The boring tragedies of parenthood

Sketch of ancient women in a row holding onto each other

By Catherine Newman

Sure, there is nothing inherently heartbreaking about a pair of seventeen-year-olds competing at Wii Just Dance Bollywood Dream. Okay, maybe it’s kind of inherently heartbreaking, the way they’re lurching around like baby giraffes on stilts, all of their many spindly arms and legs flailing, their baby giraffe necks looking less Bollywood than bobblehead with their bobbling, laughing heads on top.

And this explains our own laughter, definitely, but not so much the tears. Because my friend—the other mom—and I are boo-hooing into each other’s hair about these kids, friends since preschool, and how impossibly tall they’ve gotten. How impossibly beautiful and grown, one with her eyeliner painted on in high-impact swoops, the other with his Adam’s apple like a lump in my own throat. Was it not five minutes ago that they were blowing bubbles into their milk, blowing green snot out of their noses, blowing raspberries onto each other’s giggling bellies? They danced to “Boom Boom Tarara” and were one foot tall.

“Look how big they are!” my friend says to me, and I say back, “I know! Can you believe it?” This is our perennial call and response. We’ve been doing it since the kids were four.

I am shocked still by the parenting moments that break my heart—by the vague or acutely exact shape of loss, which can loom suddenly into my field of vision. The babies are gone! The teens will leave us! (We are all going to die!)

Sometimes I wonder about the famous tragedies. I mean, as a person who would be inclined to sing a keening aria—before plunging a dagger into my bereft maternal bosom—about the fact that my son opted to leave the house and play Settlers of Catan with his friends instead of watching the weird scientology documentary with his father and me, I can imagine that famous writers have felt compelled to embellish some sorry circumstances.

Could Shakespeare have written a bestselling tragedy about the fact that Lear’s daughter decided to go not to Barnard, which is literally eleven blocks from his rent-controlled apartment, but to Oberlin, in Ohio, wherever that is? He could not. Hence the abounding catastrophic misunderstandings, the betrayal and madness, everybody clutching everybody else dyingly. (Also, the not being able to put love into words? That is actually super-realistic. I mean, here I am, trying.)

In real life, Medea doesn’t actually kill her kids. She’s just pissed—hurt, really—because they stagger home from college with sinus infections and sacks of laundry and then promptly rush off to Donegal’s Pub to see their high-school friends. “Ugh,” she says, having longed for them, now missing them again already. “I could kill you guys!” Plus, her husband’s being kind of a dick about all of it.

And Mary was just feeling a little weepy one day, flipping through those old photographs of baby Jesus stuffed into his butterscotch-colored velour footie pajamas, slung across her lap in a dead-weight of napping. Where is that baby now? Who is this hulkish understudy with the stinking rope sandals and the striggly-straggly beard, her house thronging with the unwashed friends who seem to follow him everywhere? Still, poignant as it is, can maternal nostalgia really launch a world religion? The bible-writer tapped his chin. Maybe something with a little more drama?

The flip side is identifying at long last with the deeply disturbing sensibility of no less weird a picture book than Love You Forever. Remember that one? About the mom who rocks her baby and sings him her special “love you forever” song (fair enough) and then rocks the toddler, the child (good, fine), singing, and then the teen (get a life, maybe?), and, finally, her grown man-son, after she has driven to his house in the night with a ladder on her little old-lady pick-up truck, propped the ladder against his house (cringe), crawled into his window (forehead slap), and rocked his middle-age body in her lap while, for all you know, his wife is sleeping just outside the frame.

“Oh my god! Your mom broke in and rocked you again!”

“No she didn’t.”

“She did. I heard her singing.”

How we poked fun at that book when the babies were babies! Back when time with them was less like desperate sips to quench a soul-sucking thirst, and more like burst pipes, water flooding in everywhere, soaking everything, your whole life underwater, and who in their right mind would pick up a sleeping toddler when you could be downstairs with the Garnet Hill catalogue and a Sierra Nevada for the eleven minutes he would actually stay asleep? Also, hello, boundaries. But now, with my own baby halfway out the door, his near-goneness as blue and constant as December twilight, I’m not really laughing anymore. Love You Forever is not a book for kids themselves, I’m thinking. It’s for the parents of grown kids, of those children who are more like phantom limbs than children—missing and missed and painful in their absence. “As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

Here’s a problem: the author of Love You Forever, Robert Munsch, his babies were not, in fact, living any longer. He and his wife lost twins, stillborn. And that is the horror of literature. That everything I have said is precisely wrong. That the tragedies, the lullabies, the psalms, all of it—it’s written not to shout exaggerations about the quiet, daily ways we lose our kids, but to whisper into the abyss that is their mortality. Children die. People’s children have died. Ours could die, and we would kneel down with empty arms, our hearts choked but beating on like the willful jerks that hearts can be.

We are so lucky to have the children here to devastate us with their leaving.

The seventeen-year-olds are done dancing, and mine rests his sweaty, beloved head briefly on my shoulder. I kiss his hair while I have the chance. “I’m going to end up like the mom in Love You Forever,” I say, and he doesn’t say “What the hell are you talking about?” He just scrunches up his nose and says, “That’s possible.”

Author Update: So. It’s 3 years later, and I thought of this piece recently because we visited our firstborn at college (sob!) and went to see the play he’d been set-building for, and it was—wait for it—Medea! Which, with the murdered children and all, really is a much less boring tragedy of parenthood than me fretting that our 20-year-old seemed a little *pale*, a little, maybe, *underdressed for the cold.* It’s as bad as I thought, the missing of him. The longing. It’s like an achey phantom limb. And I was right: We are so lucky to have the children here to devastate us with their leaving. (But oh, it is devastating.)

Catherine Newman is the author of the books Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness.

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