“In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.” Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Chapter 29
The nine months leading up to the birth of our first daughter were easy – for me. For my wife, less so. Even being at the hospital wasn’t all that bad. There were plenty of nurses to request things of, like advice on what and how to do one thing or another. Having them around felt like a giant safety net for being a parent. The biggest shock was when we were discharged from the hospital. “Are they really letting us leave?” I thought, “don’t I need to sign something and watch a training video?” There were more requirements for driving a 12 passenger van in college, than there was for bringing a baby home from the hospital.
During our pre-baby discussions about having kids, I was atrociously ignorant. Yeah, there was the sleep thing and feeding them and diapers and all that jazz. Everyone was doing it, it couldn’t be that difficult. We had, after all, had a dog. Comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes about this having a dog-ready kid-ready dichotomy. It’s funny to hear his take, but also a stoic failure to not think about what having a kid means.
At first it seems easy, because if you have a baby shower, you get all this stuff. Stuff that wipes butts, warms milk, and helps with sleep. Like a craftsman who now has a toolbox full of supplies and sets off to build a house, you too can now be a parent. What was lacking was what to expect in doing it. Epictetus uses an Olympic analogy to warn of how easy things look before we begin:
“I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war.
The first time I read that I had to re-read it to make sure he wasn’t writing about having children.
My hardest time as a parent was when my daughters were between 1 and 4. During those years I twice explored daycare options for them because I had reached a point of stress that I preferred any job to being with them. I was searching the classified ads for anything that would pay the same amount that daycare would cost. Looking back I don’t know if I was weak, immature, or just unprepared.
The nadir of my experience was due to my unfamiliarity with what having a small child entailed. I enjoy being around kids that can walk, talk, and even sulk – anything where we can interact. With babies there was none of that, and my frustrations grew from the divergence between how I thought parenting would be and how it was. During all the pre-baby excitement, I failed to consider this part.
Right now I’m training to run a marathon next spring. Like Epictetus suggested, it’s easy said that done. Run on these days, rest on these other days, and show up for the race. It’s not quite that easy. As I write this my body is tired. I’ve ran 10 miles in the last two days and lifted weights at the gym. I physically feel the toll of the exercising and Epictetus might ask if I didn’t expect to be “swallowing of dust and (to be) whipped.” I’m starting to see these things. I can forecast that this winter will look different. I can see that running outside will be cold and hard.
Being a good parent requires we consider “what follows.” Thankfully, parenting allows a myriad of solutions. The wrestler must build his muscles, the philosopher his mind, but as parents we can tack any number of ways. We can coach up, cuddle with, or lead our kids along. All we need to remember is that whatever we do, there will be up and downs. Epictetus might suggest we remember the path of parenting isn’t always smooth. Sometimes it will be a serene stroll other times you will be running to get out of the rain.
Parenting is a life changing experience, and a better one if we are prepared for it.