Writer Ian Stansel provides a psuedo-anthropological examination of parental subspecies
Of course they’ve been there all along—you’ve just never really noticed. But as soon as you know that in eight months or so you’ll be joining their ranks, they appear in greater numbers. It’s like when you start noticing certain number combinations after they’ve taken on special significance. Or when you’re in your kitchen and you see an ant on the counter; something happens in your brain to make your eyes especially sensitive to their presence and then suddenly: fucking ants everywhere.
So it is when that little plus sign materializes. You realize that a huge segment of the population is not made up of plain ol’ people anymore. There are fucking parents everywhere. And very quickly you find out that not all of these parents are the same, that there are different categories, sub-species that can be grouped and studied through observation.
1. Parentis Schadenfreudis
It’s inevitable, and it will happen before the baby is even born: amidst the hugs and kisses, the congratulations and well-wishes, the cards and presents and “likes,” someone will say, “Say goodbye to sleep. Heh, heh, heh.” Or, “Have fun now, because the good times are over with. Heh, heh.”
And this will continue after she’s born. Say that the baby is sleeping better at night, and you’ll hear, “Yeah? Just wait until she’s teething. Hoo, boy.” Make the mistake of telling a group that taking care of the little one is not as difficult as you had feared (for your fears were extreme, having been based in large part on the initial warnings of P. Schadenfreudis), and you might get, “Not now, maybe, but just wait until she’s crawling. Oh, man.”
That’s about the stage my wife and I are in now, with our daughter just past four months. It has happened too many times for me to count, and I have no doubt that this will continue. Soon it’ll be “You haven’t seen anything until you get to the terrible
twos. Just awful.” Or, “Say goodbye to your weekends once the soccer and scouts and sleepovers start.”
Then, “Christ, just wait until puberty. I do not envy you.”
“She’ll be dating soon. Good lord. Just start drinking now.”
“Have fun paying that college tuition, boy-o. I’ll save you a seat in the poor house.”
Parentis Schadenfreudis, named for the German term for taking pleasure in another’s pain, might have three months or thirty years on you, but regardless of seniority this particular sub-species seems to view parenting as one elaborate hazing ritual, and like sadistic frat boys they delight in your frustration, fatigue, and discomfort. They will feel obliged to gleefully point out that no matter where you are in your parenting experience, shit’s about to get a whole lot shittier.
2. Parentis Backhandedcomplimentis
There’s a flipside, though it is little better. A couple weeks ago I was walking with our daughter in her car seat/stroller when a woman approached and stopped to peer back at her. “Aww,” she said. She asked how old she was and of her name. She pursed her lips into a smile. “What beautiful eyes,” she said, and I thanked her. Then she looked at me and said, “Pretty soon she’ll have much more of a personality.”
What a relief! Thank you, stranger, for allaying my fears that my child would forever have the personality of a four-month-old.
“Yes,” this parental sub-species will say upon seeing your newborn, “but wait until her face really takes shape.”
“Yes, but wait until you see her playing with other babies.”
“Yes, but wait until she says ‘Dada’,” this parent says a little later. “Oh, then you’ll know love.”
“Yes,” they say with dewy nostalgia in their eyes, “but just wait…”
This parent means well, but really all these comments do is minimize the love for your child you currently feel, and the pleasure you take in her existence. According to P. Backhandedcomplimentis the good stuff in your life is forever around the corner. It is a type of one-upsmanship. “You think this is good…” Rather than telling you how terrible things are going to be, this species lets you know how much better your baby is going to get, how much smarter, how much cuter, how much more charming. Because right now your baby is a pretty dull dolt. And with a squishy face to boot.
3. Parentis Militantis
By far the worst interaction my wife and I have had so far was in the aisles of Whole Foods. It had been a while since our daughter’s last feeding and she began to fuss, so my wife took her to the small seating area by the deli counter to give her a bottle while I finished filling our cart with over-priced, vaguely organic food stuffs. Also in the seating area was another mother, about my wife’s age, a little hippy-ish with long hair, a threadbare t-shirt, and slightly flared jeans. She had with her a two-year-old boy. They were lunching on some type of salad in clear plastic containers, and the mother struck up a conversation with my wife. They commented kindly on each others’ children, and then the woman motioned to her son.
“Well, this one’s never touched a bottle,” she said with a self-satisfied smirk. “But she’s a beauty, so you must be doing something right.” A small comment, but one that carried with it volumes of judgment.
