nie Yabroff un­pre­pared for over­whelm­ing hap­pi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com Jen­nie Yabroff is a free­lance writer and editor in New York.

Moms and dads, stop act­ing like your chil­dren are op­press­ing you.

When my daugh­ter was 5 months old, we went to visit my hus­band’s fam­ily. A cousin shifted my daugh­ter into her arms, and we gazed down atmy baby’s sea storm eyes, her chick’s fluff of hair. “She’s beau­ti­ful,” the cousin said. “Don’t you just want to throw her out the win­dow some­times?”

In fact, I did not want to throw my daugh­ter out the win­dow — at least, not yet — but in those days, I was con­fronted with vari­a­tions on the cousin’s ques­tion so of­ten, I be­gan to worry about my lack of any im­pulses to de­fen­es­trate my child. “You spend the first year wait­ing for them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives wish­ing they’d sit down and shut up,” said the in­struc­tor at Mommy and Me yoga. A friend I hadn’t spo­ken to in a decade e-mailed ad­vis­ing me not to be “a mar­tyr” tomy child. My hus­band and I went to a first birth­day party to which another guest, a fa­ther of two, brought as a gift a bot­tle of whiskey.

The cur­rent lin­gua franca of par­ent­hood is a rue­ful sigh, a sotto voce ex­ple­tive and a des­per­ate grab for a strong drink. My Face­book feed is a stream of re­posted stud­ies claim­ing that hav­ing a child is more stress­ful than di­vorce, un­em­ploy­ment or even the death of a loved one, and links to satiric es­says in which fraz­zled moth­ers fan­ta­size about do­ing co­caine to make it through a day at the play­ground. Hun­dreds of “bad mommy” blog­gers pa­rade their daily par­ent­ing “fails,” such as hid­ing in the bath­room with a bot­tle of Chardon­nay dur­ing home­work hour. On the show “Louie,” Louis C.K. pa­tiently brushes his daugh­ter’s teeth, then flips her off be­hind her back. A bur­geon­ing genre of anti-moth­er­hood mem­oirs has emerged, in­clud­ing Naomi Wolf’s “Mis­con­cep­tions,” Ayelet Wald­man’s “Bad Mother” and Rachel Cusk’s “A Life’s Work.” Even con­tem­po­rary books for chil­dren are writ­ten with a wink and a sym­pa­thetic eye-roll to­ward their har­ried, hap­less par­ents, whose red-faced, tufty-haired, sin­gle-toothed brats capri­ciously re­ject meals, boy­cott bed­time and leak from both ends si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Ac­cord­ingly, when I got preg­nant, I ex­pected the worst. Sleep de­pri­va­tion, cry­ing jags, the con­vic­tion that my body had been re­placed by an in­flat­able pool half-filled with warm Jell-O: I was ready. But no one had pre­pared me to fall in love with my baby, and when I did, it scared the hell out of me.

I loved my hus­band. I loved our cat. In fact, I loved our cat so much that be­fore my daugh­ter ar­rived, I told my­self that if I could man­age to love her al­most as much as the cat, she would prob­a­bly turn out okay. And then she was born, and I was sucked down in a gasp and swoon of ten­der­ness more fierce than any­thing I’d known. She would put her head on my shoul­der and sigh, and I would throb with a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion that was both flood and ache. The top of her head smelled like flow­ers and honey and sun­shine — or so I be­lieved, un­til I asked a friend what she thought it smelled like, and she took a whiff and said, “Se­bum.”

I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d been am­bushed by parental love. Even my most vo­cif­er­ously ex­as­per­ated Face­book friend’s sar­donic rants about her “crack­head” 2-yearold were in­ter­spersed with pic­tures of the crack­head’s first day of preschool and the crack­head dressed as a bunny for Hal­loween. Im­ages of love-drunk moth­ers gaz­ing at cookie-sweet in­fants sell ev­ery­thing from for­mula to in­vest­ment plans, need­ing no words to state the ob­vi­ous: There is no greater love. But I needed words. I needed a way to talk about this ter­ri­fy­ing, in­tox­i­cat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that wasn’t sappy or cliche; that didn’t feel un­fash­ion­able and em­bar­rass­ing; that was hon­est and true and help­ful, rather than boast­ful or false. As a friend sniped as we watched the ag­gres­sively cheer­ful mother of four(!) boys(!) nav­i­gate her dou­ble-wide stroller through the park: “She’s in so much de­nial about how much pain she’s in.”

