ACTUALLY, HE IS THE MESSIAH
Perfectionism and neurosis are the psychological offspring of child-bearing. They can be both overbearing and normal
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.