I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old, and honestly, it sucks. The thought is that it will get better as they get older — higher reward, lower effort — and that eventually, the balance will shift and we’ll wish we’d had more kids. But is that really true? How can you decide how much you’re going to enjoy having older kids before you have had them? We were wrong about how much we would enjoy younger kids.
Here’s the thing. Right now, you’re not at the party.
You planned the party. You vacuumed and put up twinkly lights. You assembled the right snacks and the right guest list, composed the clever invitation email and bought a fresh beeswax candle to leave burning in your bathroom so nobody would have to flip the fluorescent glare back on. You stocked enough flavored seltzer and chilled vinho verde to leave nobody’s glass empty, and maybe you even found a way to make name tags feel cool so the people you love wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting each other’s names right after you introduced them.
It sounds like a great party. You did a really good job planning it. But that’s not where you are at the moment. You’re not eating the fancy cheese. You’re not flirting. You’re not singing along off-key to Sharon Jones.
You’re not even in your pajamas and ponytail the next day, making French toast out of dried up hunks of baguette and eating garnish olives from the jar while guessing the answers to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
Instead, you’re in bare feet at half past midnight. The last of your guests just left, the artichoke dip has gone weirdly stiff around the edges, and the crackers are somehow already stale. You’re looking at a sink piled with dishes and something sticky on every surface, and you might already be fighting a hangover because apparently white wine is not a drink to purchase cheap after turning 30.
Some people like this part. The quiet of your own house back to itself and the lingering warmth of loved ones lounging on your couch, the rare chance to reassemble order out of havoc wreaked by delight, not disaster. The pleasure of the devil in the details.
There’s lots to like, if these small toils feel rich and tender, instead of tedious. But there are few who’d argue that cleaning up the dishes is the fun part of the party.
You say your kids are one and three. I’m no expert, but even I know toddlers are a handful. The rush of social validation for making new humans has probably long worn off — I think, in this imperfect metaphor, that’s the party — and the days when their crinkly art projects are worth admiring are probably a few years away. You probably don’t have as much time as you once did to see old friends (or make new ones), binge the Fyre Festival documentaries, or get lost in bookstores without anyone watching the clock. I’m going to guess you’re not sleeping that much. And the worst part is that you can’t just throw your hands up and leave the mess for Future You, as if it’s only greasy napkins or red wine stains at stake.
This is not the part they advertise when selling baby food.
So that’s the first thing: it’s okay for this part to stink. If you’re feeling weighed down by the sense that you should be soaring through this time, instead of suffering — besides being weighed down by all the suffering — you can give yourself a break. It’s fine not to find this fulfilling.
Eventually, yes, the balance will probably shift. The kids will learn to make their own peanut butter sandwiches and read their own books and follow through on their own toilet needs. They’ll probably get easier to talk to. Eventually, they’ll start closing their doors on you, instead of the other way around.
You want to know how to decide ahead of time whether you really will like them better when they’re bigger. But I think you might already know that the answer is that you can’t.
Sure, you can assess the clues: if you find yourself stacking tupperware and wrestling the vacuum cleaner even when you didn’t throw the party, you might be more cut out for getting through the hungover midnight tidying. But you don’t need me to tell you that there’s no guarantee.
You might hate being a parent when your kids are five or 17 or 30 just as much as you do now. It might not be the diapers or the stray Crayolas or the boring picture books that bug you, but the responsibility, or the routine, or the discomfort of caring so much about somebody you’ll never be able to control completely.
Or you might discover in another year or 10 that there’s nobody you’d rather hang out with. Maybe your kids will grow on you, or just grow up, and you’ll find you like them better when they like the same books you did or have all their teeth in the right places.
I know you want to know, but it doesn’t matter — not because it doesn’t matter to you whether you’ve got something to look forward to, but because neither answer can affect your choices right now. What would you do if you knew raising kids would be this bad for the next 15 years? What would you do if you knew the good part was just about to get started?
You threw this party, my friend. The guests showed up. You did your best to make it a good one, and that’s all the assurance you get to have. But you can seek something besides certainty to save you.
Forget trying to see into the future. Ask yourself what else might make life better, even if your kids never inspire you how you thought they would. You’re a person, not just a parent; your kids want their sandwiches in triangles and their milk the right degree of cold and whatever else kids ask for and then ignore — but they also want the best version of you, even if they don’t know it yet and won’t know how to say it to you until after therapy in twenty years.
For starters: find a friend you can be honest with. It’s hard enough to struggle without maintaining flimsy fictions to pretend you aren’t. Identify the people nearby who love your kids, and consider joining forces with them. (Maybe this means play groups or nanny pools or just dumping a bunch of kids in the same playpen so the parents can sit down for a minute; this is where parents will have much more specific advice than I do.) Figure out the parts of your life you can nurture alongside your progeny, so that you have something to offer them besides grudging obligation — and something to sustain yourself once they need less of you than you do.
This isn’t another chore for you to feel bad about skipping, by the way. It’s a chance to call the smallest of shots when the rest of your life feels dictated by small hungry tyrants you don’t like obeying as much as you thought you might.
You don’t get to decide whether you’ll like them later, either, just like you don’t get to decide the real-life repercussions of any other risk you take. You don’t get certainty when you open the door to someone else — not even if the someone else fits in a dresser drawer when you first meet them.
Instead, you get the reassurance that your kids will change, in some direction, fast enough for you to notice. You get to ask for help, and you still get to be a person first, and a parent second. You get to show your children what it’s like to seek happiness when it’s elusive, how to remain resilient, how to try. And because you don’t get to know what’s going to happen before it does, you get to meet the people you made again and again as they grow up, and you get to let them surprise you.
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