As Americans, we recite our dialogue from a predictable script. For any number of life situations, both mundane and meaningful, there is a corresponding bit of verbiage that one is expected to utter.
Take a scenario that presents itself daily. When I say “Hi!” to any person, anywhere, I fully expect her to respond with “Hi, how are you?,” at which point she fully expects me to reply “Good, how are you?,” at which point I fully expect her to utter “Good!” This exact exchange unfolds like clockwork roughly 4.7 million times a day in the United States.
(If the script is followed in particularly mindless fashion, the person might then add an additional “How are you?,” opening up the distinct possibility that we will both get stuck in an eternal time loop, necessitating the existence of alternate timelines in order to continue with our previously scheduled lives. Small talk can be quite perilous.)
Another preset script I often see, and am guilty of myself, is when a co-worker returns from a vacation and I ask him how it went. I have no doubt that regardless of much fun he had, he will say “It flew by” or “I just needed a few more days!” It is an inviolable truth of human existence that he (or I) would have uttered exactly the same sentiment if our vacation had been 1, 2, 5, or 19 weeks long.
We too often read from invisible, unexamined scripts. We discuss the weather. We talk about how close we are to the weekend. To mix things up, we discuss what the weather will be like *on* the weekend.
But ever since my son Greyson was born last summer, I have noticed one particularly ingrained line recitation everywhere I go. The more I see its prevalence, the more it has begun to weigh on me. So allow me to unburden myself.
It is no overstatement to say that at least 90% of the fellow parents who have engaged me in conversation about Greyson since his birth have conveyed some version of the same well-meaning but ultimately discouraging advice.
The purest version of this advice, which to be clear I wholeheartedly embrace, is something along these lines: “Savor every precious second with your baby, because you will only have this amazing moment once in your life.” I appreciated hearing this the first time it was uttered to me, and I still appreciate it now. It’s a timeless reminder of the preciousness of babies, conveyed with earnestness and warmth, and the world can always use more earnestness, warmth, and timeless reminders.
The problem comes when this warm-hearted nucleus of advice is stripped down and diluted into lesser versions.
A remarkably common variation is to remove the upbeat tone, replacing it with an air of wistful regret, leaving something like this: “Enjoy this time while you can, because in no time at all it’ll be GONE.” Another way this is often said is “Blink and you’ll miss it!” I fully accept that this is an incontrovertible fact about parenthood (and more generally, about the elapsing of time spent pleasurably). But I remain staunchly unconvinced that a brand-new parent basking in the throes of brand-new-baby bliss must be needled and prodded on a daily basis about the inexorable crush of time.
But the very worst version of this sentiment is my real bugaboo. In that incarnation, not only is any optimism or warmth removed, but a morbid reminder is added of the inevitability of my innocent son’s eventual rebellion and moral deterioration. Such a sentiment, if it can even be labeled as such, sounds like this: “Might as well enjoy it now, because before you know it he’ll be telling you he hates your guts!” or, even more imaginatively, “It’s cute now when he puts things in his mouth, but eventually that’ll be a joint or a bottle of whiskey!”
(And yes. I’ve actually heard things like this. It’s amazing what men will often say to each other in the strenuous attempt to avoid expressing tenderness or empathy.)
Let’s be clear. The core of this nugget of wisdom, which dozens and dozens of decent fellow parents have conveyed to me in the last 10 months, is a superb piece of advice. Indispensable, even. You’ll never hear my Dead Poets Society-loving self taking issue with an ethos that amounts to “Carpe diem” (which I suppose in this case translates to “Seize the baby!”).
But the diluted (and to different degrees, downright dismal) variations of this injunction beg to be reexamined. An analogous example might be helpful at this point.
Imagine you just married the love of your life and embarked on your honeymoon. You have just returned from the trip, awash in newlywed euphoria, and you are telling an acquaintance how glowingly happy you are to be married. Imagine that his first response to you is “Enjoy this time while you have it, because in no time at all the honeymoon phase will be OVER.” Or even worse, “It’s cute now when she acts impulsively and loves affection, but eventually that’ll probably lead her to cheat on you with a younger guy!”
The latter (frankly gross) variation is a no-brainer, of course. It would be cruel to tell a newlywed husband that his wife may eventually be unfaithful to him — or even just that she will not always be so beautiful or charming.
But is it not just as cruel to tell a new parent that his tiny child may eventually be defiant or depraved — or even just that he will not always be so cute or lovable?
In both situations, a more experienced person insists that a less experienced person who is enjoying a moment of pure happiness must immediately grapple with sad (and purely theoretical) future outcomes. This strikes me as unnecessary and uncaring.
But the more commonplace and well-meaning version of this sentiment is perhaps even more problematic, precisely because it is so commonplace and well-meaning. In this version, a new parent (or a newlywed) is told that his current joy is precious but fleeting and thus must be enjoyed with a kind of fatalistic urgency. “Enjoy it while you can… suddenly he’ll be 18 and you’ll have NO IDEA where the time went!” The problem with conveying this to a blissed-out person is that it undermines their basic right to simply, well, enjoy their joy.
I have never experienced anything like the wide-eyed, soul-taking-flight happiness I felt when I became a father. All I wanted to do when I wasn’t with Greyson was tell EVERYONE I COULD FIND how amazing my son was. I struck up conversations with cashiers just so that I could tell them about Greyson and show them pictures on my phone. Just like Beyoncé, I was drunk in love.
So the first time someone told me to savor that baby bliss because it was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling, I signed off wholeheartedly on that sentiment. But as the weeks passed, I encountered dozens of people who expressed wistful, regretful, or even gloomily Eeyore-esque versions of the same thought.
It even seemed that the more eagerly I expressed my joy, the more earnestly I would be reminded how short-lived my joy would be. “They’re grown up before you know it,” some said. “You won’t even BELIEVE how quickly it will fly by,” others said. “My son won’t even let me hug him anymore!” or “My daughter completely ignores me some days!” are some of the more vivid examples I’ve encountered.
Why do we do this to each other? Why would we willfully impede another person’s joy with tales of our own disenchantment? Why not encourage a happy person to simply continue being happy?
So here is my takeaway: Do everything in your power to preserve joy wherever you find it, both in your own life and in the lives of others. Don’t force others — and try not to force yourself — to be burdened by the weight of possible eventualities. Never disenchant anyone unless it is absolutely necessary.
And when a beaming new dad or a new mom gushes to you about their baby, say something along these lines:
“I’m thrilled for you! Parenthood is a gift. Enjoy every single solitary amazing beautiful wonderful second of it.”
4 thoughts on “What to Expect (Everyone to Say) When You’re Expecting”
Preach. One person (very close in relation to us) actually said “for now he does that but in 15 years you could have a serial killer.” Sometimes I wish I wasn’t nonviolent.
Wow, Josh. That is unnerving and, as our mutual experience would seem to attest, weirdly commonplace. Thanks for sharing!
Very thought-provoking and challenging to me personally to be more uplifting, more ready to enter into another’s joy without down-playing it in some way, without dumping a proverbial bucket of cold water on the other person’s euphoria.
Thanks, Mom. That was exactly my intent, and I appreciate your thoughtful underscoring.