The old joke, equal parts sexist and offensive goes something like this: “My wife fantasizes about two men.” “Your wife fantasizes about two men?” “Yes. One to cook, one to clean.”
The reality of course is that few women have two men with whom to kanoodle never mind two men who are doing housework. Real men may like quiche; real women remain responsible for the majority of unpaid household labor. But on Facebook and Instagram, women portray a different canvas, one painted with a pristine brush. The most common “ways to describe what a husband is doing right now on social media are ‘working’ and ‘cooking.’”* But down here in what is frequently described as “the real world” there may be more Al Bundys, fewer Ward Cleavers. Social media posts describe men doing the dishes whereas men sitting on the couch scratching themselves go unremarked upon.
In olden days, we only had to hear about the perfect lives of our compatriots once a year. “Johnny is welcoming new opportunities; Robin is making new friends; Delores is loving her living situation” were euphemisms for “Dad lost his job; adolescent is sleeping around; and we put mom in a nursing home.” We wanted to believe the best about our neighbors each Christmas. But the current pressure of all those ubiquitous joyful endeavors is a bit much. The niño in Bottacelli’s “Madonna and Child” smiles beatifically. Whereas your baby is a shrieking shit machine. Note that even in Sandro’s painting, mom has a couple angels hanging around who could doubtless be counted on to change the occasional diaper. Parents posting on social media bake bread and pioneer businesses while their toddlers nap. Whereas you feel that if you don’t get some sleep when junior snoozes, you just might lose it altogether. “The baby usually sleeps for 80 minutes. If I don’t sleep for 79 of those minutes, we’re at Defcon Two. I’ll find time to take a shower and get the dried bits of mashed sweet potatoes out of my hair when he starts pre-school.”
Which is how I know when my students are prevaricating in the admissions essays: “I volunteer at the shelter for homeless and abused babies because when I see a little one in my care smiling I know that I have made a difference and brought positive change to my community because a happy child makes the room light up and there is nothing more endearing than a baby who knows she is loved which is why I keep going back to the facility so that I can continue to make a difference because there is nothing more important than giving comfort to an adorable baby which is why I help out as often as I can.”
No you don’t. You don’t volunteer. You haven’t been any closer to an actual baby than your TV screen. You couldn’t pick out a real baby in a police line-up. An essay by a parent would more closely resemble, “Yeah, I was going to run to the market to buy some more diapers but the baby vomited formula down my shirt and by the time I showered and put on some clean clothes the store was closed.”
Social media babies sleep through the night, have no trouble nursing, stop crying the instant they are picked up. Real babies are infinite work. You might love the work, you certainly love your child, but the constant exposure to how easy it is for everyone else can make you feel guilty. I’m an old guy so I get to hand out information and permission. The evidence is clear: taking care of kids is hard. You are hereby authorized to acknowledge how tough the job is. “I am so thoroughly wrung out after taking care of my little one for eleventy gazillion consecutive hours, I just want to turn on “Barney” or “Blues Clues” or “Shameless” for that matter so I can fix dinner and maybe, if the crik don’t rise, have an uninterrupted thought.” You are allowed to want a break.
The couple from your Gymboree group isn’t having “movie sex” several times a week knowing their little one who never gets sick will sleep through the night. Everybody else is also making tough decisions and compromises. All the other parents are thinking the same thing you are. “Wow, this is tough.” Raising kids is indeed not for the faint of heart.
The good news is that better times are coming. It does get easier. It’s true that, “when they’re little they step on your toes; when they’re big they step on your heart.” Yes, “little children, little worries.” But children are less trouble by the time they are graduated from medical school. And one day your 12-year-old will come home and say, “You know Maddie down the street? I just babysat her for five hours. We played dress up then we went outside. I read her three books at the park. Do you think Maddie is hyperactive? She never stopped moving. We rode bikes and played hopscotch and then she wanted me to read to her some more. Then we played Legos. Finally her mom came home and paid me. I am so tired.”
“Sounds like you had a busy day,” you can reply.
“Yeah,” your daughter can go on. “I don’t see how parents do this for free.”
So there you have it. “Revenge is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold.” Know that some day your child will have a daughter just as difficult as she herself was. Allow yourself to celebrate the mind-numbing difficulty of bringing up healthy kids. Understand that—social media posts to the contrary—everyone else is plodding a rough path as well. Try not to feel guilty about not getting everything precisely perfect. Rejoice in the good moments. And try to get some sleep.
* Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data. New Data. And What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, HarperCollins, 2017.