A few days ago during our wedding anniversary vacation in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, I was at one of many non-chain clothing stores along Main Street and saw a young mom, who was shopping there with her friend and her baby. The woman was in her early to mid-twenties and dressed comfortably and warm (the weather was sunny but with the wickedest wind), yet very stylishly. No, it was not all designer labels and stiletto heels and a multi-hundred dollar bag. Not at all. In fact, the store we were at is known for catering to the younger career crowd with not a whole lot of disposable income. Yet, she looked great. The baby was snug in a light sling carrier on her back - also warmly and comfortably dressed and looking not in the least deprived by the fact that mom took time to dress herself in the morning and was presently enjoying some time shopping with her friend. I approached the woman and complimented her on how great she looked.
Incidents like that frequently make me notice related examples among my surroundings. As I wandered around Main Street, Blowing Rock I noticed many young moms and dads with various quantities of children of various ages. Yes, many wore the most basic of outfits: t-shirt, jeans, sweater, jacket, boots. But they were fitted t-shirts, non-sloppy jeans, trim sweaters, shapely jackets, comfortable, flat boots - the kind that look good but allow you just as much freedom to run around with the kids as a pair of sneakers. Their children were healthy and happy - running around the playground at the park, enjoying their sandwiches and ice cream, and forming an excitedly giggling crowd around an elderly gentlemen with an enormous black and white Newfoundland of very sweet disposition, neither minding the kids' desire to pet the dog and shake its huge furry paw.
You know what all this means? "I haven't bought anything for myself because my children need me" is bullshit. ...So is "What's the sense in dressing up, I spend all day chasing and cleaning up after the kids." ...So is, "I don't have a full-length mirror at my house because appearances are superficial. And my kids get all the new stuff anyway." ...So is, "Oh, I might do this someday, when my kids are grown." ...And so is every single variation on the theme. Closely following that group of bullshit is another group under the heading "Your life is easier than mine because you don't have kids". Closing the bullshit procession is the third all-time favorite "Wow, you are so lucky to afford these things. Must be nice having all that money."
Let's start with Bullshit Number One. You weren't born a parent. You spent a very long time developing you as YOU. Not you as a spouse, not you as a parent, but you as an individual. What makes you think that you are supposed to sacrifice yourself because you have children? They don't want it! Your kids are NOT happier because you dress them up but you yourself look like a tired dishrag. They are NOT happier because you agonize all day what to feed them for dinner, yet never take a couple of hours to go out to eat with your friends or with your spouse. Your denying yourself everything for their sake, but ending up sulking about it constantly does NOT improve your children's quality of life.
Nor does it improve your marriage - if that is indeed still in the picture. Your spouse fell in love with you first as YOU. You may qualify for the Parent of the Year award, but when was the last time you have done anything more romantic than sitting on the couch in front of the TV together? Do your sweats and baggy jeans and t-shirts make your spouse howl with lust? Didn't think so...
My parents had to bring me up in the former Soviet Union. I was sickly and attended two schools, and they both had full-time jobs with lots of travel. Yes, having grandparents on hand helped. But I still had plenty of time with my parents and, in fact, never tired of hanging out with them. I never understood my classmates who were embarrassed to be seen with my parents - I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather be seen with. We didn't always have hot water and electricity, and did laundry by hand. We had no supermarkets or giant malls, so my mom taught herself how to use a sewing machine and knitting needles, so that she could duplicate all the couture she wanted. Somehow my parents and I were always neat, clean, pressed and looking good, whether we were staying in or going out.
I know a stay-at-home dad, who remembered that he was still a man and a husband and started taking time to work out - for himself and to look good for his wife. I am pretty sure his teenage daughter was right there cheering him on as he was sweating it out on a stationary bike, and I am equally sure his wife is not complaining.
I know a mom who has two toddlers, who had quit her job, started her own business as a life coach and is presently getting back into triathlons. She is gorgeous and intelligent and very talented. The has bad days, like everyone else. She has good days too. Her kids get to watch her and learn. They are learning to pick themselves up and get going. They are learning to take risks in order to build their own happiness. They are learning the balance between their inner and outer selves, and that the two are inseparable. They are learning a whole bunch of other stuff from their incredible mother.
Tell me, what are your kids learning from your dismissal of yourself, your sullenness, your denial and your hiding from the rest of the world? What kind of parents will they grow up to be, if the message they are getting is, "Once you have kids, your life is over."?
