Not long before my wife and I had our first child, we had dinner with another married couple — both writers — who at the time had a toddler of their own. I asked them for some advice. Instead, they gave me a caution. "Don't write about your kid," they said. "Being a parent is going to change your life, and it's all you're going to be able to think about. You're going to want to turn those experiences and feelings into words. But there's nothing you can say that hasn't been said already, and probably better."
I have two children now — a son and a daughter, both adolescents — and over the past decade-plus, I've ignored my friends' advice on multiple occasions. My son, who's on the autism spectrum, has inspired about a half-dozen or so essays (which isn't that excessive, given that he's now 14); and I've penned the occasional piece about my daughter, who shares a lot of my nerdy enthusiasms. Still, every time I sit down to write about children or parenting, I remember that conversation from 15 years ago.
I think about it even more during my daily perusal of the internet, which sometimes seems choked with articles penned by new moms and dads, all feeling overwhelmed and transformed — just as I once was, and just as our friends warned me I'd be.
Outside of websites specifically devoted to raising kids, the published discourse about child rearing in the mainstream media seems dominated by panicked think pieces, many of the "Holy crap, what just happened to my life?" variety.
I do wonder if the glut of anxious "oh no, what now?" articles gives the wrong idea about what raising kids is like
Type "having a baby" into Google, and auto-complete suggests "changes everything." That search then turns up 14 million hits and page after page of laments about how infants and toddlers mess up work, sleep, TV watching, sex, being a cool person ... you name it.
All these heaping piles of verbiage serve a purpose. They're therapeutic for the author, undoubtedly. And for anyone dealing with similar situations — and unaware of the millions of words that have been penned on the topic over the centuries — stumbling on an article that articulates that vague sense of dissatisfaction can be both reassuring and revelatory.
Plus, some of those pieces are good! Gifted writers can transform even the most played-out subject into something worthwhile. My friend Nathan Rabin, for example, writes movingly and entertainingly about being a stay-at-home dad at the website Mom.me. (In fact, if you're an acquaintance of mine and you've ever written one of these kinds of pieces, let's just pretend that I'm not talking about you, if only for the sake of cordiality.)
But the preponderance of these articles reminds me a little of what eco-essayist Bill McKibben has written about our excess of professional nature photography. We really don't need all that many new pictures of birds and bears each year, because there's really not much new to see. And in the process of tramping through the wilderness to get the prettiest shot, photographers could be harming habitats and warping our understanding of the environment.
I don't think parenting essays are destroying childhood. But I do wonder if the glut of anxious "oh no, what now?" articles gives the wrong idea about what raising kids is like.
Here, to my mind, is the problem:
Early childhood is just one chapter in a long, long book
Every parent's experiences are different, with ebbs and flows of joy and despair that hit at different times. But by and large, new mothers and fathers endure three distinct patches of deep, deep regret:
1) During the first few months, when the novelty's worn off and the baby becomes a noisy, smelly lump of unhappiness.
2) Around the age of 2, when the barely articulate toddler still needs help with almost everything, and gets sloppy drunk on the power of ordering adults around.
3) Around the age of 3, when the child's growing independence has him or her questioning whether mealtime etiquette or sleeping schedules must be respected.
Each of these phases seems to last forever. But they're really more like a few months, with the occasional relapse. (The relapses are the worst.) Babies become more likable once they start to smile, at which point getting up in the middle of the night to take care of them becomes more rewarding. Toddlers are maddening because they can be sweet one minute and satanic the next, but if parents hold the line on discipline and structure, eventually nature takes its course. Children mature.
Parents, too, grow into the job. What might initially seem unnatural — like being charged with sustaining the life of a tiny human being — becomes second nature through repetition. Later, as children become more capable of feeding, dressing, cleaning, and entertaining themselves, their moms and dads get back small chunks of time that they hadn't even noticed they'd been losing to daily child maintenance. Suddenly they can read a long book again, or catch up on their Netflix queue.
Then, guess what? If all goes well, those folks get to spend 15 or so more years living in a home alongside reasonably well-behaved sons and daughters, who develop personalities and passions of their own and become active participants in whatever adventures the family has.
So to sum up: That's roughly three or four years of mind-numbing kiddie shows and young parents feeling like they're losing their identities, followed by a lifetime of rich, often highly rewarding relationships, marked by some of the most lasting memories that anyone can make.
Which of these stages of parenting really deserves more emphasis?
