“Do people who run marathons know that they don’t have to?” suggests a popular meme. To which I might add, “do people who have kids know that they’re no requirement?”
“You don’t get a prize” one of my running buddies says. She’s referring to training and racing and although, to be numbingly accurate, Dawn often does win her age group at any distance from 5K to the marathon; but her point is clear: instead of plodding endlessly throughout the seasons, there are any number of less painful endeavors than running—an un-anesthetized colonoscopy comes to mind—that “pay” better than running. Similarly, there are few extrinsic rewards for having kids. If you don’t enjoy it, why bother?
Insightful readers will already have noted blaring imperfections in the analogy between distance running and having kids. Yes, both activities involve waking up early on the weekends and innumerable unmentionable bodily fluids, but on a given day you can hang up your over-priced running shoes. Whereas having a kid who turns into a young adult who is actually off the payroll is a rarity and don’t even tell me that their smart phone bill and health insurance don’t count because your accountant and I both know different.
No, having kids means you’re in it “for the duration” as they used to say about the Second World War and before changing metaphors from running to global conflict, let’s note that there was no quarter asked or given in that event either. You have to enjoy your kids. Just like you have to enjoy training for the marathon. Because otherwise, what’s the point? Did you think your feet weren’t going to hurt at Mile 20? Did you think that you were going to give birth to one of those newfangled babies that doesn’t scream and poop and barf and cry when you had just gotten out of the shower and were looking forward to going out and now you have to change your previously clean shirt and what’s the point we might as well just pay the sitter and stay home.
You can quit marathon training. Heck, you can even quit the marathon at any point along the course. At a recent event for example, I noticed a pleasant young man sprawled out on the pavement near the marker at Mile 18. He had apparently not mentioned his decision to retire from the race to either of his legs which were still twitching uncontrollably as three paramedics thoughtfully inserted an IV needle in his arm. I didn’t hang around long enough to determine whether he subsequently ripped out the IV and continued the race—such things happen. If he did stagger on toward Mile 19 and so on, he might be the sort of person who should consider starting a family although, to be fair, having kids makes writhing on the hot asphalt seem comparatively agreeable.
Marathon finishers frequently get a medal. We almost always get a tee-shirt. Depending on the number of entrants there may be fresh fruit or even cookies at the end of the event. Parents on the other hand get—if they’re especially lucky—grandchildren. Along the way the children may take the trash buckets to the street without being asked. Or they may acknowledge that you were mindful about your parenting, did the best you could and, as a result, express some gratitude. But I wouldn’t mortgage the farm.
So if you don’t get a prize for running 26.2 and you don’t get a prize for having a child—for the purposes of this paragraph I’m going to ignore the seven hundred dollar tax deduction and all the stuffed animals received at the baby shower—what’s the point? You just have to be in it to win it. You just have to love the parenting thing in general and your maddening children in particular. You have to be over-the-moon about that first time counting ten fingers and ten toes. You have to be transported about watching your infant sleep. And that “clean baby smell”? Better than lobster and champagne. When your baby calms down and falls asleep on your chest listening to your heartbeat, what could be more intense? When your five-year-old asks you to read them “one more story”, or looks up at you and asks, “how do you know?” believing, that you do indeed know everything there is to know but genuinely wanting to understand how anyone could be as smart as their parent. When your child asks you if you’d like to toss a ball or go for a walk or build a sandcastle or go camping or play a board game. And when your adolescent calls you in the middle of the night and says, “can you come pick me up because I don’t want to get a ride with these kids who have been drinking,” then you know you did your job right and your kid trusts that you won’t be angry or judging. There’s nothing more powerful than the connection between parent and child.
Leonard Cohen might have been thinking about some girl when he sang, “and she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers; there are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning; they are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever” but I’m pretty sure he was talking about our beloved children. Who will teach us all there is to know about love. If we will only listen.
Come to think of it, maybe you do get a prize.