Lest you think this is all selfish whining, I’d gamble that losing all my creativity in exchange for procreativity isn’t great for my kids, either. Imagine if President Obama’s mother had been too depleted to pursue higher learning and drag her children to faraway lands? I want to help steer my kids into good citizens, but in order to do that, I have to be one myself. Which means I have to, at the very least, summon the energy to leave the couch.
Yes, I know, there are women with young children and vocational struggles and household appliance-deficiencies who still manage to cultivate gratitude. People unhampered by sleep deprivation, who exude patience and whose sunny disposition brightens the darkest days. Maybe they have more oxytocin, or serotonin, or religion than I do, or some other secret ingredient that allows them to be grateful while still molting the very core of their identity.
For the rest of us, though, I think we need to profoundly alter our self-expectations, to steel ourselves against a culture that suggests we achieve vocational success and mom-of-the-year at the same time, while prepping for the marathon and winning the laundry battle. We need to admit that the great gain of children comes with loss: loss of time, money, motivation, energy, identity and sleep, which is no small thing. To admit that parenting is distinctly unglamorous, that it can rob you of cherished parts of yourself, that is harder to do than most of us thought, and that it might make us crave things like dishwashers instead of literary fame. I think it’s okay to disdain parts of it, to suffer through the strain of parenting, as long as that suffering doesn’t color over the beautiful parts of it, too.
Because that, I think, is the key to getting back to gratitude: to allow those small and glitteringly beautiful times to shine. I don’t think I’ve lost all gratitude since having kids. It’s that the shape of gratitude has profoundly changed. It comes in these intense moments, punctuating the long daily slog of housework, tantrum management, fatigue and the eerie new reality in which I hardly recognize myself. On either side of the slog are the most concentrated and powerful of joys, from seeing my kid walk for the first time, or kick a goal, or slip her arms around my neck unbidden. In these moments, I know what that man meant about winning the lottery. If I luxuriate in those moments, they provide me with enough fuel to crawl from one to the next.