I’m at a coffee shop, and a woman is trying to push a newborn in a stroller out of a heavy door while balancing a very full ceramic mug of coffee in a saucer.
A guy in shorts and a t-shirt slides behind her to hold the door open. She’s immensely grateful. The guy says, “I have a nine-month-old at home,” and nods at her understandingly.
Before I had kids I would have either ignored this transaction or, if I happened to notice it, thought, “Why does that woman even bother leaving the house?” Now I want to jump up and hug both people and say, “I have a kid, too!”
This is because I’m part of this tribe of people called “parents.” To outsiders, we’re just people who have kids. But internally, we identify as individuals who are having every part of our lives ritualistically stripped away by an entity (or entities) that will not leave us alone. Ever.
So really what the guy opening the door is saying to the woman with the baby is, “I understand. I have a torturous gremlin that has robbed me of every freedom I used to take for granted too! But it’s been happening to me for a bit longer so I’m slightly more used to it and — hey! — miraculously free of the thing at this very second so let me be of the smallest help to you.”
When my son was born, childless friends of mine came to visit. While I was plastered to the couch, surrounded by donut-shaped breastfeeding pillows that were quickly becoming the embodiment of everything I resented in life, my friends would ask, “So, what does it feel like? Are you just… so in love?” I remember asking this same thing to new parents when I was childless, as if my friends had unlocked a level of emotion the rest of us didn’t have access to.
“I guess?” I would say. “I mean, I feel responsible for him? I’m… very tired.”
What I really wanted to say was: It’s sort of like getting your dream job, but also having that job take place only at random times and being summoned to it out of the deepest slumber by a guy with a taser and a gas mask on.
The most comforting words I heard in those first weeks were from parents who came over with toddlers and said, “It gets better.” I looked up to them, like I was just starting cancer treatment and here were the people in remission.
Tribalism makes for really effective viral content, so big media outlets are always publishing articles that encourage us not only to categorize ourselves, but to oppose people who do not fit into our category. And the media loves dividing parent tribes most of all.
Breastfeeders vs. Formula Feeders!
Attachment Mamas vs. Working Moms!
Parents Who Endangered Their Kids’ Lives By Taking Them on a Year-Long Sailing Trip Around the World vs. All Other Parents!
The way I see it, all parents are the same tribe, the tribe of people who have a teeny tiny torturer shadowing their every step, only occasionally allowing breaks to do the things we used to do before the torturer arrived.
That’s why parents feel a sense of camaraderie. To the childless, we’re an insufferable group of people reveling in a superiority that stems from our ability to replicate and be so in love with the products of our replication. To each other, we’re just survivors of the same shipwreck. We stick together because we understand the unique brand of suffering the other has experienced.
Several months ago I had dinner with a friend who doesn’t have children.
“You look tired,” she told me as we sat down in the restaurant. This is just her way of showing sympathy for whatever I’m going through that involves my kid, but I can’t help feeling defensive. I want nothing more than to retain my vibrant, youthful glow while wrangling this tiny life form day in and day out. I use eye firming cream and try not to wear athleisure every time I leave the house in attempt to make it seem like this lifestyle isn’t taking a toll on me. My friend is saying: it’s not working.
“I’m not getting much sleep,” I tell her.
“Isn’t Eero sleeping through the night?” she asks. It’s such an all-or-nothing view on parenting, I think, something only a childless person could ask. Yes, my son long ago crossed the milestone of “sleeping through the night,” but as any parent knows, a toddler can interrupt your sleep at any time with a night tantrum, a wet bed, an illness, or just by crawling into bed with you four nights in a row and tossing and turning until 4:45 a.m.
My friend doesn’t know this because it isn’t her nightly experience. She looks at real estate on her phone until 1 a.m. and when it’s lights out, she sleeps until 9 the next day. Must be nice, I think.
But then I realize I’m being an asshole.
It’s so easy for me to assume that the other people in the coffee shop, those people who didn’t hold the door for the new mother and probably prefer that she sit outside with her fussy infant, are only concerned with the trivialities I dealt with before becoming a parent. But I clearly have no clue what their encumbrances are. They may have teeny tiny torturers of their own. They may have a chronic illness. They may, like my friend, be caring for aging parents.
I’m so ridiculously lucky that becoming a parent was the first time I ever had to pump the brakes on my long road trip of narcissism. It was the first time I had to stop doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and it happened when I was 34.
So my tribe isn’t any particular type of parent, or even parents versus non-parents. After having kids, I identify with the tribe of people whose lives have been upended by something—anything!—that serves as a regular reminder that tiny moments of freedom — sipping a hot coffee alone without interruption, getting dinner on the table, finishing anything ever — are to be savored.
I couldn’t answer the question of what it was like to be a parent in those first few weeks when my childless friends wanted me to summarize it because I didn’t have enough experience yet to know how it would change me. After three years, I understand how precious life’s fleeting moments are, not because I gave birth to a child and want to savor every waking moment with him, but because his daily ritual of interruption and helpless need has forced me to savor the time I do get to spend on myself. I am now part of that tribe of people who understand what a gift that time really is.