Around seven years ago, just after my old college roommate had his second child and my wife was expecting our first, he said something to me that stuck: “Having a kid changes you. It changes your whole life. Parents who keep trying to get their old life back won’t ever be happy.”
When our daughter was born, I thought, “I haven’t changed. I feel pretty much the same. I’m still the same fiscally conservative, socially liberal, pro-drug, pro-life secular humanist who doesn’t do drugs that I’ve always been. Plus, a kid.” My friend was nuts.
I thought I was going to become a more tolerant, caring, emotional, spiritual person after becoming a parent. That’s what happens in movies, books, and cheesy TV shows. You find God, or magic, or discover the true meaning of love or life (which you thought you knew before procreating, but were wrong). That didn’t happen to me. If anything, having a kid increased my convictions to my long-standing life philosophy. One small human wasn’t going to change my long-toiled-over, firmly-ingrained opinions on the human condition.
After having our second kid, I still think about what my friend said. I still don’t really feel different and, honestly, he doesn’t seem much different to me either. We still joke around and bitch about life just like we did in college. Only now it’s on the phone at lunch hour as opposed to at two am over beer and pizza.
While I don’t feel remarkably different as a person, my life is astronomically different than it used to be. Just about everything I do now, I do with the kids in mind.
I’ve been writing books and screenplays for the last 15 years. Lately, I’ve been writing parenting articles like this one, and a children’s book called “Grumpy Dad Shovels Snow.” So I’m the same, still a writer, but the manifestation of my personal passions has been redirected.
I’m a TV producer. I used to think it was cool and “Hollywood.” I still think it’s cool, but now I’m more excited about my health care plan than if one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey will show up at the Christmas party.
My wife and I used to go out to dinner and enjoy wine. We now cook dinner at home. And enjoy wine.
Weekends used to be about sleeping in, having brunch, doing whatever we wanted to before going out for dinner, perhaps seeing a movie or show, and going to bed after midnight. Now, weekends are about getting up at six am when the kids do, figuring out what they want to do all day, and going to bed at 10:30.
I’m enjoying the changes that parenthood has brought to my life. Perhaps it’s due to my being a bit on the older side and having “lived it up” beforehand, or perhaps my life wasn’t all that interesting before I had kids. In any case, I’m enjoying it. I’ve met many parents who are not enjoying parenting as much as they could be due to their constant desire to “get their old life back.” This is understandable, but ultimately an un-winnable, self-destructive battle.
When you first have a kid, it’s hard. It’s painful, frustrating, and uncomfortable. It’s only natural to think, “Oh my God, make this stop, I want to go back to the time when I could sleep, eat, and poop in peace.”
First of all, that time will come. And second, this is what you signed up for. You wanted to be a parent. Now you are one. Wanting to “go back” is impossible and silly. Stop trying to figure out how to “un-accomplish” exactly what you set out to accomplish. Embrace your accomplishment and all the unexpected discomfort – and pleasure – that comes with it. Instead of beating yourself up, clinging to the way life used to be, congratulate and reward yourself for what it is now. This is the only way you can enjoy it.
Look around at parents at the playground, at the mall, or anywhere. There are infinite parenting styles, children’s personality variables, and developmental and emotional issues (in both kids and parents) that affect parental fulfillment. However, one universal indicator of a parent’s happiness and effectiveness is their level of acceptance of their new lives as parents as opposed to a constant denial of it, a futile wait for their life to cease being the way it is.
When your kid spits up on you, you can think, “Dammit, if I didn’t have this kid that wouldn’t have happened.” But you can’t go back.
When your kid wakes up screaming in the middle of the night you can think, “Dammit, if I didn’t have this kid, I could sleep like I used to.” But you can’t go back.
When you are sitting in the bathroom and your kid barges in to ask you how to spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or discuss timeline issues she’s having with “Boss Baby,” you can be mad that this wouldn’t have happened in your old life. But you can’t go back.
When your kid bugs you to go to their favorite restaurant and then throws a tantrum because the chicken nuggets are too “chickeny,” you can be mad that this wouldn’t have happened in your old life. But you can’t go back.
This inability to “go back” is not a bad thing, unless you make it one. Parents who dwell in the past are condemned to unhappiness. If you are one of those parents who made the vow to yourself and your spouse to not let having kids change your lives like those other weirdo parents, well, unless you have a staff raising your kids while you enjoy the childless life, you will eventually realize that keeping your old life is impossible, that you are the weirdo parent, and possibly regret your decision to have become one.
But here’s the good news: kids are fun. Parenting is fulfilling and enjoyable. Great stuff happens in your new life as a parent. When your four-month-old is crying uncontrollably on your shoulder until he lets out a window-rattling, face-melting burp that would make an ex-Marine trucker jealous, that’s fun. When your six-year-old girl’s face lights up as she marvels at your mad snowman-making skills, that’s fun.
Sometimes, the fun is a bit harder to find.
When your kids’ soccer games are scheduled for eight am on Saturdays, you can be the parent who shows up and complains how early it is (because you haven’t let go of your old life when you slept until 10 am on Saturdays) or you can get to the field and cheer on your kid and all his teammates as well. You chose this. This is what you wanted. Welcome to parenting. There is no alternative. You can choose to enjoy it or woefully cling to the impossible past.
As far as your old life, I can tell you what we tell our occasionally-obsessive six-year-old daughter, “Do an Elsa, and Let it Goooooo…” It might be a sad goodbye, but it’s a necessary one. Have a funeral, say a eulogy, have a toast, but say goodbye. Your old life is dead. Your new after (kids) life is alive. It can be heaven, but you have to embrace it.
My friend was right. As a parent, your life changes. Your motivations change. Your day-to-day behavior and routines change. Your purpose changes. You may feel the same, but if you step back and take a look at yourself, you can see that you are a different person. You are a parent. Embrace it.