Fear­ing that I, too, would be seen as delu­sional, or sim­ply un­cool, if I told the truth, I stuck to the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive of re­sent­ment and fa­tigue, of post-child­birth com­plaints and de­tailed analy­ses of in­fant di­ges­tive sys­tems. And yes, there was tremen­dous com­fort in shar­ing sto­ries from the trenches. Some days the only thing that stanched the hys­ter­i­cal cry­ing jags was know­ing that be­ing forced to fash­ion a di­a­per out of a plas­tic bag would make a great story formy mom friends, who, I knew, loved their ba­bies just as fe­ro­ciously as I loved mine. It wasn’t that I thought I was alone in this emo­tion — it was that I lis­tened, in vain, for its echo in the cho­rus of com­plaint. Su­tures would heal. Poop would sort it­self out. What I re­ally wanted to know was, what to do with all this love? My daugh­ter seemed too small to re­ceive it all. She couldn’t even bear the weight of her own head.

Why is it so easy to joke about want­ing to mur­der your child and so hard to talk about wor­ry­ing you might ac­tu­ally die of love? Maybe it’s a hard-wired su­per­sti­tion that if we pub­licly ex­press our de­light at our chil­dren, the gods will hear us and smite us for our pride. Maybe all happy fam­i­lies re­ally are alike. Or, as Jen­nifer Se­nior de­scribes in her book “All Joy and No Fun,” it’s eas­ier to find the words for the tough stuff: “The vo­cab­u­lary for ag­gra­va­tion is large. The vo­cab­u­lary for tran­scen­dence is more elu­sive.” We have a thou­sand words for sleep de­pri­va­tion but a paucity of terms to de­scribe that hour, just af­ter dawn, when your child has got­ten in your bed and is sleep­ing next to you, one arm flung over her head, her breath some­where be­tween a snore and a purr.

Su­tures would heal. Poop would sort it­self out. What I re­ally wanted to know was, what to do with all this love?

Much of the daily rou­tine of car­ing for a small per­son is low-stakes. My daugh­ter and I share a bagel. At the pet store, she tells the fish she is happy to see them again. The only way to trans­form these mun­dane events into anec­dotes, which can then be strung to­gether into a nar­ra­tive, is to neu­roti­cize them. So I em­pha­size frus­tra­tion, em­broi­der calamity. Our daugh­ter stick­ing her hand in the tank to “pet” the fish, then scoop­ing her wet hands into the bin of bird food while I shriek at her to stop, ag­i­tat­ing the rab­bits, which start bang­ing in their cages . . . now we’re get­ting close to a story.

I tell this story to my hus­band when he comes home at night, hop­ing to make him laugh. I tell this story to un­der­score how hard this job is, how poorly I am ex­e­cut­ing it, how ut­terly I amat the mercy of a three-foot tyrant in sparkly tights. I tell it to re­as­sure him that I am still the sar­cas­tic, ironic per­son he mar­ried, that moth­er­hood has not made me soft-headed and moon-eyed, li­able to weep at a Di­a­pers.com com­mer­cial (though I do). I tell it to prac­tice what I will say to the other moms at Satur­day morn­ing gym­nas­tics, where we stand around with our puffy eyes and take­out cof­fees, trad­ing pol­ished com­plaints about our un­grate­ful, ill-tem­pered lit­tle mon­sters, ad­di­tions to the canon of sto­ries of par­ent­hood as the worst thing that can hap­pen to a min­i­mally self-aware per­son other than not hav­ing kids at all.

The joy of par­ent­hood is not a story; it has no plot. It is a se­ries of mo­ments, un­spo­ken. At the park, a fa­ther swoops up his son and kisses the top of his head in a sin­gle, flow­ing ges­ture. At the pizza place, a mother and daugh­ter share an af­ter-school slice, the daugh­ter wig­gling on her chair, wav­ing her hands, the mother lis­ten­ing, smil­ing. Glimps­ing these mo­ments, I won­der what other, se­cret joys these par­ents are hid­ing, what furtive rap­tures they har­bor. I won­der if they, too, some­times wish there were more words to bridge the public story of be­ing ex­as­per­ated by your off­spring to the point of de­fen­es­tra­tion, and the pro­foundly in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing a tiny pair of hands reach in­side your ribs and wrench your heart open like a stuck win­dow. I haven’t yet found away to ask. I haven’t yet found a story to tell of this: On­the way home from the pet store, my daugh­ter held my hand for three whole blocks, not just the in­ter­sec­tions. The top of her head still smells like honey.

GUIDO MI­ETH/GETTY IM­AGES

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