Towards the end of his brilliant 1985 novel, The Anatomy Lesson, Philip Roth, America’s greatest living writer, has his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, say, as part of a long, frenzied, high-octane monologue: “You don’t have kids so you don’t know anything… But you don’t know suffering until you have children. You don’t know joy. You don’t know boredom, you don’t know — period.”
I wouldn’t, like Zuckerman, go that far. (You don’t know me, but if you know Zuckerman from Roth’s novels — and if you don’t, you should make his acquaintance soonest — you’d suppose that scarcely anyone would go as far as Zuckerman in many things.) But I would dare say that until one has children, one doesn’t really know the meaning of a certain kind of extra-keen, overwhelming, all-engulfing joy, pride, boredom, misery, suffering, anxiousness or vulnerability. And none of this ever goes away, I suppose; it merely changes form over the years.
The little girl of a friend has been unwell. And although I am told that she is holding up cheerfully and with good humour, I have been thinking of what her parents her going through. From what I can see, her father is holding up well too. But that’s the point: he is holding up, putting on a face to meet the faces that he meets — no, that’s not my phrase; it’s so good, it can’t be, you see.
I can sort of imagine what it is like for him. But empathising with this kind of thing isn’t ever close to the real thing: that suffering each father has to get through, the best he can, all by himself. No one can reach out and touch that hidden place of tortured anxiety.
Parenting is, of course, hardly a solitary endeavour. Paradoxically, however, it teaches us to deal with its attendant agony all by ourselves. No amount of sharing helps, not quite, not with anyone.
Being a father or a mother, I think I have said before, enriches the narrative arcs of our lives. It takes us out of our self-obsessed, self-absorbed, egotistical shells, and liberates and makes tangible things within us we never knew existed.
It teaches us the virtues of patience and unconditional love (the kind of love that exists in no other relationship); it shows us how insignificant all the other stuff we tend to get so bothered and fretful and competitive about really are. By distorting the perspective we had on ourselves and our lives, it offers us a sense of generous objectivity — only that sense tends to be refracted through the prism of one’s child’s well being. How the mood of a household is determined by the expression on a small child’s face…
I suppose what Zuckerman means when he says you know nothing until you have become a parent is that you know nothing of this sort of other, altered life in which you come second to someone else in your own scheme of things.
It is scary, what we have invested in parenting. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I can’t think of anything else that would make us so complete.