Couples around the world are trying to decide whether or not to have babies. Those of us who already have them are asked for advice. We grow thoughtful and profound and utter Great Truths; we pontificate on relationships, careers, future generations, the meaning of life and death.
It's time we came off it: Childbearing has nothing to do with great truths. All of us who have had children know that when it comes to raising children the truths are all of the lesser variety. Here are the Lesser Truths of childrearing:
1. Children have very odd minds. If you ask a child to mow the lawn, it will not be mowed in concentric circles, oblongs, or squares of ever-decreasing size. Rather, you will find that your child has spelled out his name, tried to mow a facsimile of a Pac-Man maze or mowed only the parts in the shade.
If you ask a child to pack a suitcase, you won't find, when you return in an hour, that it is all tidily packed. No. You will find that the baseball card collection is spread out in 150 piles over the bedroom floor. When you ask, "Why are you playing with your baseball cards when I asked you to get packed?" you will hear, "I am packing; I can't go without the All-Stars."
If a child sits down with magic markers to color a picture, do not expect--after that long half-hour of complete silence--to see a completed picture. Rather, every other fingernail will have been painted blue, the alternate ones orange.
If you ask a young child to serve the family pudding, you will find bowls placed before the guinea pig, the dog and two or three stuffed animals. You will find a quantity in the garbage that didn't seem to divide itself evenly. You will find a generous quantity smeared about the mouth of that young child.
If you travel hundreds of miles and wait hundreds of hours to see some special exhibit--the King Tut treasures, for example--don't expect your children to notice it. They will focus on other things. They will come up to you and whisper through clenched teeth, "Mom, I have to spit."
You will remember that this is their first summer of playing baseball where knocking the dirt out of the soles of their tennis shoes, settling the visor on their cap just right, knocking the bat against home plate before hitting, and of course, spitting, are central to the playing of the game. You will tell your child to swallow. He will mutter, desperately, "I can't." You will stare at him coldly, then sigh and dig out a wad of tissue. You will finally turn back to King Tut, who will forever be associated in your mind with a damp wad of tissue you can't find a wastepaper basket for.
If you are walking with two children and the youngest is over the age of 1 1/2, they will not walk beside you. One will walk one-half block in front of you, the other half a block behind.
If you ask a child to turn his filthy, sweaty socks right-side out before the laundry is done, he will refuse and announce, "I wouldn't touch them, they're yucky."
Children also find it logical to leave doors open in winter, to take precautions against being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner, to rearrange the furniture in their bedroom so that it is grouped within a 12-inch radius of their bed, and to pick and present to you with a beatific smile the prize rose that is just beginning to open.
2. Children's memories are even weirder. If you take young children to a natural history museum, they will not remember the dinosaurs, the dioramas of Indian life or the model of a wolf. They will remember the hot air radiators that you repeatedly warned them not to touch. "Hot radiators, don't touch!" they will exclaim whenever you drive by.
If you take them to Williamsburg on a hot summer day, they will not remember the costumes, the buildings, the parading soldiers, but the water slide you stopped at on your way home.
If they remember the family gathering at all, it will be because Aunt Harriet's blouse was unbuttoned, Uncle Hector had bad breath, or Cousin Howard wore that scratchy jacket they had to hug.
If you take them on a long walk in the country, they will not remember the thrill of the sparkling air, the magic of the birds' songs, the majesty of the communion with the universe, but the fact that that icky bug touched them, that you made them wear jackets and they got too hot just as they said they would and the peanut butter sandwiches got squished under the thermos.
If you take them sightseeing in New York they will not talk about the skyscrapers, the urban bustle, the ethnic diversity, but about what the McDonald's looked like and what they ate there.
Alternatively, if you take them sightseeing in New York, they will not talk about the skyscrapers, the urban bustle, the ethnic diversity, but about how you wouldn't let them eat at McDonald's.
3. And what they will do to your principles is not to be believed. We all began with principles, things like: I shall not raise sex-stereotyped children. I shall never raise my voice or my hand to my child. I will not allow my children to be tainted by violence on TV, in their games, by their toys. I shall allow my child freedom of thought. I shall not use my age and role to force a child to comply with my will.
Those were fine, sure, but over the years principles change. Here's a rough sampling of my current guidelines. If they're quiet, leave them alone . . . If Carol let her kids see it, it can't be all that bad . . . Well, just this once . . . I don't care what you do, just give me (5 minutes) (10 minutes) (half hour) of peace . . . We'll see . . . Because I said so.
What do these Lesser Truths mean to couples deciding whether or not to have children? This. Just how willing are you to find your mind slowly but inexorably changing in odd ways so that before you can pack up for a trip you have to sort out your record collection, when at the National Gallery you notice only the faucets, and when faced with a moral choice, shrug and say "Just so long as she wears her boots."
If you can live with those things, you can live with children. In fact, you probably should.