The myth of brain-dead parents
Not long ago, my wife and I spent a weekend together without any of our three children. This was the first time we had been alone for more than a few hours since our oldest was born four years ago.
What did we do on our short vacation? She read the first hundred or so pages of Tom Jones, a book she has been meaning to get to for ages. There was takeout and a nice long walk along the shore of Lake Michigan. Football was watched. But mostly? We slept, without worrying for once about whether a shrill voice might awaken us between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. to demand a glass of water ("No, not that one, the Tinkerbell cup!"). We were too relaxed to do anything else.
For parents these will be sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. We might tell other people that given the chance for even a short child-free break we would love to catch up on high-brow reading or take in a concert. This is bosh. The truth is that what most of us really want is a chance not to think about how well we are using our time.
By admitting this, I realize I am living up to what I have come to think of as the myth of the brain-dead parent. The novelist Lucy Ellmann recently provided a convenient summary in an interview with The Guardian:
You watch people get pregnant and know they'll be emotionally and intellectually absent for 20 years. Thought, knowledge, adult conversation, and vital political action are all put on hold while this needless perpetuation of the species is prioritized. Having babies is a strong impulse, a forgivable one, but it's also just a habit, a tradition, like weddings or putting butter on popcorn. [The Guardian]
This attitude is astonishingly pervasive, and not just among those who haven't got children. For obvious reasons it is applied to women more often than men, but in both cases the same basic set of assumptions apply: When you have a kiddo, anything that you might have cared about before — usually vast, amorphous categories like "ideas" or "making the world a better place" — gives way to Cyril Connolly's famous "pram in the hall." You become a human Koala Care apparatus, a milk dispenser, an anthropomorphic blanket, mentally negligible in comparison with your peers, who continue to have "interests." They do art and literature and science, you see, not diapers.
They certainly have a point. Modern parenting actually is exhausting for most people in ways that are pretty much unprecedented in human history. Our parents and grandparents generally had more help from their own families — and even from neighbors. I also think that decreasing family sizes have had the unintended consequence of actually making parenting more difficult. Instead of siblings close in age entertaining one another, mom and dad are expected to be on round-the-clock manufacturers of instant fun. Parents who are wary of handing over this responsibility to a tablet or a cellphone are especially susceptible to this pitfall. Hillary Clinton was right: It does take a village.
What do you do when everyone in the village is a stranger, though? To quote another neoliberal feminist icon, you "lean in." This means a lot of things, among them having less time than you would like for eighteenth-century literature and conversations about subjects other than lava or who has recently acquired ice powers. There's no way around it.
When you become responsible for the life of a very small person, nothing is more important than fulfilling that responsibility. But there is a Grand Canyon-scaled mental leap involved in declaring that children are more important than anything else to their parents, ergo, nothing else can be important to them. In that sense, parenting is a chance, perhaps a unique one in all of human experience, to reconsider the value of an extra 20 minutes in bed or a short phone conversation with an old friend. A decade from now will you really feel like you missed out because you took the opportunity to knit or inch a little further into a huge Russian novel you promised yourself you would finish six months ago instead of watching that YouTube video?
This constant struggle to maximize utility is enervating in its own way, of course. Which is why for parents the best treat of all is not having to give a toss whether you are making the most of a one-hour nap window to do something valuable with your time. For most of us such opportunities are vanishingly rare, but when they do come, as they did for my wife and I the other weekend when we ate steamed dumplings and drank wine until we dozed off in the middle of a late-night Pac-12 game, they are blissful.
This is what the myth gets wrong. Parents are not insensate dolts. We cherish the all-too-rare experience of being brain-dead.