Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Unexpected Consequences

You get a lot of advice before you get your first kid.

Some of it is well-intentioned but stupid: “Sleep now while you still can.” As though you can hoard and bank sleep for months beforehand, as though restful, quality sleep is akin to pennies in a piggybank.

Some of it is just stupid: “Crib bumpers! You have to have crib bumpers! The baby will hit its head and get brain damage if you don’t have them!” Yeah, because so many generations of babies who did not have crib bumpers were desperately brain-damaged. Never mind the strangling and suffocation deaths every year from these things, it’s the ridiculous threat of brain-damage that should be driving our bedding purchases.

Some – very few – of the thousands of “helpful” comments people make when you say you’re about to become first-time parents are true. Of course, you don’t realize this until much later, after you are up to your neck in poop, plastic toys, and temper tantrums. One of “the things people say” has turned out to be true for us, in a way that we had not quite anticipated.

That gem of wisdom? “Becoming a parent changes everything.” That’s an approximation, of course, an amalgamation of all the variations on that thought that were so earnestly dished out by well-meaning folk (most of them parents themselves). It is, however you say it, true.

Before you have an actual child in your house, waking you up at night and demanding more of your energy and time than you ever thought possible, you are apt to laugh at these people. “Oh, come on,” you think. “It won’t change everything. Some things, sure. I’ll get less sleep. I’ll have less money. My clothes will be a bit more stained, and I’ll be intimately familiar with another person’s bodily inputs and outputs. I won’t spend my Saturday nights sucking down Cuba Libres and smoking American Spirits on the back patio of the hippie bar.”

You tell yourself that you will be exactly the same person you are now, just with a child in tow. Preferably a clean-faced little cherub who behaves well and whom you can afford to dress in tiny, cute, stylish clothing. It will be hard, of course, but you will always be certain that the work is worth it, buoyed by the strength of your love. You and your partner will watch this little person grow and help it become a wonderful human being, a majestic model of kindness, brimful of forward-thinking views, and probably the finder of the cure for cancer.

Of course, when the sleep deprivation or the crayon-drawings all over your walls or the anguish over “New Math” or the teenage door-slamming comes, as it inevitably must, it’s easy to poke fun at the person you were pre-kid, to say “Psh. Poor, clueless bastard. You thought you had it all figured out, didn’t you? Yeah, cure cancer, bring world peace, haw-haw.”

But there are also moments of total wonderment at the person you have become. You marvel at your distance from that chick who would walk down any alley in the dark and routinely got into cars with strangers, or how different you are from the college boy who spent his free Saturdays at “band practice” in someone’s smoke-filled basement. Sometimes it just smacks you in the face, this feeling of that is not who I am anymore.

This whole diatribe is rooted in an afternoon-tv showing of Trainspotting. I was idly flipping channels one day when Piper was six or eight months old, and Trainspotting was on. I can remember going to see that movie for the first time, I can remember how we obsessively watched it in college and memorized the dialogue. I have watched that movie at least twenty times in my life, and loved it every time.

Every time except this one. It got to the part where the baby is sitting on that disgusting floor, surrounded by passed-out junkies. She is filthy, it looks like she hasn’t had her diaper changed in days, she’s crying and crying and crying. Just sitting in the middle of the dirty floor, with nobody paying attention to her.

I felt like somebody had punched me in the gut. I felt sick; I almost sobbed out loud. I had to change the channel, I could not watch any further. I was perplexed. I turned the channel back, and again there was that horrible, sick feeling. I could not look at the screen, at that crying baby, for more than three seconds. I had to turn it off again. I thought about what happens to that baby later in the movie, and I swear to God I almost threw up, right there in the living room. I felt a physical urge to reach into the screen and pick up that poor, doomed junkie baby. Instead, I picked Piper up from where she was scooting around the floor drooling on stuffed animals and I hugged her so hard she squealed in protest. I put her back down, feeling at once shaky and edgy and agitated, like I’d ingested large amounts of caffeine on an empty stomach.

I also felt confused. I loved this movie, right? What the hell was wrong with me? I had always mocked people who talked about experiences like this, who sobbed for the children left motherless and the mothers left childless by some far-flung natural disaster or talked how about their mommyhood had ignited an urge to mother all children. I snickered, I rolled my eyes, I snerked at these mommy-zombies. Puh-leeeze, I thought. Spare me. Now it appeared that the sappy, overly-sentimental mommy-shoe was on the other foot. My foot.

I told my story to Ryan, and instead of laughing at me or calling me a mom-bot, he said “Oh my God, you are right. I just remembered what happens to the baby. I don’t think I can watch that movie ever again.” And then we both looked at each other: What the hell was going on here?

It happened again when I was discussing my bicycle. I have a very nice bicycle, which is my favorite color (blue), very cool and retro-looking, and still in Michigan. We don’t have a shed or garage to keep our bikes in, so they’re languishing in my parents’ rusty garden shed until we figure something out. I am so desperate for a mode of transportation that I have asked my parents to bring my bike when they visit later this month (preferably instead of, not in addition to, another carload of useless crap). I plan to put a baby-seat on it and ride as far as I can on our not-at-all-bicycle-friendly roads.

I was thinking about this, about how nice it will be not to be trapped in the house all the time (we have one car, which goes with Ryan every day on his 25-minutes-each-way commute) and how I’d have to get Piper a little bike helmet. And then I realized that I’d have to get one, too.

I used to look down my nose at people who wore bike helmets for casual riding; if you were a crazy mountain-biking mofo like my cousin, who frequently comes back from rides with body parts bloodied, broken, and otherwise damaged – well, I could see where a helmet would be an advantage. If you were a long-distance biker, sharing the road with a lot of cars on a regular basis – yeah, okay, I get it. But the slow cruises around the neighborhood, or the trips to the nearby grocery store? Only obsessive freaks wore helmets for that stuff. You know, losers.

Might as well paint a big fat L on my forehead, then, because caution is about to become my middle name. I laughed out loud at myself, and explained the situation to Ryan this way:

“I would never take Piper on the bike without her wearing a helmet, not even around the block. But what about me? What if we’re riding to the new elementary school up the street to use their playground and one of the many local asshole drivers runs us off the road? There’s not even so much as a shoulder for us to ride on, let alone a bike lane. It wouldn’t take much to send us into a ditch. She might be just fine in her tiny little helmet, but what the hell good does that do if I’m laying there with my head split like an overripe melon? What would happen to her?”

His eyes got big. His mouth made a little round O. “I hadn’t thought of that. Oh my God, you’re right. Holy shit.”


Holy shit, indeed.

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