I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.
I keep seeing ads for the impending movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting. (Movies like that aren’t “upcoming;” they’re “impending,” like doom.) As with any other Jennifer Lopez vehicle, this shouldn’t warrant mentioning. And yet, I bristle each time I see this film advertised, because it’s in the mold of movies that try to tap into Parenting Fear but get it completely wrong. In fact, it seems to originate from–and be aimed at–people who haven’t the slightest idea of what 99.9% of parents actually worry about.
The folks responsible for this movie may very well have kids, and they may think they have a parent audience in mind, but the ads are filled with “jokes” about things that do not worry actual parents: changings, feedings, sleeping, and so on. I imagine there has to be an awesome “exploding diaper” scene in it, along with a birthing sequence where the mom gets mad at the dad for “doing this” to her. Not to get all Culture Wars on you here, but I suspect that most Hollywood types fear these things because they have au pairs who take care of these menial tasks. And because their level of economic comfort shields them from the real terror that most parents confront on a daily basis.
Before you have kids, you have fears that recede almost immediately once you become a parent. You fret that you won’t be able to deal with dirty diapers or midnight feedings or temper tantrums, because these are the things that TV and movies tell us are the real trials of parenting. In real life, it all comes much easier than you could ever imagine. You will be amazed by how quickly you become blasé about handling another human’s feces on a regular basis. Sleep deprivation sucks, but that too becomes part of your existence, and you deal with it because you love your child and this is what your life demands now.
This is not the most terrifying part of being a parent. Not by a long shot.
The real terror comes from realizing how insanely expensive it is to raise a child. And I’m not talking about the my-child-deserves-the-best accoutrements like onesies knit by blind Sherpas and organic hemp bottles. I mean the bare minimum of what your child needs to live costs a god damn fortune.
It’s not changing diapers that worries parents–it’s how much the diapers cost, and how often they must be replenished. It’s not feedings that worry parents–it’s the fact that formula runs more per ounce than uranium. It’s not your kid freaking out at the doctor or the dentist that worries you–it’s the fact that all those doctor visits add up, even if you’re fortunate enough to health insurance.
Now you must find a way to pay for all this, on top of rent, car, insurance, utilities, food, and the intermittent one-time costs that inevitably pop up because the universe tends toward entropy. And if you work a full-time job to pay for all these things, you must leave your child with marginally qualified strangers all day, which also costs an arm and a leg and inevitably introduces your child to horrible language/habits that you will never, ever, ever be able to correct, which of course means that you are a terrible parent.
I’ve never laid in bed at 3am wondering how I’m going to change a diaper or get my kid to eat her vegetables. I have enjoyed many sleepless nights worrying if I could pay for those diapers and vegetables, or fretting that there was some Very Vital Payment I’d forgotten to make that could doom us all. This may just be my own hangup, having grown up poor, but it has always felt to me like the margin separating us all from living on the street was razor thin.
And that’s when I’ve had a job. Since my child was born, I’ve been laid off twice. I’m working now, but in this economy and the industry I work in (publishing), the specter of a pink slip is always there. If I was unemployed for an extended period of time…just thinking of it in the abstract makes me break out in a cold sweat.
Here is a terror I think every parent has experienced–if not exactly in this manner, then in some parallel way: You leave a party late at night, knowing there’s a long drive to get home. You buckle your kid in the backseat, and she falls asleep within seconds as you predicted/hoped. After a valiant effort to stay awake and keep you company, your wife falls asleep too. And it dawns on you that the reason they fell asleep is they trust you. There is not a doubt in any of their minds that you will get them to your destination safe and sound. And you’ve always held their lives in your hands to some extent, but it was never more stark than it was at the moment. And you think to yourself, People I love are counting on me to not fuck all this up, and “this’ = EVERYTHING.
Make a movie about that, Hollywood.