The overwhelming responsibility of being a parent

The overwhelming responsibility of being a parent

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No. 1 son turned 50 this week, and while that may have been a shock to him, it was also a shock to me. After properly celebrating the occasion with the family, I am left with the astonishing thought that I have been a parent for 50 years.

What does it mean to be a parent?

For starters, I know that the single biggest difference in my life, and I suspect in most people’s lives, comes with having a child. Getting married isn’t such a dramatic change, especially today when dating for years before marriage has become more the norm. Accommodating another adult into one’s daily routine, if done incrementally and with someone of compatible outlook, isn’t all that jarring. But just put a newborn baby into the mix and any semblance of order and predictability goes right out the window. A newborn brings instant humility to the parents. Even downright terror.

One of the most appealing qualities in the man who eventually became my husband was his desire to have children. His eagerness matched my own. Now I know there are some who do not wish to procreate but, for us, the prospect of loving and raising children was as natural as taking the next breath. This is not a carefully thought-out ideology — it is, for many, just instinct.

So then why was I so terrified when we brought that little package of squirming baby home from the hospital and laid him in the middle of our king-size bed? It’s one thing to think about dishing out gobs of love in the abstract. It’s another when the love is commensurate with responsibility. I don’t believe I ever thought about having a child in quite these stark terms: I was directly responsible for the survival of another human being. And there he was, in need of an immediate diaper change.

I didn’t recognize the totality of my terror until I brought him to the pediatrician for his first-month checkup. The doctor weighed him and exclaimed that his healthy weight gain was “a result of his nursing.” Then the doctor measured him and carried on about his length. This kid was off the charts — he was destined to be center for the Knicks.

That was the doctor’s reaction. Mine was an intense relief that the baby was going to live. With no prior experience or exposure to infants, I was afraid that I would inadvertently cause his demise. And without realizing it, I had silently lived with that fear for a whole month. The sense of responsibility for another’s life can be overwhelming. It is certainly built into our architecture, to a greater or lesser degree, for the rest of our lives. Their pain is our pain. And alternately, their successes are our successes. Little did I know that the first month of a baby’s life is, in some ways, the easiest time with a child — except for the fatigue factor. All one has to do is diaper, bathe, feed and burp an average newborn before putting him or her down to sleep. The harder parts come later — and also the more satisfying ones.

Someone said to me, “Once a parent, always a parent.” That is a truism. Yes, children grow up, they learn and mature, they achieve and they marry, they may even go on to have children of their own. They are always our children, even if they are 50, or 47, or 46 — the ages of my three sons. And while I happily and consciously lifted the weight of responsibility for their lives off my shoulders and mentally placed it on theirs at the time of their majority, I am still and forever will be the parent. And nothing I have ever done in my life has given me greater satisfaction.

In the course of our lives, theirs and mine, they have become my helpmates and advisers, my playmates and my friends. They now share a sense of responsibility for my life. It goes both ways, this caring. But the relationship will always be asymmetrical. Someone else once said, “If children loved their parents as much as parents love their children, the human race would come to an end. The children would never leave home.”