It's OK to think parenting is magical and awful at the very same time

Mar 10, 2016 at 8:30 a.m. ET
Image: Didesign021/Getty Images

On the day when my son first learned how to crawl, I very nearly cried. You could call me a sap for that, and you’d be right, but I was so proud of him that the feeling completely overwhelmed me. Children really are, in so many ways, tiny miracles. They start out so small and helpless, but somehow they learn to live in this world, to crawl, to speak, and later to walk.

The second day of crawling, I really did cry. Because in 24 measly hours, the little cherub not only mastered crawling but picked up some speed. Suddenly, none of his toys were interesting. And suddenly, it became apparent that our feeble attempts at “baby proofing” our living room had been pretty damn pathetic. I spent the whole day taking things out of his hand, putting things up on high shelves, trying to say “no-no!” in a calm and loving tone and, yes, literally crying. It was impossible.

Parenting is this incredibly beautiful and inspirational experience for me, and it also totally and completely sucks.

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Modern attitudes toward parenting tend to focus on one or the other. There’s no shortage of people ready to tell you what a blessing children are and how we should all just slow down and appreciate the little moments. At the same time, websites observe, poke fun at and even celebrate the harder parts of being a parent. When we, as parents, consume parenting media, we’re left vacillating between conflicting messages: “Stop getting frustrated and notice how magical and special this is!” vs. “You’re allowed to admit that this sucks.”

Because I’m a person who wanted to be a mom for a very long time before I got to finally do it, a person who dreamed about this for years, I tend to be pretty attracted to the first attitude. In the somewhat rare instance that both ideas are presented together, the first is presented as a solution to the second. It’s something like, “Today is a challenging struggle... but he won’t be little forever, so you’d better appreciate these times!” Before I had a kid, that made sense to me.

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Now that I care for a growing baby day after day, I find myself more and more firmly planted in the “this sucks” camp.

But I’ve learned something. I’ve learned that these two things are not actually mutually exclusive at all. Parenting requires that I hold two seemingly contradictory truths in my heart at the same time. It looks a lot like 1984-style doublethink, and it’s starting to feel sort of normal and natural to me. I don’t need the overwhelming floods of joy to cancel out the really crappy parts of parenting (which is a good thing, because sometimes they just... don’t). I don’t even need to vacillate between one extreme and the other.

Today, my kid nursed for fully one hour. Yes, you read that right. And as I was lying there with him, I thought about how big he is growing, what a joy it is to be able to feed him and how proud I am of how bravely he faces life. I remembered that babyhood is fleeting (it has already gone by too fast!) and tried to memorize the sweet way he cuddles up to me.

Also, my back was aching like hell, I really had to pee and I knew if I tried to sneak away too soon, he would start screaming. It sucked.

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It gets to suck. And it gets to be magical. And that gets to be OK.