A hard thing about being a parent
Negotiating the boundary between me time and baby time.
One morning recently, I was writing a draft for this newsletter for 20 minutes when our baby Charlotte began to cry in her room. She was doing this an hour earlier than I was expecting her to, at 7:30am instead of 8:30am.
I had no idea what caused it but I just sat there on the couch, laptop sitting on a cushion on my lap, hoping - no, praying - that she would stop, self-soothe, and go back to sleep so that I could continue writing.
From meditating I've learned the concept of equanimity, which is a state of being unperturbed in the face of anything and everything. It's a beautiful concept and I believe it's attainable, if only for a few blinks of time, and that it's possible to increase each experience with meditation-like practice.
The baby continued to cry, and it had been five minutes of non-stop crying by this time, and I continued to hope for her to stop.
Whenever I notice myself being miserable, I'm able to recognise that the misery is self-inflicted. Yet, most of the time, I still feel miserable.
Can I blame myself? Now that I'm a parent, time to myself is scarce. To make time to be alone in this world to write, I had to forcefully drag my body out of bed after just 6 hours of sleep. (I used to sleep 8 hours every day.) But I was okay with sleeping less and waking early to work on my projects! I'm not complaining that I have a hard life just because I need to wake early. It's when I work hard to make time for myself and something beyond my control comes up and steals it away from me that I feel miserable. I feel robbed. I feel that life is hard. I feel that nothing in the universe - not even my baby - cares about me and my needs. I know that the last sentence is true but I still always longed, un-stoically, for times when it isn't. It all comes crashing down on me.
What's most likely the only time I have today to work on my own thing was now gone. So every additional helpless yell from Charlotte makes me flinch. My muscles tense up, especially around my neck, and I start fantasising about possessing a button that I could press for someone to magically appear and take care of "the problem" so that I could resume my thing uninterrupted by something I didn't ask for.
Oh but wait, I did ask to be a parent. So I knew I could either frame this baby crying thing as a mistake or something I should have expected and deal with it maturely.
It's really hard. It's painful. It's hateful. It's irritating. It's sad, tragic, and unreasonable. It's so selfish of the baby. It's so selfish of me to think that the baby is being selfish. I'm confused and I'm getting more irritated.
By my estimate, this pattern has been playing out once every two to three days for the last few months. It is intensifying now that I'm less than a month left on parental leave. It's a recurring problem, and I find that it's one of the harder things that come with being a parent.
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II. Equanimity in a hot mess
I've experienced equanimity in the face of things like this before. For example, I once developed a cold aboard a long-haul flight and suddenly couldn't taste anything, and when food was served, my blocked nose meant I could taste none of the food I was eating. Instead of resisting, I told myself to suck it up and try to accept that my taste is gone and guess what? At that moment, I felt absolute calm. I found myself even enjoying my tasteless meal after that!
So the way out may be to practice equanimity. But that's seriously much easier said than done. If I read another article telling me to just accept my reality and everything will be okay, I will vomit on my keyboard. I know this intellectually! It's just hard to actualise!
Her cry just got louder. Fuck this!
Or maybe I should have been thinking, alright, put your damn laptop away and go tend to her.
Or maybe I should speak a little kinder to myself, like, perhaps you can put your laptop away now and tend to your crying baby. You don't have a choice - she's your responsibility. Your laptop and your draft will await your return. The delay in drafting is not a big deal, anyway. If all you do is be an attentive parent and raise a good kid in a loving environment, your life is likely to already be complete.
So I carried on trying to convince myself that this is okay. I kept trying to use my brain to hack how I was feeling. This made me worry about something else.
I've learned from meditating using the Waking Up app (a brilliant app by the deep, scientific practitioner Sam Harris) that you're never going to succeed in thinking away a problem that is originally created by the mind. Here's an excerpt from a daily snippet entitled You Can't Get There From Here from the app that tries to explain why that is:
That feeling of you. That feeling you call "I." The subject who is now strategically paying attention to objects and making a practice of it. The one who is trying not to be lost in thought. The self that wants to suffer less. That self can't get there from here. Because "there," the thing to be recognised, the goal of the practice, is how things are already, prior to the illusion of subject and object. There is already no centre to consciousness. You can't jump in a hole and pull the hole in after you.
