It’s 3 a.m. on a Monday. As my friends and nemeses drift out of peaceful slumber (or fevered dreams in which I seek my vengeance), I sit on the floor of a small green room. The air conditioner makes a carousel of soft animals — bear, fox, raccoon — dance, slowly swaying under their suspended home, affixed to the ceiling with an arm’s length of yellow yarn and a hook meant for hanging plants. Stars project from the back of a turtle sitting next to my head, now somewhat permanently affixed to the fabric of the well-worn orange kilim.
“No more milk, honey. But in the morning, you’ll have cheese,” I whisper softly into the silence of the cool room. “Any kind of cheese you like.”
A husky voice meets mine. “No, mommy. Milk.” This is our fifth round. Any reputable ref would have called this fight ages ago. I concede.
I have never aspired to politics, and my current predicament reinforces that decision. My sparring partner this evening is a toddler holding the hand of a stuffed badger and wearing a gown adorned with teddy bears. Her comically large eyes, and her determination, her cunning, they defeat me in the end. She will have milk tonight and cheese in the morning. At this rate, I’ll never be president.
Some people say that parenthood is, for those who choose to enter into it, the defining moment when one leaves childhood in the past and dives into adulthood. While the sanctimonious parents of the internet will tell you until they’re blue in the face that there is a particular way in which to prepare yourself for parenthood—a philosophy degree and a Prius and a Montessori preschool for Thelonious or Django that will inevitably create a child who cures cancer or all of our gluten allergies—the fact is, even the most prepared among us are actually just pretending that we know what to do. I’ve taken the classes; I’ve read the books. (I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains, I looked to the children as they drank from the fountains of breast milk supplied by their exhausted-looking mothers.) And despite the stacks of perfectly folded cloth diapers, the thousand-dollar strollers, and the onesies that arrive — and stay — white as freshly fallen snow, the fact is, we’re all winging it.
The horrifying truth that remains unspoken in the waiting room of neonatal chiropractors’ offices and baby CrossFit classes alike is that parents know nothing that other adults do not.
Were the ability to get laid a prerequisite for grown-upness, Harry Styles would undoubtedly have been dubbed Best Adult by now. The idea that parenthood and adulthood are somehow inextricably intertwined is a farce desperately clung to by people who don’t want CPS called upon them. Does being a slightly-more-than-adequate parent require some adult skills? Sure. Do most people know how to pay bills and do laundry and not kill people without the benefit of a condom accident? Quite often, the answer is to this is also yes.
If countless years of research into why parenthood is such a joyful waking nightmare have taught us anything, it’s that we are all lying to ourselves, and to a greater degree, each other. The prevailing wisdom fostered in communities where parents brag about their child’s ability to count to 10 in Esperanto and express their preference for anatomically correct dolls is that the main goal of parenting is an impossible-to-achieve mix of emotional availability, expensive material possessions and an unlimited supply of time. We are told to sacrifice money and time and romantic relationships and our careers to make sure our children become all the things we once thought possible for ourselves — be it humanoid tigers with a profound understanding of nuclear physics or people rich enough to have a lake house they only visit during the summer. But science tells us that no matter how in connected to our offspring we think we are, we’re essentially just a bunch of goddamn liars.
Research conducted at Center for the Mind and Brain at UC-Davis reveals that, despite their best intentions, parents regularly overestimate their child’s optimism and underestimate their own stress levels. Equally notable and unsurprising: Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that the hyper-vigilant parenting style adopted by many parents eager to secure a safe environment in which for their child to grow and thrive may actually trigger anxiety in their offspring. (You can’t win, can you?) Sensitive parents eager to stay abreast of their child’s emotional needs are just as guilty of projecting, embellishing and getting it wrong as anyone else, it would seem.
If Donald Trump’s rise to supreme dictator and bad hombre has taught us anything, it’s that confidence without the requisite skills to back it up can get you a long way in this world. The parents whose breezy self-confidence you envy are likely no better at keeping their kitchens clean or navigating a tantrum than those muttering curses under breath as their pantsless child shoves a handful of sand and cigarette butts into their diaper.
If you can keep it together, leaving the house in clothes with nary a spit-up stain, come home to read Tolstoy to your infant, and keep a roof over your head, more power to you. But for everybody else, don’t worry: At least you’re in good company.