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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Parent trap

Before one decides to become a parent, I think one should stop and read a set of caveats--sort of like a "Buyer Beware" checklist. When it comes to starting a family, most people articulate it in terms of "having a baby" rather than "becoming a parent". The first brings with it images of a gurgling infant, blowing bubbles and sleeping quietly in a crib attired in frilly clothing, combined with the sense of touch-tender skin and baby-powder smells, all against a soft-focus backdrop in mysteriously appropriate pastel shades. The second--and most of us rarely pause to consider this before we jump into the decision--brings to mind sleepless nights, smelly diapers and a mound of washing,  school choices and adolescent trauma, with career and social life lurking somewhere in the distant background. No soft focus here. The lights are either harsh or throw cold, dark shadows.

Don't get me wrong. I've (clearing of throat here) loved the experience, despite having gone through all of the above. The point I'm trying to make is--while the first set of images a few of the second quickly get relegated to the stuff of nostalgia and photo albums, to be smiled over and laughed about, a large part of the second set just morphs into different forms of heartache over the years. And that's what nothing ever prepares you for.

From agonizing over why the baby refuses to stop crying to holding your own tears back when she falls off the swing and hurts her knee to worrying yourself sick when she's not home at the usual time to experiencing (several times magnified) her rejections and disappointments...it never ends. It's like you're living your own traumas and disappointments all over again, only this time you feel helpless because you're on the outside, watching helplessly while someone else is feeling all those feelings. You know, from the vantage point of age, that this will pass, and in the big picture of life, many things don't matter, but you remember only too keenly what it was like (and that nothing anyone says can change how you feel).

In a New Yorker article writer Salman Rushdie talks about the first few months of his going underground, and describes an evening of pure agony when he is unable to reach his 9-year-old son Zafar and begins to imagine the worst. Recalling Orwell's 1984,  he says, "The worst thing in the world is different for every individual. For Winston Smith, in Orwell's '1984', it was rats. For him, in a cold Welsh cottage, it was an unanswered phone call."

He goes on to describe the two hours of agonizing uncertainty when repeated phone calls yield no answer. This is in the first days after the fatwa was issued, when demonstrations against him and his book were at their peak, and it was feared that his family too may be under threat.

That's one part of it; the sense that you are no longer independent and your actions have consequences for others. Your decisions can no longer be made against a logic of individual cost-benefit. The other is that you become part of a bleeding hearts club, and the reasons for which your heart bleeds can range, as noted above, from a swing-fall scratch to a lost game and a missed opportunity to things far more serious and impossible to anticipate.

Becoming a parent also teaches you to appreciate your own parents much more. All those times when you didn't think to call when a party lasted an hour longer than you had asked permission for. Or when you shouted back "you don't understand!" --you could never know that a parent may not understand the specific reasons for your own heartbreak, but most might know how you feel.

Becoming a parent means becoming vulnerable for life.

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