In the end there is only the recognition of the context of experience as the context of experience. This is the recognition that everything is merely appearing in its own place. Everything is defined only by a further act of conceptualisation, which is yet another strand of appearance. Nothing is missing, nothing is lost.
The recognition of no-centre serves the conventional purpose of mindfulness because it's synonymous with equanimity. Recognition amounts to a radical acceptance of experience in the present.
In each moment of recognition, there is simply the totality of appearances, and you are not in the middle of it, or on the edge, or outside looking in. There is no one looking, and yet, everything appears. Can you see that?
When Sam talks, you get it. You grasp what he is saying because he is incredibly pithy and articulate. Intellectually, I get what he is saying, and therefore I understand that if I were to be truly "snapped back" to the present, it would be impossible to arrive there by thinking. Simply by thinking, I am perpetuating the idea that I have a self, and that my subjective self is separate from object reality, which is an illusion.
Based on my interpretation of what he's saying, I will simply have to radically accept experience in the present as being in the game of life. If I'm alive and conscious, I'm in the game. If I'm dead, I'm out. But when I'm in, everything is in, including the wailing baby in the background.
Anyway, the difficulty of internalising this illustrates perfectly that trying to be free of suffering (caused by our minds) is the mother of all that is easier said than done.
As I thought about this, I realised how I'd fallen off the train of meditating regularly and I thought, hey, I should meditate using the Waking Up app again. I'll be reminded of this way of thinking and get better at recognising every moment for what it is. That's the key!
Note: Waking Up is unlocked with a subscription, but they also offer a no-questions-asked scholarship to anyone who emails them. (I'm paying the full price.) Sam Harris describes it as a way to not deny people cannot afford to pay to receive the benefits of their work. It was the first time I heard such a thing and it patched a hole in my heart.
On that note, I'm also offering the same thing. If you want to join our community of paying subscribers but cannot afford the subscription, just email me, and I will give you 6 months for free, no questions asked. And if you can afford to gift a subscription to someone else, you can do that here:
Once again, I was jolted back to reality by Charlotte's cry. I checked my watch and it told me that she had been crying now for 15 minutes. I had been sitting there, thinking these thoughts, hoping she would self-soothe and stop for 15 minutes. Then I thought, how the hell will I find time to meditate?
By this time my wife had awoken. She opened the door to the living room where I was. I imagined she was probably angry at me for still writing rather than attending to the baby... I felt almost indignant at that very thought even though she hadn't said anything yet and I made a mental note that I have the right to get angry at her. I mean, why isn't she the one who's up now to tend to our crying baby?
Do you see where I'm going with this? It started with a desire to write, which against some resistance became an act of writing, which unexpectedly got interrupted by our baby's cry, which then made me spiral inwards with thoughts about acceptance and equanimity and entitlement and unfulfilled aspirations...
I felt like a hot mess!
Then another thought came up: the baby's cute now. That helps! When I pick her up, she will stop crying, and seeing her cute little face makes me happy. What about in the future when the cuteness gives way to rebelliousness? More sadness. More misery.
III. What then?
I don't have a neat conclusion to this strain of thought other than "radical acceptance of the present is a potential solution" and "meditation practice aids with radical acceptance of the present."
Some wise guy might tell me to accept it, that this is my life now as a parent, that there's no way out except through, that once I accept it, the resistance will evaporate away in an instant and all that is left will be me happily doing what I'm supposed to be doing. Sure, I get that and I want that for myself. But apart from the fact that "you can't get there from here," I'm also beginning to realise that it's not a done deal once you've accepted your new reality because every moment is a bit of a new reality. You don't just need to accept your reality and the coming days will suddenly all feel better. You have to keep practising, recognising, recognising, recognising... until, I suppose, you become enlightened or something.
So... yeah. Toeing the line between my time and baby time is a hard thing about being a parent.
Or is that just the non-acceptance talking?
I wrote a few earlier posts about being a parent that sort-of lead up to this. In case you’re in the mood to read about parenting, here are the links: