July 24, 2002

One of the things that bothers me a lot is when people say "If you're not X, you won't understand Y". Certainly if I know nothing about X, figuring out what Y is will be impossible (unless you happen to be a member of the media, in which case you'll probably just make it up). But if you've observed enough and read enough different things over a long period of time, I think that while you may not get the details of understanding Y, you are certainly entitled to claiming the basics of Y.

The Y I'm talking about in particular here is being a parent (put the bat down, Aaron). No, I don't have children right now. But I once was children, and I've watched my parents raise children, and watched other people raise children, and watched my brother raise children, and read countless accounts of raising children.

So, being the kind of guy I am, I'll speculate that having a child is like having your own heartbeat standing outside you, which you have only at best tenuous control over; which can cause love and terror and hope and rage and pride and disappointment of incredible intensity all at once; which has a mind of its own that soaks up the most alarming and amazing and embarrassing things from you and then tells them to your mother (honestly mom, I don't know where she learned "asshat"... must be daycare); which holds the handles to levers in your soul you never knew existed and can barely articulate even to yourself; which will one day be the only thing left to prove you ever existed.

Yes, yes, I know, I still don't understand it. But I'll wager you don't really understand it yourself. This is not at all surprising.

I doubt there's a parent in the world who will disagree with the statement "children are the biggest pain in the ass in the whole world." Oh, they're wonderful and beautiful and miraculous, yes, but when they detonate a big gulp1 they insisted getting inside your car, or when they upend their bowl of choco-coated-sugar-bomb cereal on the dog, or when they get in a screaming fight with their sibling over which identical toy belongs to who, they're a pain in the ass.

And kids have always been this much of a pain in the ass. We owe this fact to our mammalian ancestors, who found adaptive success by having relatively few offspring and lavishing relatively large amounts of care on them. Dinosaurs seem to have taken this route as well, and if the birds left to us are any indication their kids were just as much of a bear (as it were) to raise as mammals' are.

So what's a prospective helpless infant naked ape (or kitten, or puppy, or sparrow, or elephant) to do when your parents are too stupid to read Dr. Spock? Well, successful infants will, one way or another, find ways to make their parents take care of them. We are, all of us, the ultimate product of billions of years of evolution aimed at one goal: making sure babies are able to make more babies.

If you think about it, this only makes sense. We've already established babies are a pain in the ass. If they don't have the ability to force their parents into ensuring their survival they will die. If they do have this ability, they will survive and pass these manipulative genes to their own offspring. The infants who have maximal control over their parents will multiply and thrive, while those who don't, well, won't.

So long before we were able to think about how wonderful babies were, babies were busily making sure that we would have no choice. The fact that we are able to articulate how we feel is just a bonus. Now there are things uniquely human which make human babies uniquely valuable (to us at least). The ability to see the world with new eyes, and then tell you what it looks like, is just cool beyond description. But the deep feelings you "just can't understand if you don't have a child" are happening on a level of consciousness that was old when we were all eating bugs and dodging T-Rex feet.

I really do think this goes a long way toward explaining the horrors of child abuse and molestation. Not excusing them, but explaining them. Everyone's heard stories about mother cats eating their kittens, or mother birds abandoning their nests full of fledglings, or zoo-bound bears killing their cubs. These animals aren't evil, they've just had something go wrong inside them. When child care is hard-wired, that wiring can be incorrect or go bad or wear out from stress, and then babies die.

Because our children's requirements are so much more complex than, say, a kitten's, we require a lot more than just hard wired instinct, but instinct does still play a role. Any nursing mother who's had an embarrassing moment in a mall when a child cries near them will attest to that. And so I would submit that at the very least the most egregious examples of abuse and neglect are the results of instinctual behaviors which have gone wrong or gotten out of control. When I watch other people with children, or hear what they say, or read in books what they've written, I can simply find no other explanation. And for the most part neither can anyone else.

Does this excuse such horrific behavior? What, do you really think a kid deserves such a thing? But in my opinion it means we should try to help as many of these people as possible. One of the main experiences of the human condition is rising above the imperatives of our biology to reach for something more, something different, than our genes have dealt us. I firmly believe there are ways to break out of the cycles of abuse and neglect that seem to circle some families like red-clawed ravens.

But it also means we must accept there are certain individuals in our society who must be forever locked up very very far away from any child, no matter when their prison sentence happens to run out. And the more incomprehensible the crime, the more likely this should be. It takes the Wisdom of Solomon to know the difference between the two camps, and I do not envy judges who have that job.

I'm sure there are a lot of you who still think I just don't get it. That it will take my having a child before I really understand it all. And maybe you're right. But if you do think this way, if you really believe I still haven't gotten it at least a little right, I better not ever catch you rolling your eyes when someone says to you "you'll never understand, because you're not black." Or Asian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Italian, or whatever.

Because if I don't have the right to understand the Y of children because I don't have any, what makes you think you have any right to understand the Y of anything else?


1 For those without a 7-11 near them, a "Big Gulp" is a titanic fountain soft drink. A small Big Gulp is 32 ounces (not quite one liter) of soda. And they get bigger from there.

Posted by scott at July 24, 2002 05:02 PM

eMail this entry!

There were times when I would have cheerfully given you and your brother to the gypsies! I am really glad I didn't! You just continue to surprise me with your essays and your view on things.

Posted by: Pat on July 24, 2002 05:12 PM

For someone who admits to not understanding, you've got a pretty good grip on it. My 2 cents:

Being a Parent is the most rewarding and yet the most challenging thing a person can do to themselves.

I've often asked myself over the last 8 years, and more particularly, the last 4 months (the baby is much higher maintenance than the 8 year old, trust me!) "What the HELL were you thinking?"

Posted by: Jim on July 25, 2002 10:34 AM
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