All of the people who have asked me about my daughter pulling herself up are parents, although the age range of their children spans from fifteen months to grown and on their own. But every one of them remembered what it was like for their own children to start pulling up and walking and happily shared these memories. For a few moments I found myself connected to these people over the common experiences of watching our children learn to stand on their own.
Parenthood is a community. In addition to the amazing adventures I’ve experienced with my beautiful little girl at home, I’ve also noticed the shift in how other adults interact with me. People who used to simply smile or wave at me now ask me how my little one is doing and talk with me at length about children. People much older than me who didn’t seem to have anything in common with me now connect over these adventures in parenthood, sometimes amazing me at how vividly they still remember their grown children’s early developmental years. I find a particularly intense identification with other parents of young children. Just yesterday I heard my boss’s boss’s boss, who has a four-year-old and a two-year-old, describe how much he misses his Saturday mornings drinking coffee and reading the paper by himself, and I thought, Hey, I feel the exact same way! I’m not the only person in the world who misses Saturday mornings to himself. And suddenly, with just a few words, I felt I had a lot in common with this person so high up the chain of administration in our hospital. He clearly has much more power and responsibility (and money) than I do, but we’re all just as tired when we’re raising small children.
Like any community, however, there are people outside. Aside from the idealized eschatological kingdom of redemption and salvation that fits my Christian beliefs, every community excludes people. (And, let’s face it, most Christians consider even the kingdom of salvation to exclude certain people.) There are adults who are not included in the community of parenthood, obviously, and those people are people who aren’t parents. And I find myself having feelings of guilt for how forcefully I identify with the community of parenthood given how it wasn’t very long ago that I felt excluded from this community. My spouse and I were on the later curve for having children; most of our peers began having children six or seven years ago and currently have older and multiple children. There was a year in which we found ourselves subtly but fully excluded from our circle of friends for the mere fact that we had not yet decided to start a family. Of course, people weren’t explicitly exclusive (well, most people weren’t). The exclusion wasn’t malicious or hostile. But when you’re the only one in a room without an infant in your arms and all around you is conversation about the nuanced differences of various bottle nipples or the numerous shades of baby poo? Well, there’s no more effective way to exclude someone than to speak a different language. Our friends vanished into the hazy mists of parenthood, all holding hands, while my spouse and I stood alone on the shore and watched. And we were consciously choosing not to have children; imagine, then, how painful this separation became when we consciously chose to start a family and couldn’t get pregnant.
Clearly, we overcame that struggle, and with relatively little medical intervention compared to what some couples face. But nonetheless, I still feel the sting of shame that comes from finding myself a privileged member of a community that once excluded me. I want to be more inclusive, to be mindful of the struggles and pains of people who wish to be a part of this community but can’t or aren’t yet ready. But of course, there is a fundamental difference between us: I have children, and they don’t. And it’s true that when you have children, they consume your world. I mean that with all possible emphasis: they consume you. My little girl is tiny and petite even for nine months, but she is a whale that has completely swallowed me and everything I value. And it’s quite a relief to stumble around in the belly of this beast and find other parents there sympathizing with me over the staining effects of drool and spit-up.
I feel the separation from one or two friends who are still standing on the shore of childlessness. I know some of them do not want to have children right now, some of them do but can’t, and some of them I’m not sure about. But these friends have become conspicuously silent in the larger conversation of my life now that I am a parent. Despite how much louder that conversation has become now that our community has widened to include parents of all ages, I still hear this silence among my non-parent friends, and I wonder if I’m still really friends with them. Or if I even can be friends with them. Even when I talk about things that aren’t really about my child – my love of music, say, or the insanity of Charlie Sheen – I’ve begun to speak with a new accent, and it’s nearly impossible for the shadow of my little girl not to fall over everything I say or do. Because ultimately these things pale in comparison with this giant love I’ve discovered that is changing me every day in ways I could never imagine. I now understand how difficult it is as a parent to not speak in such a way that would imply that parenthood is the normative status for adults to achieve. I don’t really believe that intellectually, but I can’t find a way to talk about my life in a way that doesn’t still somehow suggest this very thing.
I don’t want to apologize for the change my life has undergone, and I certainly won’t apologize for my all-consuming love for my beautiful little girl. But I do feel the regret over the inherently exclusive nature of the community of parenthood and my feelings of powerlessness to overcome it. It’s easy to overlook sometimes because this community is so large, and as a new member I’m still discovering new connections with people that were not available to me before. But I have friends who are still on the shore, and I feel distanced from them now. And I miss them even as I rejoice in sailing off to be swallowed whole by the great whale.