The other night our three year old just started going to bed. No fuss, no fighting. I tuck him in, and he goes right to sleep.
This is a welcomed change. He used to call for us constantly. After we’d shut his door, there’d be a solid 90 minutes of toys and books crashing onto his floor before, eventually, he’d fall asleep. Also on the floor.
The not-really bedtime was, candidly, annoying. But in its absence, there’s a small void. I suppose part of me loved seeing him rebel against the night. Fighting against sleep so hard he’d collapse, exhausted. But now when I check on him—peering into his quiet room where books are still on their shelves—I’m looking at a little boy just a little bit older and a little less little.
It’s a weird time to be a parent. I understand and can empathize with some of my generation’s decisions to delay or not have kids. I’m happy we had ours, but I probably don’t sway anyone towards parenting when I talk about the sheer lack of sleep I’ve grown accustomed to getting.
And aside from the sleep, there’s what you give up. Because choosing to be a parent is choosing to give up a great number of other things. Once the hospital sends you home after what can’t possibly be enough time to mentally prepare, you become a bit like the Greek myth of Atlas: carrying the world (their world) on your shoulders. And although there may be no one way of doing it right, there is a minimum of doing it. And doing it involves a continuous cycle of best intentions and second guessing. Failing and learning. Attempting to do it better than whoever raised you, and then failing (again) at doing just that. You die to yourself daily. You let go of dreams, goals, money. You definitely give up time. And, importantly, you strive to give it up without resentment. Because no matter how well you hide it, they’ll know.
Parenting is hard. You’ve heard that already. It’s hard even when you have it easy. My kids have no significant medical problems. My wife and I have great jobs and good insurance. I’m more concerned about them eating food than having food for them to eat. Our support system is strong and felt. On the days where it’s particularly difficult, I remember how stacked the deck is in our favor.
And I also think of how, today, when I look back on memories and photos of us pre-kids, the world seems to lack something. That void again, but different. Having kids has forced me to grow in some wonderful ways. This stretching, over years, engenders a resilience that, so far as I can tell, is unique in the experience of adulthood.
And then there are the small moments. The ones that fill you back up. An emotional booster shot. One day you’ll be sitting side by side reading a book, and he’ll ask you to stop only to tell you he loves you. Or that time when you taught him how to use his flashlight to fend off the dark, giving him a bit of relief before bed. And what about the hours where you co-discovered some new imagined game of pillows and plush. Where you riffed on pretend rules, changing them at your whim for the whole afternoon only to look up shocked that it was almost dinnertime.
Like everything in life, there are good moments and not so good moments. But what I’ve come to realize—what helps me keep perspective—is that I have a front row, reserved, and one-time only seat to this little person’s life. A life that has already given me some of my highest highs and, if anything were to happen to him, I’m certain my lowest lows. A chance to witness all of this personality, potential, and passion. All wrapped up in my tiny lookalike, sporting a dinosaur t-shirt and missing one sock and who explodes with smiles when he sees me come down the stairs—greeting me at the top of his lungs with, “hi daddy, watch me!”
It’s this balance, the weightiness of the responsibility and the lightness of seemingly uninterrupted curiosity, optimism, and love that pulls me in like gravity. Imploring that I fully immerse myself in the world he’s building. And that I cherish the unplanned moments I find myself invited in.
I don’t always see these moments for the gifts they are. Some days the world can leave you with little left in the tank. But I try. I try hard.
Because eventually, inevitably, and on one completely normal night, I’ll tuck him into bed, and he’ll go right to sleep.