Parenting for the child who owes you nothing

I have recently read Jessica Valenti’s “Why Have Kids” and I was in the midst of writing some thoughts on it when I stumbled across this piece about parenting teenagers. 

I brought the little dude into the office last week, and my (male) boss wanted to “have a cuddle”, but the little dude showed no signs of reciprocating the interest and held firmly to my arms. I wondered afterwards whether my boss expected me to pass him over anyway, which I didn’t. “Ah, I miss the baby stage” said my boss “just wait til they’re teenagers”. 

One of the themes of the article about teenagers is the loss of power over children when they reach adolescence and assert themselves. I look at the little dude though and he is already asserting himself as an individual; he has done since he was tiny. Even while they are totally dependant they seek autonomy. Part of the challenge of parenting a pre-verbal child is figuring out what they want, so you can respond to it. I look forward to a time when I can reason with him, when I can explain, when his wants aren’t so alien to me (current fascinations: the cat door, the compost bin, tubs with lids, cupboard doors, the air vent on the dehumidifier). I can make him do things with my bigger stronger smarter prowess, but I don’t like to treat him like an object, so I always try and explain things as well. This feels a bit ridiculous and veers into a monologue that acknowledges his lack of understanding “Wait just a minute darling, let’s stay still while I change your nappy, no rolling, aah goddamn it kid just stop wriggling for one bloody second, ah now there’s poo everywhere, look if you just stayed still this would all be over so much more quickly and then you could play with the tubs as much as you want!!”. 

Once, time distant, he was inside me and I was in complete control of his life. He would lean his heel against the side of my belly and I would feel and see the little lump from the outside, and I would push back against it “hey baby, move your foot, that’s not comfy”. Then he was born, and he was initially dependent on me for all sustenance. And he was immobile, we held him so gingerly, but we also left him on a blanket on the floor and he would stay there, just looking. Now if I put him down on the ground while I peg out the washing he walks over to the apple tree and triumphantly picks a low hanging fruit and starts to eat it, joyful in his independence, already. He’s like a miniature grown-up says my husband. He’s just a really small person. 

There is a quote in the article that gave me great pause:

Their [the teenage girls] mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When people say that parenting is a thankless endeavour, this is what I think of. What if you do all this work raising a kid and then they don’t even like you? Valenti in “Why Have Kids” picks apart the trope of parenting as the “hardest/most important job in the world” – it’s not a job, she says, it is a relationship. Yes, but. We have hopes for our relationships with our children, but we can expect nothing. 

Those of us who have good relationships with our own parents might breezily assume that we will sail through the teenage years because after all, surely our kids will like us? We’ll be the cool parents. And I re-read the paragraphs in that quote and I know it speaks to something that has been in the back of my mind since becoming a mother, what sort of mother will he want when he is an adult? Your children don’t owe you a damn, one thing about good relationships is that you can’t force them. 

My parents are in Tokyo. They are on their way to visit my brother in Spain. When they booked their flights I felt somewhat envious, and also a little bit bereft – what if while they’re gone we get sick or something and they’re not here to help out? All grown up with a baby of my own and still, there’s that sense of preferring my parents to be on hand just in case I need them. I like to think I’d be there for them too if they needed me, but last year while we were still getting the hang of parenthood the support definitely mainly flowed from them to me. When I was sick earlier in the year my dad took the little dude to the supermarket and let me have a rest. My mum comes round after work sometimes, and it is always so nice hanging out, for both me and the little dude. She is worried that he’ll forget her while she’s away. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a mother or father who was retired, or had never been in paid work, and was always available for caregiving of the grandkids – like my grandmother was for me. On the other hand, what if Mr Daddy and I never have grandchildren – we could go to Spain for more than six weeks, we could do whatever we want. You just never know, that’s the thing. You can’t have any expectations of the future. It doesn’t work like that.  

This means also that it is foolish to think in terms of a future pay-off for the hard bits of early-years parenting. Parenting requires you to give so much and in so many ways that I think it is tempting, especially for mothers, to just give in to the giving. But children don’t ask for that and they won’t necessarily thank you later for giving over your life to them: they might look at you with disdain, you might bore them to tears, they might think the very things that you saw as worthy sacrifices make you an insufferable presence. Valenti terms this “total motherhood”, the idea that motherhood becomes one’s whole identity and anything you do for yourself is suspect, that you should be all mother all the time. She has a great critique of this – particularly around the idea of marginal effort vs the benefit the child perceives. Her recommendation is that we get better at setting up boundaries, creating space to look after our own interests. I think this is very important. I would add though that it is also important to give in a generous spirit, and respectfully as well, recognising that this child does need you for many things – and one of those things is to teach by example the value of unconditional kindness.