The place where we stayed in Blowing Rock was called The Inn at the Ragged Gardens - a beautiful old bed and breakfast that started as a boarding house over a hundred years ago. Among many great features, the inn has a lovely tradition: serving wine and hot hors d'oeuvres from five till seven in the evening. The tenants welcome this event with open arms, because it's a great time for everyone to relax, meet their inn neighbors and talk. Our neighbors were all couples, who were also parents of multiple children (two to three per family) of various ages (none of college age).
They told us that precisely because being parents is so demanding, they made a point of saving up for a kid-free trip twice a year, finding someone to watch the young ones (siblings, friends, grandparents, parents of their kids' school sleepover friends, etc.), and going off for a short while - at least for an extended weekend. Not only were their children fine with this arrangement, they were glad that mommy and daddy went off to chill just as they were beginning to reach the boiling point at home.
Notice, these people are not independently wealthy and they don't just take off on a moment's notice. They work. They have to arrange for time off. They schedule these outings months in advance. They save up for them. In fact, setting money aside for this sort of thing is a part of their necessities expense. They understand the necessity of fun, the importance of pleasure and a benefit of taking time off from being a parent.
Interestingly, I never hear the Bullshit Number Two from parents, who take time for themselves and who refuse to wrap themselves in the shroud of false martyrdom on the altar they themselves have constructed. It is usually the parents that wear their parenthood suffering like a badge of honor that stick it into my face that my life must be oh-so-carefree because I don't have kids.
I implore you, parents, not to do this. I am not talking about hanging on to "friends who need losing" - people with truly skewed priorities and dubious reasoning. I don't like those myself. No, I am talking about real friends, with jobs, with their own troubles and their own challenges, who are afraid to tell you anything because you'll just turn around and tell them their lives are a walk in the park, because they are not parents.
We, childless people, enjoy hearing that from you just about as much as you enjoy hearing, "Well, it's easy for you to say - you are married!" or, "It's easy for you to say - you have children." or, "It's easy for you to say - you don't have to work full time."
There is an entire group of people who enjoy trying to make others feel guilty by starting their list of excuses with "It's easy for you to say". Self-ignoring parents and workaholics seem to make up the majority of that group. I am tempted to put them all into one room and see who gets sick of whom first. They could take turns. "It's easy for you to say - you only have one kid, and I have three." "It's easy for you to say - you haven't met my boss." "It's easy for you to say - you can afford to pay someone to clean your house." Blah, blah, blah... It's always someone else's fault. It's always easier for other people to lead their lives than for you to lead yours.
Have you ever considered the fact that it is, in fact, your life? Somehow you got where you are today - good, bad or indifferent. There may have been circumstances outside of your control, like disease, assault, or a natural disaster. There may have been bad decisions on your part. It's no use rehashing what it was that landed you wherever you are now. But if you are not happy about it, how about figuring out what you can do to get out of whatever it is, instead of insulting other people by telling them they have it easy? It's none of your business how they have it. Take care of your own damn life, and maybe you won't have to focus quite so much on what other people have or have not.
...Which leads us nicely to Bullshit Number Three. As someone who does statistics for a living, I can tell you: there is no such thing as luck. It doesn't exist. It's all a bunch of probabilities. Some things are more likely to happen than others. Some people are more attuned to what will happen when and how. They are not lucky, they are just more skilled or are better at paying attention. And that's all there is to it.
So, don't turn to me or to anyone else for that matter and say, "You are so lucky to have this, that and the other thing." You may want to consider how we got where we are, because judging one's position without taking into account the entire journey to said position is not smart. I got where I am today via being mutated by Chernobyl fallout at eleven, losing my mother at fourteen, losing more people at sixteen, and moving to a strange country alone with $300 in my pocket at the age of nineteen. I also got here via having amazing parents, an incredible friendship with my maternal grandfather, and a brutal, yet very comprehensive early education. I wouldn't trade my life for anything, but I won't deny that I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Yet, when I wish that, I don't go to someone else and tell them how they have something I don't, implying all the while that they got it easier or that they are less deserving.
There is no luck. We are all born naked, wrinkly and screaming - and everything after that is between probabilities and our own decisions. The older you are, the more power you have to shift control of your life away from the probabilities and toward the decisions. Realize it and get your head on straight already! The bad things that happen to you are not punishments. The good things that happen to other people before they happen to you are not there to make you mad and/or miserable. It's just life. Allow yourself to grieve through the tragedies and cheer the others on through their successes, and that will leave you more time to recognize the opportunities and build your own happiness. And when you have, you'll know that luck had nothing to do with it, but rather it was you and what you did with your own brain and your own two hands. ...Which is so much better than luck, that you'll want to do it again.