AC­TU­ALLY, HE IS THE MES­SIAH

Per­fec­tion­ism and neu­ro­sis are the psy­cho­log­i­cal off­spring of child-bear­ing. They can be both over­bear­ing and nor­mal

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Fwords ROM the out­side, the mad­ness looks like some­thing mod­ern par­ents do to them­selves. It looks like mar­tyr­dom, sel­f­righ­teous­ness, old-fash­ioned show­ing-off. They make such a big deal of it, from the minute they con­ceive.

Im­me­di­ately, they are re­pu­di­at­ing cat fae­ces and mer­cury, things the rest of us hardly ever eat any­way. They can’t just ab­stain from al­co­hol, they have to tell you end­lessly how much they are ab­stain­ing, how im­por­tant it is for the fu­ture of their prog­eny, how sac­ri­fi­cial it is of them, and yet, at the same time, in­cred­i­bly easy, of course. Their bug­gies cost more than a sec­ond-hand car, and they huff and glare at you if you get in their way.

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be in their way, be­cause th­ese bug­gies are also the size of a sec­ond-hand car. The world is in their way. They can’t just breast­feed be­cause they like it: it has to be a mat­ter of life and death. Ev­ery­thing is un­der­taken with this declam­a­tory de­fi­ance, as though it is only their su­pe­ri­or­ity, their learn­ing, their al­tru­ism, their strength, stand­ing be­tween their baby and the in­fi­nite threat the world wil­fully presents to it.

Who died and made them the keeper of the species? How has hu­man­ity man­aged to keep it­self alive this long with­out peo­ple be­ing so preen­ing and uptight about it? And then it gets worse.

When ju­nior has grad­u­ated to eat­ing food and sleep­ing nor­mally, as all an­i­mals are wont, his or her ev­ery wak­ing hour has to be filled with ed­u­ca­tion and im­prove­ment. His or her progress must be chanted con­stantly; the boasting is shame­less. All considerat­ions of mod­esty and sim­ple man­ners are in­stantly jet­ti­soned, in favour of telling near strangers that you think your five-year-old might have an ap­ti­tude for Man­darin.

Ev­ery hour must be dis­tended to con­tain more op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth. It looks weirdly un­nat­u­ral, light­less, this kind of par­ent­ing; I imag­ine it pro­duc­ing eti­o­lated chil­dren, their knowl­edge in­cred­i­bly long and thin.

How is it that par­ents man­aged per­fectly well be­fore — for cen­turies be­fore — with­out this laboured in­to­na­tion of ‘It’s the most im­por­tant job in the world’? It has never been any­thing more or less im­por­tant than it is right now.

The sow­ing of your ge­netic seed in the soil of the fu­ture has never felt less vi­tal than it does to­day. Ex­cept­ing a bracket of the English up­per class, no­body has ever wanted any­thing less than the best for their chil­dren; no­body has ever just shrugged their chil­dren off and not been that both­ered.

How do par­ents in the de­vel­op­ing world to­day man­age to raise chil­dren who, if they make it past cholera, be­come rounded adults with­out all that ex­per­tise? Why do to­day’s par­ents have to make such an almighty fuss about ev­ery­thing?

Then you get preg­nant, and the first thing you re­alise, be­fore — long be­fore — you have any con­cept of ‘baby’, is this: the per­fec­tion­ism and neu­ro­sis don’t come from you. They come from out­side.

I got preg­nant with my first child in 2007. It wasn’t a planned preg­nancy — you’re not al­lowed to say that when you have chil­dren; un­for­tu­nately, I al­ready said it be­fore he was born, so it’s a mat­ter of public record now.

That be­ing the case, I think it bears a bit of dis­cus­sion. You’re not al­lowed to say you didn’t plan your preg­nancy be­cause peo­ple as­sume that means you love your child less than some­one who did plan theirs.

Every­body who has ever had a baby knows this is rub­bish. An un­planned preg­nancy is not the same as an un­wanted preg­nancy any­way. But even an un­wanted preg­nancy will, un­in­ter­rupted, turn into a wanted child. That’s why adop­tion isn’t the easy al­ter­na­tive to abor­tion: your preg­nancy may have been an ac­ci­dent, but your baby is as des­per­ately loved as any­body else’s. Some peo­ple can con­cep­tu­alise their baby be­fore they meet it — and even love it be­fore they meet it — but many peo­ple can’t. I know I never did.

Then you have your baby, and you love him so much that you ba­si­cally think he’s the Mes­siah. In­deed, I think the whole na­tiv­ity story — Je­sus, the three kings, the don­keys, all of that — is just an ex­tended metaphor for that mo­ment of ‘dark magic’ (as the won­der­ful jour­nal­ist Ariel Levy de­scribed it) when you’re hit by the force of ma­ter­nity. I gen­uinely did think I’d just saved the world with my vagina. I was ex­pect­ing the shep­herds to ar­rive any minute. From The Mad­ness of Mod­ern Par­ent­ing by Zoe Wil­liams, pub­lished by Bite­back Pub­lish­ing, dis­trib­uted in Australia by NewSouth Books, $19.99.

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