Well-intentioned, hypervigilant parents are a class of people who could qualify for protection by the federal government. Why? Because we are justifiably vulnerable at vital levels of cognitive functioning, which are related to the production and cultivation of this nation’s most important natural resource: children.
My first glimpse of this reality came one Sunday morning some years ago, while reading Dave Barry's nationally syndicated column and sipping a mimosa. At the time, I was barely 30, single and child-free. Listening to jazz in my large-windowed flat overlooking Washington DC, I laughed wryly at Barry's description of donning a rubber Batman suit in 90 degree weather for his kid's birthday party. Little did I know that such antics are the least agonizing and most joyful moments of parenthood.
Becoming a parent catapults one into dimensions of adulthood that vacillate between emotional ecstasy and Dante's Inferno. Children, upon entering your life, hijack your hippocampus—that part of the brain responsible for the cerebral hemisphere concerned with basic drives, emotions and short-term memory. Then, our children really go to work on us.
Despite our diminished capacity as human beings, who necessarily love beyond reason, we soldier on and try to make the best decisions that compromised creatures can make, all the while second-guessing our choices and feeling ourselves falling short.
Which is why, as we barrel into another New Year, I hope to do better, though I have little evidence that I'm not doing well. Can you see the insanity of this?
Becoming parents in Santa Fe presented some particularly interesting challenges. Public parks for small children aren't exactly plentiful. Every activity, save those at the public library, offers sticker shock.
Supply and demand being what it is, the search for quality education also caused us alarm. Not to mention the fact that a number of the best schools here in Santa Fe didn't look like schools at all by my Midwestern suburban standards. These rustic domiciles set off rural roads in unpainted, seemingly half-built buildings near empty fields made my hair stand on edge.
While seeking a day care center when our daughter was 2, we realized we also needed to decide whether we'd send her to public, public charter or private school. There were wait-lists, lotteries and no guarantees. The local income disparity didn't broaden our choices. We're working middle class, and grammar school tuition costs here are steep.
We toured a dozen places. One charter school, under renovation, was a construction site full of industrial equipment, trailers and portable toilets I couldn't imagine any 5-year-old, let alone a preschooler, navigating without one kind of threat or another. Seeing this school's proximity to a detention center as we drove away sealed the decision. Once we got our daughter in school, I more deeply understood Dave Barry's incentive for the Batman suit. The circuit of competitive themed birthday parties and Sotheby's-caliber goodie bags during the first few years nearly put us off the whole practice. We used these opportunities to open an ongoing dialogue with our daughter about issues of moderation and excess. She's now 9, so you can imagine how this endeared us to her. We try. We can't help it, we're parents.
Here's the Thing: Christmas morning, rather than running for her presents like last year, our daughter passed out gifts and watched with concern and delight as we opened ours. She wrote thank-you cards and made thank-you calls. She also called friends to ask about their holidays. She showed us that she's growing up, thoughtful. Perhaps these are the rewards for why we try.
Andrea L Mays is an American Studies scholar and a Santa Fean. Her twice-monthly column addresses 20th-century and contemporary culture and politics through the everyday experiences of living in Santa Fe. Write the author: firstname.lastname@example.org