Friday, May 13, 2005

Labor of Love

In the last twenty-four hours, two friends of mine, both fairly new fathers, have separately said virtually the same thing to me. Both of them explained, in a cheerful yet resigned way, that now that they were parents their lives were over. Any chance they had to change the world in a meaningful way was lost in a flurry of receiving blankets and Desitin. However, both men were stoically prepared to spend the rest of their lives making money at some completely anonymous job so that their Bids at Immortality could attend a college of choice. While I applaud fathers who step up to the parental plate and accept the workload, I think I need to give them the benefit of my few years’ head start in what it means to be a parent. This topic, of course, can only be fully understood by first discussing the sex life of a lobster.

Both male and female lobsters are fully encased in a hard exoskeleton, which might make you wonder how they make more lobsters. It’s like this—when the female is feeling ready (perhaps she starts looking at the Pottery Barn Lobster Kids catalogue), she shacks up with a male lobster. At this point, she sheds her entire shell, leaving her in what amounts to the crustacean equivalent of flimsy lingerie. From here, they go on their lobster honeymoon. She remains shell-free while his job is to protect her from anyone who might want to make bisque.

Once the transaction is complete, momma lobster immediately begins to grow a new shell, they contact divorce attorneys, and everyone moves on. [Interesting side note: the female lobster stores the sperm and uses it whenever she feels pregnancy would be a fun idea. This may be the most civilized idea I have ever contemplated]. Still, it is important to realize that she had to be completely vulnerable in order to be able to create new little lobsters.

I remember the first time I held my daughter. As I stared down at this little sleeping person, I felt every defense I had ever constructed around myself crack and fall away like so much lobster shell. Everything which had been in the top ten of “Things I Think Are Important” got instantly shifted down to “Things I Can Read About in Vanity Fair, if I Have a Minute.” For the first year of her life, my daughter was this perfect, precious little bomb which went off in Consort’s and my lives, and nothing remained unaffected.

I would whipsaw between the magical and the mundane in one thought:

“I have given birth to the most breathtaking creature in the world. An unknowing little being to whom I will devote my…ooh, someone needs a diaper change”

or

“Let’s get her dressed and get her out for a stroll before it gets too …I am thinking about walking with my daughter. I have a daughter. I have given birth.”

That entire first year had a hallucinogenic quality. In the emotional frontier between sleep deprivation and total infatuation, I was capable of being hypnotized by the whorls of her hair when I was supposed to be paying bills. The fact that I was legally permitted to operate heavy machinery is a sobering thought. But, looking back, I could have made myself really crazy and insecure had I expected myself to achieve in the outer world as much as I was experiencing in the inner world.

So, here’s my humble advice to friends who are worrying about making a mark on this world after having a child, or who are assuming they won’t: please let all that go for a few months.

You are building your new shell, and that takes time. You will probably be a better, more creative person for it. You are already involved in a process which takes no small amount of courage and humor; and creativity feeds on both of those elements. I wrote in my twenties, but gave it up when I saw no immediate income stuck to it. I write now because my life interests me (I have already written that I am hugely self-absorbed) and because entertaining myself and, hopefully, others seems like a worthwhile pastime. The person I was a decade ago could never have written any of this -- although that person would have had a far better recall of song lyrics for ironic blog titles. I am braver now in many ways because I know my kid is happy. If people don’t like some aspect of me, there’s that, but my kid is still happy and healthy and everything else is negotiable.

The secret word, I think, is compromise. Most parents I know can’t take off to go drinking with friends five nights a week, but they can find one night a month to sit in the backyard drinking Trader Joe wine with a good friend while the kids sleep. You might not be directing the movie of your dreams right now, but you can hide in the kitchen, after everyone else is asleep, and try to carve the perfect scene from a blank sheet of legal pad. Let us remember Wallace Stevens, a major American poet whose full-time job was as an insurance executive, as soul-numbing a day job as I can fathom.

Creative work doesn’t need endless open hours dedicated to ART; perversely, the most creative thoughts can find you while staring off into space in the check-out line (I am willing to bet the next advance in genetic medicine will be thought up by someone waiting at the DMV). Your creative process might thrive under a severe time constraint in ways it never did when being creative dictated every choice you made. In no time at all, this period where your child needs your attention every waking moment passes, and you will be dazzled by how much you get done with a cherished extra hour or two.

Will you change the world in some meaningful way? Maybe not, but most people don’t. Having said that, the love of a child increases the likelihood you will feel something is worth dying for, which means a depth of dedication and feeling, which means you might be prepared to fight longer and harder for something than you ever imagined worth fighting for before. What feels like stasis right now might just be the time when you are marshalling your resources for the next big passion of your life.

To come back to my friend the lobster, once they shed that shell, that’s when they do some serious growing.

5 Comments:

Blogger Kristin said...

the love of a child increases the likelihood you will feel something is worth dying for, which means a depth of dedication and feeling, which means you might be prepared to fight longer and harder for something than you ever imagined worth fighting for before.

So well said and so very very true...

12:02 AM  
Blogger timberlemming said...

Quinn, it is always a pleasure reading your blog because you manage to say in a humorous and pithy fashion what the rest of us feel. Thank you.

I never for a minute felt that my life was over because I had a child (or three). Watching these three individuals grow into really nifty people whose company I enjoy and who will one day make their own contributions to the world is all the life I need right now.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Thanks for your kind words...

10:26 AM  
Blogger MommyCool said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous FurBabyMom said...

Usually I find myself laughing out loud as I read through your archived blogs with delight, but this one left me really moved and pensive as I sat here refecting on what you had written. That was a beautiful, touching and eloquent entry...one I wish every parent and parent-to-be would read. The depth of your love for your daughter makes my heart smile.

9:52 PM  

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