If you are wondering what things are like at our house, here is what you need to know: We have FOUR teenagers. Wasn’t that good planning? Aren’t we smart? It also smells wonderful here, believe me. And whatever the levels of snark and sarcasm you’re imagining, multiply it by 10. The four of them tend to gang up on us and act together like some kind of unholy army of scoffing and scorn.
Sometimes my husband will fuss at them, because they need to be fussed at. I recently learned that, after he leaves the room, one of my daughters will turn to the others and say, with a look of mild astonishment on her face, “I never did catch that man’s name.”
Pandemonium. She has very good comedic timing, just like her father, and she gets away with way too much just because she’s so funny. Just exactly like her father (whatever his name is).
And that’s what it’s like at our house.
I set this essay up like I was complaining, but this is actually one of the greatest parts of having children — or two of the greatest parts, I should say.
One is that they are so entertaining. They start out that way when they are first born (all babies are beautiful, and all babies are incredibly ugly, which is hilarious), and they keep it up as they trundle through one developmental stage after another, gracefully or clumsily blossoming into life as if they’re the first ones that ever thought of trying it. These comic firsts — first goofy laugh, first words, first joke, first completely insane knock-knock joke, first pun — they don’t get old when you have a lot of kids. If anything, they get better and better, because you’re relaxed enough to enjoy it.
It’s possible that I’m predisposed to enjoy my kids’ humor because I love them, but I have also heard so many people say that they had kids for various reasons — for duty, or because their wives wanted it, or by accident — and were amazed to discover how entertaining the little buggers turned out to be. I remember seeing a post on Facebook where some hapless young man loaded down with a stroller and diaper bags smiled goofily and told the cameraman, “I never thought I’d be so proud of someone for rolling over.” He knew the kid wasn’t some kind of genius for hitting a basic milestone, and yet that’s what milestones are like: They feel huge. They feel historic, even though trillions of people have done them before.
I suspect this is a large part of why people answered as they did in a recent Pew study, wherein a whopping 82% of parents said parenting is enjoyable all or most of the time. It’s because we are all predisposed to find our own kids surprisingly entertaining. This, by the way, seems to be true, if not extra-true, for parents of kids with disabilities — kids who do not necessarily hit those basic milestones. The jokes, when they come, are funnier; the expressions of love, when they surface, are more dear; the achievements hit a deeper vein of pride.
The other tremendous part of parenting, besides the comedy factor, is that your kids are so very much like their parents. (This, by the way, can be a valuable question to ask yourself when you are contemplating marriage: “How glad would I be if my kids turned out just like this person?” Because if you end up having biological children with them, that’s something that’s very likely to happen — and if you can imagine feeling more dismay than delight, it’s probably a good idea to put off the wedding until you’ve thought things through some more.)
Kids are their own people, not clones of their parents, and yet biology is a stubborn and mysterious thing, sending persistent trademark family threads through the generations to pop up again and again. Genetics will show up in a yawn, in a dimple, in a gait, in a taste for sour candy. Strange, and strangely endearing, to have little notes of your beloved echoed back to you in various keys. It’s a gift of an old love amplified and harmonized.
As I said, children are both endlessly surprising us and endlessly doing things that remind us of ourselves. Here’s the part where parents are reading this essay and asking, “Why is she pretending this is always a good thing?”
Well, it’s because I need a little break. It was only a few months ago that I was talking about one of my kids with my therapist, and she gently asked how the issue made me feel. In response, I cried so hard that I almost threw up. So there’s that! When God told Eve, “In pain shall you bear children,” he didn’t just mean when women were giving birth; he meant the whole time, 18 years and beyond.
Raising children can be incredibly painful, and scary, and discouraging, and bewildering, and daunting, and exhausting. And sometimes, maybe almost as often as they surprise and delight us, kids will surprise and dismay us, or surprise and horrify us, or surprise and crush us. Sometimes they will do something that’s so stupid and awful and so brutally, dismally familiar we want to curl up in a ball like a grub and bury ourselves forever. How many of us watched Tony Soprano see his son suffer and lament, “my rotten … putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul. That’s my gift to my son.” I felt that.
But of course, Tony Soprano is not our parenting model. The secret, which Tony never learned, is this: You can enjoy the good and not be crushed by the bad if you remember that your children do not belong to you.
It’s a hard thing to learn, and you have to learn it over and over again in many ways, but it’s the truest thing about parenting. They may delight us and surprise us, or they may dismay us and bring us grief; they may remind us of ourselves and our spouse in all the best ways and in all the worst ways. But at the end of the day, they are not ours. They belong to God, and there is joy and freedom in frequently reminding God that this is so. I do it daily. “Lord, I did what I could. Come get your kid.”
You’ll still cry. I’m not claiming this prayer will save you tears and pain. But it may help you remember to laugh, as well, and even to delight in your kids, even if you have regrets (which all parents do). There is almost always something to enjoy. Sometimes it’s easier to see if you remember whose kids they are.
Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine and The Catholic Weekly. She lives with her husband and eight of their 10 children and several animals in a surprisingly small house in New Hampshire.