Our friends came over for dinner the other day and our kids went bananas. In their best “HELLO STRANGERS LOOK AT US” routine, our darling children amped up the noise level about 1,000 notches past acceptable dinner-talk decibels, and I just wanted to apologize the entire time. These friends are about to have their first baby, so they’re floating around in that dreamy space where the newly set-up nursery is a perfect snapshot of what you imagine parenthood to look like: lace dresses hung perfectly in the closet, diapers stacked neatly in a drawer, story books still straight and shiny lining a shelf. And of course, the crib dressed in fresh linens that won’t even be touched for months after the baby comes, because babies only sleep in your arms or their swing or the running car, it turns out.
So there sat our friends, the ones who weren’t even sure they ever wanted kids, now pregnant and excited, and suffering through dinner with a one year old who eats with his whole body and a two year old who never, ever, ever stops talking. I wanted to apologize, but I also wanted to say “This isn’t all of it, I promise!” Because it’s true. Yes: Sometimes parenthood is chocolate frosting smeared thick into someone’s belly button. And, yes: Sometimes parenthood is tersely telling someone that if they ask about the chocolate cake on the counter one. more. time. They will not be allowed to eat it at all. Sometimes (a lot of times) parenthood is a cacophony of noise and chaos that makes you want to buy a pair of earmuffs and go hide under your covers until you can pretend to be sad that they grew up and moved out. Just today, after a particularly whiny morning, I gave my kids their lunch and then fell face first onto my bed so I could scream/moan by myself into the pillow for a few minutes.
But truly, my dear friends- parenthood is so much more than that.
Hey you- You precious ones with a baby on the way?
Hey you, over there, the one with the kids who fight and yell all the live long day?
And you, sweet friend, with the child who struggles to speak and whose silence screams at you?
If we listen closely enough, sometimes all that stuff isn’t noise at all. Sometimes parenthood is the perfect chord played in the most interesting rhythm and then suddenly the air is filled with music, a tune that sweeps you away like a symphony or a Queen ballad, full and robust and intangible.
Like when I lean over to kiss Clara goodnight and she touches the silk of my sleeve in reverence, then whispers, “I love your pretty robe. I love you so much, Mama.” Or the look on Sammy’s face every single morning when he wakes up, holds my face in his chubby hands and says with wonder, “Mama. Mama!” Like he just can’t believe that I am his.
These best parts of parenthood are so secret, so unknowable to the outside world. Like a hiker coming across the silent deer in the stream, his boots breaking the path of sticks beneath him and scaring the deer away: No one can ever know the true goodness of what it it is to parent your children. It’s impossible to witness because a foreign presence disturbs the situation, the camera shutter of strange eyes rendering the tableau disturbed. Only Sam and I can know the sweetness of our children’s absolute trust, their bubbling delight that shines a light in our home. Too bad, because that’s the stuff that matters. That’s the marrow to this family skeleton, the foundation of the house we are building, the secret spice to our soup. It’s what makes all of the madness worth the effort. It’s what pushes our failures and exhaustion to the tiny place they belong, the corner they are meant to occupy yet so often escape. This light, this focus point of a love that startles the heart, is so particular to each family and so very impossible to conceive from the outside.
I am pretty much the worst when it comes to trying to convince people to have kids, or to have more kids. I know this is annoying, and probably intrusive (totally intrusive), but I can’t help it. I’ve never seen someone regret a baby, that’s for sure, and I think big families are best. But I know that some families just don’t want kids, or more kids, or can’t bear the pain of trying to be parents to any more people. Because it is hard. And as much as I want to explain how amazing it is to raise a child, or to have lots of siblings you love and respect, there’s nothing I can say to describe any of it. It’s private. It’s unknowable. It’s a secret that comes in those moments of pure melody, when even the hard parts line up to make sense, and the great parts make you sing, sing, sing.
So OK OK I’ll stop trying. For today at least. I’ll let you live your life and I’ll live mine and when you say you don’t want kids, I’ll swallow my arguments. When you get pregnant and turn into those annoying parents who think their baby is the best that has ever existed, I’ll nod in agreement (and solidarity). And when I say I want a bunch more babies, you can mock all you want, I know it’s insane. But I won’t listen. Because there’s a song louder than all the arguments in the world, and it’s a great one, and my heart hums with it all day long.