I know I’ve gotten my daughter too much for her birthday: too many gifts, too many decorations and balloons and pirate party favors, too many sugary red cupcakes. I know it’s more for my own joy than for hers, as she will only remember the fun and the novelty for a few days, maybe a week. But I, her mother, will always remember the look on her face when her little friends all show up, the excitement shaking her skinny body when everyone turns to her and sings, the joy in her huge brown eyes when she sees the pile of gifts. I suppose that is the selfish part of parenting- doing things that you know will particularly make yourself feel good. Like when you get your kids all washed and combed and dressed up in nice clothes, knowing that they will be uncomfortable and less than happy as you put the stiff dress shoes on their small pink feet. But you know that it is worth seeing the admiration in other people’s faces as they look upon your sweet-souled angels in those few moments before their shirts come un-tucked, their tights run and messy snacks stain their new clothes. For just an instant, you can see the love and pride you feel every day, reflected in the eyes of others.
I’d say that the selfish part of parenting is certainly far smaller than the unselfish part, for sure. It must be said though, that the pride you take in your children, beyond the nicely dressed moments, is a more fulfilling pride than you can take in most things you may accomplish for yourself and that feels pretty good. How can getting a degree or landing a great job or earning a fortune compare with hearing your young son singing the ABC’s softly under his breath while he plays? It can’t, as far as I know. The pride in him, and in yourself for teaching him, is, I think for most parents, far greater. Giving life is one thing, and certainly something to be proud of (especially for women who actually do the giving-birth part!), but giving a good life to your children is maybe the best thing you can ever do, for yourself and for them.
The definition of “a good life” is widely debatable. Providing for your kids means something different to me than it does to someone else, depending on endlessly varied circumstances and differing opinions. I am lucky enough to live in a world where I can go to Toys R Us and pick out a purple sparkly bicycle for my daughter’s 4th birthday and feel really good about that. I know other people, good parents who love their kids and want to give them everything they possibly can, consider themselves lucky to be able to give their kids clean clothes or uncontaminated water or a solid meal. None of those particular distinctions necessarily determines good parenting, by any means, but only proves that the desire to give your kids whatever you can to make them happy (or stronger, or more fulfilled, or more comfortable) is a strong one and one that not only works to their benefit, but surely to our own as well. And even when we can’t give our kids everything, the desire to do the most we can is there for most of us. This desire, of course, easily brings us over to the unselfish part of being a parent, especially when we have to sacrifice something (or everything) in order to give our kids what they need or want. But when we have the ability to give those things easily, or dress them up and show them off, well, there is really nothing so simply wonderful.
The more explicitly unselfish part is, I think, what people associate more overtly with parenthood: the extreme sleep deprivation, the tantrums and whining, the long hot afternoons at noisy playgrounds, the inability to go wherever you want whenever you want (a realization that most people don’t fully grasp until they are laden down with a car-seat, a stroller, a massive diaper-bag, and a screaming infant who insists on being fed at the most inopportune times and must, despite what is happening around them, be kept on a specific napping schedule in order to not undo the stressfully enormous job of sleep-training that you have been working on!). And that unselfishness obviously extends upward and outward into bigger and weightier things, from what kind of car or house you buy, to what career you are going to pursue that will both allow you to spend time with your kids but also provide enough for them. Inevitably it often means sacrificing your hobbies, your passions, your relationships, sometimes your very happiness to make those things happen. And we, the parents who are parents not only as a title or obligation but who are parents in our hearts and souls, do it. And we do it every single day.
I look at my kids and know, without the slightest doubt, that they are worth every sticky, crumb-covered second of it and I think most parents would agree. Despite the hardness of it, no sacrifice is too big, whether it means giving up most of a meal you were starving for to feed them, or paying for a pre-school you can’t really afford, or sleeping on the couch outside a needy child’s room instead of in your own bed just so that you are there when he calls out for you. Would I rather not sweep under the table three times a day or wash 1.4 billion sippy cups a week? Sure, but it’s a small price to pay. I would never, for anything, give up the extreme joy of smelling my son’s hair (even when it kind of smells like Play-Doh and cheese) or kissing my daughter goodnight (even when I am exhausted and irritable and she clings to me and tells me her room is just too scary to be in alone and could she please have one more story, a sip of water, softer pajamas, another song, one more hug, pleeeeease?). It is more than worth it, of course. We can only hope to find rational ways of balancing that giving with remembering that happy adults make better parents. That sometimes, even when little kids don’t want you to leave, that going to Cardioflex class at the gym makes someone a better, healthier, saner mom. Or like knowing that “no” is sometimes the right answer even if your high-pitched child disagrees. Or knowing that giving kids every toy in the toy store won’t make them better people, but will actually only leave you broke and them spoiled.
These are not the simplest things to figure out because that balance is not easy. But I take heart in knowing that my happiness, my pride in their success as people and my success as a parent, very often overlap. If I have to give up a few things, postpone my own goals or desire, or find the will to put my foot down on certain issues (“No, two-year-old, you may not chew gum!”), so be it. Life is long. Or long enough, I suppose, to live the selfish parts, bear the unselfish parts and find pride and happiness in all of those heart-squeezing moments that you otherwise would have to live without.