HOW CAN MY KIDS make me feel so bad? I love them a lot. The turmoil they evoke inside me is confusing, baffling, and often leaves me unhappy. How can it be that my 5-year-old son and my 2-year- old daughter cause such ambivalent and painful feelings?
These feelings have lasted far longer than the initial months after their births. They involve a more complicated range of emotions than phrases such as "time of adjustment" and "post-partum depression" might suggest, both in duration and scope.
I am finding that being a parent, even after five years' experience, can still involve a struggle to cope with the feelings my children evoke. Some of these difficulties are uniquely mine, arising from the contortions of my own psyche. Others seem to be an integral part of being a parent. I've never been able to make a clear distinction. I have come to terms with some of these feelings, while others are still unresolved. I continue to be humbled by their power and contradictory nature.
They start at conception. When my wife threw up that first morning, and then slept half the day, I understood that pregnancy would be a risk to her health. I was delighted we were going to have a baby, yet resented the trouble and worry this stranger was already causing in our lives.
The threat of sickness and death may be far less than ever before in history, yet I discovered my fears didn't need much reality to be powerful. My grandmother had died shortly after childbirth. Such stories, all too common among our grandparents' generation, engendered a sense of dread in me that was not easily dissipated by visits to the doctor.
Although childbirth education classes prepared us for labor and delivery, they also conveyed the message that birth was an event of pain and uncertain outcome. While the Lamaze teacher kept saying, "Don't worry, everything will be all right," I knew that her repeated reassurances tried to conceal awful possibilities.
When my daughter came out purple and lifeless, she didn't take her first breath long enough for me to say to myself, "She may die." As I continue to fall more deeply in love with her, that fright looms even larger. My joy at knowing her heightens my awareness of what I might have lost.
I hated having my life disrupted. Before having children, my wife and I had worked out a fairly harmonious way of living together. Our first baby ripped that apart. Shouting at each other at 3 in the morning while our infant son screamed, my wife and I saw each other's ugliness as never before.
Our family has known much sweetness: bringing our new babies home, watching them crawl, then toddle, then run. Our house has echoed with much laughter. Yet in the moments when their needs exhaust me, I become bitter, angry, wishing only to be left alone.
Parenting decisions gave my wife and me something else to fight about. We brought to such disputes the passionate concern about the welfare of a loved one. I'd say to her, "Let him cry a while," or, "It's okay for her to climb that high," and we'd be off into a struggle to dominate each other, or defend our own parents' method of child raising.
While these fights often degenerated into hurling poison-tipped psychological theories at each other, or anything else that happened to be lying around, they did provide a relief from our helplessness in dealing with our irrational, insatiable children. I couldn't make them stop crying, or eat, or go to sleep, with my rational, verbal abilities. Fighting with my wife made me feel powerful, even useful, as I sought to convince her of her mistakes in raising our children. She would at least listen to me.
I hated sharing my wife. My children claimed her heart, as once only I had. They mobilized her energies in ways I've never been able to. I could perhaps take delight in witnessing their intimacy, but I was not part of it. I felt like I had lost her to someone more tender and lovely than me. I was right.
As a man in our culture, I had grown accustomed to my preferred status. I hated being in a supportive, secondary role. When my son bumped his head, or when my daughter got scared of lightning, they wanted their mommy, not me. They started life inside her, first knew her heartbeat and her voice, wanted her milk and felt her closeness as safety. Knowing I will never experience all the sweetness of being a mother continues to sadden me.
The sound of my children's crying, particularly as infants, had the same power as music to reach down inside me and conjure up long-buried memories or feelings. Even before I could think about it, their crying returned me to a world of fright and confusion that I was glad to have left the first time. This crying could even blur my distinctions between them and me. I would feel as if I were the child in pain. It's gotten much better now, since they can talk, and can even accommodate me when I yell, "Stop that crying!"
It was comforting to me to see the father that Dustin Hoffman portrayed in "Kramer vs. Kramer" struggle with the same career conflict I have felt. He couldn't love and care for his child, and pursue his career with undivided energy, any more than I could. I now understand why there was such a complete division of labor in the traditional family. It made things a lot simpler for dad.
My kids were also not up to all the complicated adult needs I had for a sense of engagement or success in the world. After all, they would tell me in their own way, we've got our own troubles. Yet when the feelings of failure start running around inside my head, the kids, and all their needs, have been easy to blame.
Sometimes I didn't get mad at my children, or my wife. I hid my anger under the guise of protecting them from anyone's hostility, including mine. This mental gyration left me trapped, unable to express how furious all the demands of being a parent made me feel. I retreated, as I've seen many other men do, trying to find what relief I could elsewhere. I was running up to 90 miles a week. It wasn't worth it. I missed my family too much. They all now get more of me, including my hostility.
In short, being a parent has often made me very unhappy. It's no fun seeing how selfish, or angry, or limited I am. The happiness I experience in being with my children gives me the resolve to go through these hard times. But it's a piece of work, being a parent.