Most people become parents at some time or other, and this is still true in spite of a supposed trend to childlessness in more couples. It is an ancient joke that the childless, in particular, the childless who do intend to have children at some time, don’t know how fundamentally life will change for them when they have children.
Childless couples, while not being selfish per se, are only responsible primarily for each other. Of course they are responsible for relationships with relatives and friends, but to such outsiders they appear as a single entity – John-and-Mary, Peter-and-Joanne, or maybe Mark-and-Andrew, or Lucy-and-Anna.
They become atomic, like the electron and proton of a hydrogen atom. We can’t press that analogy too far of course, as electrons tend to get shared around in compounds and that sort of relationship doesn’t work too well with humans.
When a child comes along, by natural methods, or by adoption, or by donor, or by less formal methods in some societies, everything changes. No longer is the prime focus of the relationship each other, but is now the third person.
The parents quickly become the support structure for the child, and the view of the world is now that they are ‘parents’ and not a ‘couple’. In the view of the world, the child’s needs are paramount. At parent-teacher meetings the sole topic is what is good for the child. Schools send notices to parents demanding money with menaces – there’s no softer way to put it – so that the child gets the laptop, the sports gear, the musical instrument that the child absolutely needs according to the school.
After the initial shock, and it is a big shock, a world-shaking shock, most parents adapt. Babies are designed to be cute after all. Super cute, so that the mechanics of nappies and feeding, the deprivation of sleep, and well, the loss of an independent life have their compensations.
There is almost certainly something instinctual here, some urge to protect one’s offspring, or indeed any small cute creature. How else can it be explained that couples allow their whole lives to be derailed by the arrival of a child?
I can’t overemphasise the oddness of this. Leaving aside the fact that couples don’t know in advance how world-shattering the change is, couples in the main seem to embrace the change once it happens. Many women plan to go back to work after the first few months have passed, and a significant number fail to do so, even in this day and age.
If you talk to someone with a new baby, well after the first few tumultuous months anyway, it is usually a bit like switching on a light. Parents trumpet the amazing achievements of their children as if no other child has crawled, walked or said “Da-da” in the history of the human race. Prior to that point sleep deprivation means that any communication is difficult in the extreme.
Prior to the child’s arrival the pairs major preoccupation is strongly with each other. Of course pair bonds vary in intensity, but in couples the bond is usually strongly couple-centric. When the baby comes along, their major preoccupation is intensely with the child. In the first few months the child will be the topic of almost all conversation, except for the essentials of daily living.
After a few months, the child quickly starts to give back some of the attention. In fact most parents believe (as I do) that interaction between child and parents starts pretty much from birth, but the interaction between child and parents deepens as the child develops in the first few months.
Call it love, because that is what it is. It begins right after birth, and grows as the child learns to react to the parents, the feeding, the changing, the cuddles, the kisses. I believe that animals, at least those that bring up their young, in some ways feel for their offspring in the same way as humans. Heck, let’s just say it – animals that bring up their young must surely feel love, in a sense, for their young.
Certainly the higher animals do seem to feel something, as ape mothers carry around dead young, and elephants appear to grieve over their dead calves. Dolphins have been seen carrying their dead calves.
Having survived the culture shock of the birth parents usually embrace the role. They pretty much dedicate their lives to their children, and if they are thoughtful people, will recognise why their own parents behaved the way that they did. Having railed at the restrictions put on them by their parents, they find themselves imposing similar restrictions on their children.
Indeed often they find themselves using the exact same phrases as their parents. It can be a great shock to realise that you are turning into your parents and that they turn out to have been right, justified and after all, reasonable. How did that happen?
In most cases parents quickly come to terms with their somewhat subordinate role, which is at times infuriating, frustrating and drives parents to the edge of despair. It is also immensely rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable. Parents feel more pride when their child achieves a milestone like learning to walk than they ever felt over any of their own achievements.
If their children shows promise at any sport or academic achievement a parent’s pride is immense. This extends to at least the second generation, as I can attest. It’s not that a parent’s life is subsumed by their role in bringing up their children, but child rearing certainly causes some of a parents activities to take a back seat for a while.
If a parent is so inclined the child can be incorporated into the parent’s preferred recreational activity, so we see parents jogging with purpose-built strollers or pushchairs, and children being carried in backpacks. Children may play in the crèches of educational institutions while one of their parents continues their studies.
Most people go into parenthood not knowing how their lives will be wrenched into a different course by becoming parents. Most parents quickly come to terms with the enormous shift in the emphasis of their lives, and most would not go back to pre-parenthood if given the choice. Parenthood is that rewarding.