On having kids…….
A wise man once told me that the end goal of parenting is to give all of your essence to your children. The man who told me this lost his twenty-five year old son in a tragic accident four years ago.
For some reason the brief conversation we had about kids stuck with me. I’m not sure it would have had such an impact if I hadn’t recently become a father. Add to that the fact that most of my close friends were also becoming new parents and you have a catalyst for deep thought and reflection.
Having kids is not easy. In fact it’s one of the hardest things you can do. For the first time in your life you are truly responsible for the well being of another human and their initial survival rests solely on your shoulders (albeit much more on the mothers shoulders initially). What’s amazing is that new parents all share the same basic experience. Parenting is the toughest, most exhausting thing you have ever done but also the single greatest thing you have ever done.
I always looked at being a parent as one of life’s most natural undertakings. I don’t think I had ever debated whether or not to have kids it was simply a matter of when. I also knew that it would be life changing. But the end goal of parenting if there is such a thing I had never really thought about on a deeper level.
There is only one real certainty in life, we all die at some point. Since the beginning of time we have tried to make sense of this through religion or spirituality or science. It is human nature to want answers to life’s’ biggest questions like “why are we here?” and “what does it all mean?” and “what is the secret to life?” and “what happens after we die?” But nobody really knows the answer to these things. We can speculate and create stories and look at science or religion but we don’t actually know with any concrete certainty. The only thing that is certain is that we do indeed die at some point so maybe the secret of living is to make sure you give away all your “stuff” before you kick it.
The idea of giving away ones essence to another human really hit me as one of the most enlightened things I had ever heard. So I looked up the word “essence” in the dictionary:
the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, esp. something abstract, that determines its character
• Philosophy a property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is.
• something that exists; in particular, a spiritual entity : the position that names express essences.
It is not uncommon for people in their last years of life to start giving away all of their possessions. Sometimes we see this on a grand scale like the monetary contributions being made by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. But it is not only monetary gifts and physical possessions that people start off-loading. Stories, philosophies, traditions, cultural practices etc are all non-material things that people start giving away. If we look at the greatest spiritual leaders in history, often they are people with very few material possessions, Mother Theresa, the Dali Llama, Ghandi, Buddah, Jesus…..all of these people were more or less free of material wealth but full of spiritual wealth and they spent their lives giving it away. If we can take from these individuals the idea that giving of self is far greater than accumulating for self then perhaps we can begin to understand that the real purpose of parenting is to give away what we have and that includes our “essence”.
Parenting is exhausting because it requires us to give in ways we have never had to before. We give love, time, money and oh yes, copious amounts of energy. I think what people often miss is that the thing that makes parenting so hard is also what makes it so rewarding. It aligns us in a way that is spiritually favorable. It forces us into giving up our essence. It creates a situation that allows us to move into a more enlightened state of being. If we put into practice the lessons from great spiritual teachers then parenting is like the test of whether or not we can actually follow through.
By giving away your essence to your kids you effectively help them grow more than just mentally and physically. The irony is this. By giving away those things we think we need to hang onto we experience growth on a deeper level. Perhaps it is the pathway to wisdom, who knows.
Having kids can be a liberation from selfishness. By and large we are all selfish at some level and in some ways this is very necessary. I’ve spent the last fifteen years in a profession that demands it ruthlessly. We all need time to ourselves and we all need some self-indulgence. When we had our first child I realized that for the first time in my life there was another human being that I would actually give up my life for. Now this might seem like melodramatic drivel but I mean this quite sincerely and without any drama attached to it. It is simply a fact that seems rooted at the very core of the natural order of things. The thought of outliving my kids might be the single worst thought I can now have.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to love a human being the way you love your kids. I love my wife and my parents and my siblings but it’s different than the love I have for my kids. I think it’s because it needs not be returned in any measurable way. I mean sure it’s nice to feel like your kids dig you but the love you give to your kids really has no strings attached. It might be the purest form of love- unconditional and without attachment to the ego’s need for positive feedback.
The way we view our kids is probably the way we should view the world. We often just observe them without judgment. This is especially true in the early years when they are learning and absorbing information about the world. When children are learning to eat or crawl or walk, we rarely if ever criticize them if they make a mistake. We simply observe it and understand that it’s all part of the process, in fact we often take great joy in the process we see unfolding. My 2.5 year old is slowly developing a bigger vocabulary and I would be lying if I said I won’t miss the first few months of speech with all of it’s jumbled words and random sentences. Yet as adults we are quick to judge and point out both our own mistakes and those of others. Perhaps this is why we become more and more reluctant to take chances and try new things, as we get older. We learn to fear failure because with it often comes ridicule and harm to our egos. Young children don’t have this problem and as such are the models on how to actually learn. Kids learn with much less guardedness than adults. Research shows that learning skills or languages or musical instruments early in life is a great deal easier than taking it up later. This is in part due to brain development and physical growth but I would argue that it also has to do with the way we see ourselves when we are young versus when we are old. If we continued to see ourselves the way we see our kids and the way kids see themselves then I would hazard a guess we could learn new skills faster and more efficiently. Or at the very least we would not be afraid to have a go.
On Commitment and Hard work
Kids are the most significant commitment you will ever make. When you have kids it’s not for a few months or years, it’s until you die. And it even goes beyond death in that we usually make significant provisions so our children will be taken care of or at least have something as a result of our passing. Marriage is also supposed to be like this but as we all know even those relationships come and go and change as we change. Divorcing your kids however is not an option. Now I know as a new parent I am likely naive in my expectations. Life doesn’t always pan out the way you envision it, not even I know what path my kids will go down. For all I know, in twenty years they may want nothing to do with me for some reason. But I have a hunch that no matter what unfolds my commitment to them will not change. No matter how old they get, I will always be their parent and will always shoulder that commitment. It’s a bit of a scary thought but also an incredibly uplifting one.
Kids are hard work. There are times when you’re not quite sure how you are going to cope. I can only imagine the strain felt by stay at home parents. I rarely have both of our kids on my own for any extended period of time but when I do the experience can be exhausting. Add to it the expectation that stay at home parents usually have in keeping the house in order and it can be downright daunting. I’m not sure how single parents manage. But there is a secret in life that seems to hold true in most cases. Generally the harder you work at something and the more of yourself you put into it the greater the personal reward. I’ve found that all my most cherished experiences or memories coincide directly with the times I’ve had to really work hard and put myself out there for something. The hard work and exhausting times in parenting are a gift. It’s because it’s not smooth and not perfect that it’s so good.
I should conclude this rant by saying that I don’t think people need to have kids to experience this kind of joy. I have many very close friends who either do not have kids or choose not to but they are close friends because they already practice life this way. Having them influence my own kids’ lives will no doubt be extremely valuable. I’ll also be the first to say that it’s not all peaches and cream. There are times when you just need to close your eyes and bury your head in a pillow for a bit. I think even Buddha would need the occasional beer after a two year old has a catatonic eruption of epic proportions. But if you can catch yourself in that moment of madness and realize how lucky you are to even have that 2 year old kicking and screaming on the floor then I think you’ve got it figured out.
So here’s to all that goes with having kids. The sore lower backs, the sleepless nights, the early mornings but most importantly, the opportunity to experience love, commitment, perspective, selflessness and of course the vehicle by which you can give your essence away before you kick the bucket.