We are back from holidays and I am absolutely exhausted. It was clear from the beginning that the objective of our holidays was to maximise Johnny’s pleasure and form some good memories that will accompany him into adulthood. Johnny is nearly five years old. The little one is only seven months old and thus happy just being around us; no particular fanfare is needed for her pleasure. Our holidays consisted of a week in the mountains at Sunshine’s village and a week by the sea for Johnny to enjoy the Cypriot summer. If there is a mental image to summarise our holidays, is me carrying kids and their ever increasing gear, spending hours under the sun entertaining Johnny, while Sunshine trying to navigate rest and nap times, as well as figuring out what to feed them. We tried to mitigate all these by being strategic with the location of the hotel we booked, but still, it takes quite a lot of effort to care for two kids in the middle of the Mediterranean summer.
Our experience is by no means unique. We are at an age where most people around us are having their first or second child. All of them seem to share feelings of exhaustion and being fed up. There is a lot of non-verbal communication among us new-ish parents, notably in the form of sympathy glances while chasing kids around. If I had to put words to it, it would be something like this: “the situation at the moment is rather shit, I know, I realise what you’re going through, I am experiencing the same unpleasant experience, let’s all try to be patient and do what needs to be done while wishing for better days”. Which raises the question: is having children enjoyable? Well, it’s enjoyable but not always fun. I would even dare say that, for the most part, it is not fun. Ideally, the pleasurable moments are such that fuel everything else; which is, however, not always the case, or at least doesn’t look to be the case during those moments of high exhaustion, which lately seem to be our default mode of operation.
I know and accept that we chose to have children and that we knew beforehand that it would not be easy sailing. Which is precisely why there’s not much point in complaining. But some room for honesty wouldn’t hurt, especially as there is a taboo around acknowledging difficult periods parents experience. It’s often that people—recipients of our complaints—point at the super cute infant, the uncontrollable toddler or the ever-energised five year old at a moment when the aforementioned disaster-makers are calm, saying that it can’t be that bad, essentially dismissing the parents’ experiences. Or, in other cases, they assume that our remarks imply that the child is in some way “bad/naughty/whatever”, with their instinctive reaction being to dismiss parents’ experiences in order to defend the child’s honour.
The obvious thing to say is that there are no “good” or “bad” children. Children tend to have varying levels of energy but they are largely the product of their social environment and of the general developmental traits of their age. A toddler on a tantrum or an infant waking up every couple of hours is nothing special. It is what it is. It has no bearing, one way or another, on the child’s character or innate “goodness”. In fact, if one is compelled to blame someone for children who exhibit behaviours uncharacteristic for their age, then they would have to look at the parents rather than reach arbitrary conclusions about the innate “goodness” or “badness” of any child. Generally, though, it’s none of their business and they should simply keep their thoughts to themselves.
That said, the typical behaviours associated with each age are in themselves enough to push parents to their limits. The last thing these parents need is someone dismissing them. They may be exaggerating, they may be, at times, overly dramatic; nonetheless, what they are describing is an accurate depiction of their feelings and their perceived reality at that specific moment. That reality might change once they get some sleep and a little personal time, which is not to say that what they were feeling at a moment of extreme tiredness warrants third-party dismissal.
Long story short, try to listen to people when they are feeling exhausted and refrain from challenging them when they are low. If you really want to help, maybe go play with their kids for fifteen minutes in order to give them a chance to go to the toilet, take a shower, read a few pages from their book, or simply find time to put laundry and do the dishes. And most of all, don’t expect parents to caveat each complaint with proclamations of how much they love their children and appreciate parenthood. Rest assured that in their majority, mentally healthy parents love and care for their children. This is, after all, how we evolved as a species; there is no need to expect an affirmation of these deeply biologically entrenched instincts subsequently to every negative remark. Thinking about it, the “try not to be an arsehole” mantra is a good general life advice and applies perfectly to this situation as well as many others.
This is part of a series of entries titled Fatherhood Diaries where I record thoughts on life as a new dad. Click here for all the Fatherhood Diaries.