Obsessing over exhaustion and existential anxiety scares off potential parents
I have many friends who don't have kids — some intentionally, some not — and I'd never tell any of them that having children is a crucial, essential part of the human experience. Life offers a lot of opportunities. Being a parent is just one of a multitude of possible paths; and it's one that comes with costs and limitations that many are just fine doing without.
But while it's presumptuous (and rude) to say, "Oh, you'll change your mind one day" to anyone who insists they don't want kids, the reason why the childless-by-choice deal with doubters is that people do change their minds, all the time. I've known plenty who were once adamant about never becoming a parent until one day, almost out of the blue, they started to entertain the possibility.
If you're curious whether you should see a movie, never lean too heavily on the opinion of someone who's only seen the first five minutes
So this bit is directed at those who are warming to the idea of spawning, and not to those who are a hard "nope." Don't hesitate just because the early years have such bad PR. All those essays from new moms who worry that they lack maternal instincts? Or from new dads who complain that they haven't gone out to a bar with their buddies in months? They're undoubtedly coming from a place of sincerity — and the experiences they relate are genuine — but the perspective is often limited.
It's never a bad idea to be prepared for all the downsides of something so life-changing. But if you're curious whether you should see a movie, never lean too heavily on the opinion of someone who's only seen the first five minutes.
Focusing on the very young shortchanges their older peers
Boys and girls develop quirks and habits fairly early, but it's nothing like what happens later on, when they become artsy 8-year-olds, bookish 10-year-olds, athletic 12-year-olds, or what have you. Little kids turn their folks' brains to mush because they require a lot of dull routine, which — coupled with how demanding they can be — can make them, frankly, kind of hard to like sometimes.
It's this side of children that's too often the public face of youth. Either the little ones themselves are making a scene in a restaurant or airport or their parents are writing exasperated blog posts about them. The quieter, calmer, more multifaceted kids don't get the same kind of exposure, either out in the world or on the web.
The non-print media doesn't help in this regard. In sitcoms and TV dramas — or at least those not aimed at preadolescents — children are typically presented as obnoxiously precocious, whiny, and self-absorbed. It's not hard to trace a line from the popular depiction of annoying toddlers and snotty teens to the pervasive complaints about spoiled, egotistical "millennials," who've been warped by years of technology-aided instant gratification and our convoluted, coddling educational system.
And that's incredibly unfair. What I see every day — not just with my son and daughter but with their classmates — is a rising generation that's kind, curious, and creative, making amazing use of resources I never had at their age. Yes, they're glued to their phones, but on those screens these kids are talking to each other, taking quizzes, reading the news, or sharing things they've made ... all traits of well-rounded individuals.
There are upsides aplenty to parenting kids once they get over the toddler hump: teaching them about life and culture, reliving some of the best experiences of youth through their eyes, curating their experiences of holidays, and so on. Plus, as children age they typically get smarter and funnier, and develop actual talents. Soccer games and school concerts are a grind at the elementary level; later, they're a genuine pleasure.
It's easy to groan about the awfulness of "these kids today," but getting to know them personally reveals another, more hopeful story. If nothing else, it shows that there are plenty of reasons to feel good about our leaders of tomorrow.
Who knows this? Parents do, whether they write it down for posterity or not.
There are so many other tales to tell
Here's something else that many parents know: Nearly every age between 4 and 14 is "a great age." And there are even extended stretches of babyhood and toddlerhood that are absolutely delightful. (Babies who sleep through the night, nap twice a day, and can sit up and play enthusiastically when they're awake? They're the absolute best.)
I don't mean to give the impression that everything goes smoothly after the age of 4 for every parent — or any parent. Kids can be the source of all kinds of worry: They cost money, they get sick, they wreck the house, they pick fights with their siblings, they get bullied, they have their hearts broken, and they have all kinds of other problems that get piled onto whatever else adults are going through. And sometimes, no matter how much they love each other, the generations just butt heads, day after day.
My own children are in their early teenage years, which means there are challenges ahead that I haven't faced yet. But while there's plenty of writing out there about raising teens — in self-help books, family magazines, and blogs — it's more of the "dos and don'ts" variety. Once kids are old enough to get report cards, there seems to be a lot less soul searching by their folks.
And that's all I'm really seeking: a little variety. There's nothing inherently wrong with writers having the umpteenth insight into the dreadful grind of the terrible twos. But every time I come across one of the articles, I want it to be accompanied by the same author tackling the subject of parenting four, six, and 10 years later. I want the follow-ups. Because from personal experience and thousands of other articles, by now I'm pretty sure I know how those toddler years are going to go.
Noel Murray is a freelance writer living in Arkansas with his wife and two kids. His articles about film, TV, music, and comics appear regularly in the A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times.