One of the things that nobody tells you when you become a parent is how goddamned scary it is. How when your child is sick—and I don’t mean the obviously bad situations, like a life-threatening injury or illness, but even just a cold—you’re seized by terror the entire time.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to 2010, much of which is a blur for me, overshadowed as it was by fear for Katie’s well-being. I was afraid for her and I was angry at the world, at the situation, because I couldn’t control it and just wanted it to stop, for her to feel better.
I recently finished reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, who also wrote The Kite Runner. It’s an interesting book; not my usual style, but I enjoyed it. The passage below took me by surprise with its rare clarity about the emotions involved in being a parent.
Setup: the protagonist has a young daughter, and is away from home for work. Her husband has called her at 2:30AM to tell her that the child is sick.
She wants him to stop. She wants to tell him to shut up, that she cannot bear to hear it, but she’s too late. She hears the words childhood leukemia, or maybe he says lymphoma, and what’s the difference anyway? [She] sits on the edge of the bed, sits there like a stone, head throbbing, skin drenched with sweat. She is furious with Eric for planting a thing as horrible as this in her mind in the middle of the night when she’s seven hundred kilometers away and helpless. She is furious with herself for her own stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not destroy you. I don’t have the heart for this. She actually says this under her breath. I don’t have the heart for this. At that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless, irrational thing than choosing to be a parent.
Of course the last line is hyperbolic, but it’s an all too realistic reaction.
This is the game you play when you become a parent, whether you realize it or not going in. And it’s not a win-lose game, though obviously some outcomes are better than others; it’s the journey, not the destination. You “win” by even having had the chance to play, by having been able to have a child and do your best, however crappy that was at times.
I of course know people who have never had kids, some by choice, some by luck of the draw. And while I would never think less of someone for having made that choice, I wasn’t wired that way. As the song says, “Regrets, I’ve had a few”, but only for certain tactical moves, not for the strategy of having played.