A little backstory: our daughter was born a month early. She took to the breast right away, her instincts kicking in, but didn’t have quite the strength or coordination yet to feed on her own. She lost the usual post-birth weight in the hospital, but after having being home a week she was burning more calories trying to eat than she was taking in, and so our doctor directed us to bring her back to the hospital, to the Neonatal ICU. Terrified, we packed up what we would need and were admitted two hours later. The doctors said she’d have to be fed by bottle every three hours, with increasing doses each third feeding. If she couldn’t keep up, they’d have to insert a feeding tube.
The thought sent a rush of heat through my body. Eight times a day we watched tensely as she ate, trying everything we could to keep her awake until she finished. Eventually she managed to find the rhythms of swallowing and breathing.
Though we came out of the NICU relatively easy—or perhaps precisely because of our relative ease—I am often reminded of the little ones there who were not as well off.
I met parents whose babies had been in there for months, tiny bodies monitored inside their incubators, machines helping them to breathe. It was a humbling reminder of all that can befall our soft, watery bodies, all that can go wrong for even these most vulnerable. Especially for them. It made me aware of how individual every experience of being born is, how so much is beyond our control. “How do you make God laugh?” the joke goes. “Make a plan.”
My wife had been dreaming of the bonding experience of breast-feeding for months, but our daughter never took to her breast again. We agreed, though, that we want our daughter to have her mother’s milk, so my wife has hooked herself up to the breast pump every three hours, through the day and through the night, ever since being admitted four months ago. We’ve come up with a system where she pumps and we both feed. And now, months later, our daughter is plump and healthy.
“What a fucking cunt,” I said when my wife told me about the woman’s comment, the vile word I’d never used in front of my wife projected from my mouth.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I’ve imagined scenarios like this before and that’s always the word that comes to mind for me too.”
“But you resisted.”
I was livid. That someone—a stranger!—would have the nerve to pass judgment on us based on a glance. That she would take the opportunity to try to assert some moral parental dominance with nothing to go on but her own ignorance! I scanned the parking lot for the woman, ready to lay into her, but my wife told me she’d seen her leave. I grumbled on as we loaded our daughter into the car. “Goddamn suburban hippy should shut her fucking Kombucha hole.”
Since that day, though, I’ve softened my view of the exchange. The woman was an asshole, that’s for sure. But who among us has never been an asshole? Plus, I think her behavior might be explained in part with the examination of one more group.
4. Parentis Insecuris
A species that umbrellas the above groups, P. Insecuris is also known simply as Parentis or, in common parlance, Every parent ever in the history of the world.
A friend of mine emailed me the other day with this message: “Parenting doesn’t get easier. Once you have it mastered, it moves on to something new you have to figure out.” This strikes me not as a bit of schadenfreude, but as an undeniable truth. The fact of the matter is none of us know what we’re doing because there is no one way to raise a child. In the few months I’ve been at this game I’ve learned one thing above all else: you never hold the same child twice.
Whether a first time expecting parent or a fifth-timer, there is always insecurity. Wealthy parents talk of the benefits of this daycare or preschool, while those who can’t afford it sit in silence. The world talks of the importance of having a parent at home, while millions of working parents rush to get their kids from afterschool programs on time after long days. Young parents are stigmatized. Older parents are looked at askance. Gay parents are declared everything from unfit to abominations. Even older parents, ones who have entered into that all-important sub-sub-group Grandparentis Babysitis, can feel retroactively deficient when some young something (Parentis Knowitallis—a category I fear I’ve proved myself to be a part of on occasion) comes along to cavalierly tell them about all the things that have been proven dangerous or detrimental since their time.
How can we all not feel a little insecure? We long for certainty where all we find is mystery: a thousand opinions, each one announced with utter conviction and each one contradicting the one before. We look at the other parents around us and wonder, “What do they know?” and “Is it all just as hard for them?” So we combat our feelings of deficiency with dumb jokes, with gender stereotypes, with passive aggressiveness, with self-righteousness, with feigned nonchalance, with deference to authority, with worship of the latest science, with trust in our deity of choice, with good, long cries when no one is looking.
Every day my daughter wakes up new. She retains some habits and traits from the night before when we put her to bed, and she has shed some others. And at some point that day, in minute or momentous ways, she will step forward in her development. The day will be hard and it will be joyous. It will be funny and strange and very, very tiring. These things my wife and I know. The specifics, though, are a mystery until our girl reveals them.
—Photo by Rennett Stowe/Flickr