There is a beautiful, persuasive moment in Jhumpa Lahiri's story, A Choice of Accommodations, in which a father, devoted to his two small daughters, realises how precious a commodity solitude has become in his life, and how keenly he treasures those moments of being on his own.
“Wasn’t it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with, after making a family with that person… that solitude was what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting, diminishing doses, kept one sane?”
Like a lot of Lahiri’s writing, this rings true.
Parenthood is underpinned by the tension between the pleasure of engagement with the child and the desire for freedom from that — or at least the occasional desire for a temporary liberation from it. It’s a complex thing, this irascibility and exasperation. It’s a feeling that one often dares not articulate; because the irascibility is never unmixed with love for the child and loathing for oneself.
But it’s there.
It turns up when the infant refuses to go to sleep.
When, after walking around with her, rocking her, hand on the back of her neck, having placed her on her cot, slid hand out from under her back, tiptoed out and just celebrated one’s success, she begins to cry, when she is awake - again.
It turns up when she is a year old, and one is travelling in an unfamiliar country, and as one struggles with the road map and tries to figure out the nearest underground train station while she sleeps in her pushchair, she wakes up, hungry, begins to bawl and demands to be fed, right then, right there.
It turns up when the child is, say, six or seven, when her curiosity is boundless and her absorption in the moment is absolute. Long, dreadful day, and, back home, one is reading something truly memorable, shutting out the unpleasantness of the rest of the day, and the questions turn up, incessant, earnest, genuinely well-intentioned, and one has no answer, one abhors the questions that compel one to look up from the book.
As soon as the oh-do-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment sort of irritability and annoyance travel through one’s brain like an electric charge, one feels shamed and chastened. Moments after being annoyed (or is it while one is being annoyed?), one feels the unconditional love one has for one’s child more acutely.
One deals with this contradictory impulse, each in his own way.
And no sooner than the cause for vexation is withdrawn, no sooner than one is away and travelling and too much on one's own, one's existence is filled with the ache of missing her.
One especially misses what the poet and memoirist Blake Morrison calls her "tactility, her skin-joy".
There is no escaping the fact that parenting involves treasuring those rare moments of solitude.
But had there been merely the solitude, lots of it, and no parenting at all, the solitude - for most parents - would turn into loneliness.