I’ve seen it so many times. A young couple announces they’ve decided not to have kids, and the comments start.
“You’re missing out.”
“You’ll never know love until you love a child.”
“Wow, that’s selfish.”
Or…maybe an exhausted friend who has little kids will reply:
“Yes! Go live your life! Travel! Do all the things!”
Or, “Great! You’ll get to have a conversation without interruption – forever!”
I’ve observed versions of this exchange over the years. And, being a writer prone to far too much contemplation, I’ve often wondered how to explain what it’s really like to be a mom.
How should I describe the experience to a friend who might be on the fence about parenthood? How can I say what this role, this lifetime job, is really like?
People have tried in the past, sure.
“It’s like having your heart walk around outside of your body.”
Ok, but I don’t think that quite captures it.
“You don’t realize how much you can love someone until you have a child.”
But, how can you explain why it’s a different love to someone who has experienced deep love, who has chosen a life partner because of love?
I also find the “keeping it real” comments unhelpful.
“Kids are assholes, but I love mine to death.”
Mmm. Not descriptive enough.
“Well, if you want to walk into a nursery with poop smeared on the walls, be a parent!”
Ok this one is true.
But it’s still not the whole picture.
I can’t speak for a globe full of mothers, but if I had to put it into words what my own experience has been like, here’s what I’d say:
It’s true that loving a child is a very intense form of love. It about ten levels up from how you love your parents or your spouse. For some moms, this love hits right away. For others, it builds slowly.
A love this powerful often takes time for the ropes to reach each other and touch and then tie.
But when it happens, when this love bores into your bones, you might astound yourself that you were ever capable of a feeling so profound.
And perhaps this is what well-meaning, but annoying, parents mean when they tell someone, “You don’t know what love is until you have a child!”
But, they’re leaving a part out.
Here’s the thing.
You don’t get to have that level of love without pain.
Sometimes, it hurts so much to love this much you can’t breathe.
The crippling anxiety of raising my two love bombs and keeping them safe often brings me to my knees.
How can you hate a morning so much because of the endless demands: Apple juice! Jelly! Gloves! Permission forms! — but at the same time you would quite willingly throw yourself in front of a bus if it would save them?
How can you lose your temper and your patience and your sanity and wish you could get into a car and just drive away —- but then you don’t. No, you stand there at night in their room watching them breathe, overwhelmed by their peacefulness, overwhelmed that they’ll wake up and love you all over again anyway.
When my twins walked into kindergarten, jumping out of the car and bounding their way into school, the pain was so sharp, so deep, that it would have felt better to pour a pot of boiling water on my body. How could I conceive of trusting another human with them knowing full well it is impossible for someone to love them like I do?
And, when one of them cried because no one would play with them at recess, every cell of my body wanted to go to recess with them the next day and play as much magic, make believe kitties as my 32 year old self could muster. But I can’t. And other parents can’t. Because we also have to feel the pain of them learning the pain of being human.
Just when you think it was too much to feel already, far too hard for your body to handle, your own pain has to double as you watch them start to experience it too. When they fall at the playground. The first time they get stitches. Their first broken heart. You have to watch and absorb all of it, every sharp prick of feelings drilling into your bones, staying there forever.
And, I think what makes the experience of parenthood all the more challenging is how the joy and pain are not linear. There is no pattern. If we all knew that one day would be full of joy and the next pain and then back and forth, perhaps we could find unique ways to cope with that.
But that’s not how it works.
You get the sheer elation.
You get to smell the tops of the heads, which, for the record, is like nectar, the ropes between you knotting and tightening and looping as it connects you and brings you back day after day, night after night.
You get to receive a piece of paper that says, “ILOVE YM MAM” as they learn how to write.
You get to meet their eyes as they step off the bus, their faces breaking into full on cheese when they’ve identified you, their person, their safe place.
But the thought of losing them, of something happening to them, will make it hard to go about your normal life some days. The responsibility, the weight, the expectation – sometimes it feels otherworldly, like it should be impossible for an experience, a job, to be this hard, this excruciating.
Then there’s knowing you’ll fail at parenting sometimes, when you so deeply want to succeed. There’s the knowing that they’ll let you down and disappoint you just as you’ve disappointed them… and then having it not really matter anyway because you’d love them unconditionally regardless of what they say or do in this life.
Just the knowing can get you. All that knowing that another person can do anything and your love has no beginning and end. It puts you off center; any semblance of control you ever thought you had in this life now at the mercy of their beautiful faces.
And that sometimes doing the right thing and loving them fully and raising them to be great humans means that you have to actually choose the pain sometimes. It would be easy to ignore their bad behaviors or bad habits or bad friends and choose blissful ignorance, but you know that truly loving someone means having the hard conversations, the boundaries, the rules. Loving them means sometimes having to break their hearts, which rebounds as an aftershock and breaks yours.
It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of parenthood in a quick conversation with a friend, perhaps a friend who can’t decide if they want to have a family or just enjoy their spouse.
But if asked to put it succinctly, I would say: Having children brings joy – joy you won’t find anywhere else, with any other person, with any other experience.
But, you must know that with that joy comes pain, pain so powerful it can wake you up in the middle of a deep sleep.
The thing is, you can’t have one without the other. And, for that reason, I respect anyone who chooses to live their lives without it. There is no wrong or right choice. There’s just your selection of life experiences. Which do you want to have? Which can you or can’t you live without?
As for me, I’m just spilling the words into my blog while stealing glances at the picture of my two smiling kids. As I write, I’m simultaneously missing them while also being incredibly grateful for these few hours I can put fingers to the keyboard while they’re in school.
The duality of writing this while missing them hasn’t escaped me.
I know I can’t have one without the other.