Let's be honest, parenting isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
In a video of an interview at Cannes last year that’s making the rounds of social media now, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan talks about motherhood. “It is a kind of bliss,” she says. Followed by, “It is blissful to be with the baby.” And then, either because her vocabulary failed her or because third time’s a charm, she says, “Of course, it is exhausting, but it is a blissful exhaustion.”
I watched it on a loop this week. And each time I saw it, it made me more angry. Here’s the deal. There are all kinds of exhaustions when you have a child. There’s an eye-burning exhaustion because you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a year. There’s the puzzling exhaustion of post-natal depression. There’s the dull exhaustion of not knowing what people are talking about when they discuss current affairs. There’s the bone-weary exhaustion of running after a toddler. There’s also a meta-exhaustion, exhaustion from feeling exhausted. None of it, I’m sorry to say, is blissful.
It’s time to stop the lies about motherhood. This whole relentless positive spin on parenting — as this experience that elevates mundane lives into some level of spiritual salvation — is not just wrong, it is intensely damaging. It is ridiculous that even in 2014, in a country of 1.2 billion, we are still telling the young and the fertile that procreate they must. Let’s be honest — parenting isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Having a child is indeed a life-altering experience, much like high-altitude trekking or swimming the Amazon. There are times when you can’t believe you decided to embark on this insane activity and there are times when it feels like it is worth the pain. But sadly, unlike high-altitude trekking or swimming the Amazon, you can’t check out of it midway when you find out that it’s too hard and perhaps not worth the effort involved.
Since deciding to have a child is perhaps the only irreversible decision that one can make, it simply makes sense that it be evaluated on reality and not on celebrity-endorsement or marketing slogans. And the reality is this. Parenting is the most difficult experience you would ever have. It isn’t just about changing diapers, sterilising bottles and staying up nights with a colicky baby. It’s about having to put someone else ahead of you. Every day. It isn’t always possible. It is, in fact, never easy. And you have to do it for the rest of your life.
Mostly, parenting is about not knowing what to do. It’s about taking a decision and hoping it works out best. Mommy bloggers, the latest entrants to the category of people trying to make motherhood trendy and glamorous, would have you believe that it is all just a hippie trip. That your child would jump into puddles and play in dirt and run up mountains and waddle into seas and you just sit there composing lines in your head and clicking the perfect picture. It isn’t like that at all.
Reality is what happens outside the blog. It’s wondering whether it’s a jacket day or a sweater plus jacket day, whether regular schools are good or alternative schools are better. It’s constantly dealing with anxiety — is she smart enough, is he quick enough, does she trust too easily, does he not trust at all, is she safe, is he being bullied. It’s torturing yourself whether it’s okay to go back to work when she is one. Or three. Or 10. It’s hating yourself that you’re at work and not at home. Or hating yourself that you gave up your job to stay home, and somehow this motherhood thing is not feeling like the elevated experience you’re supposed to have. It’s wanting everything to be perfect while knowing nothing will be.
Earlier this month, newspapers arrived smelling like babies’ bottoms. Johnson & Johnson wanted to invoke “sweet memories” of motherhood by triggering the smell of babies. A million uteruses skipped a beat. With the visual of a mother and a cuddly baby, it was enough to set a lot of people look dreamily into mid-distance and decide this was going to be the fragrance of their lives.
The bliss-related narrative of parenthood is likely to leave a generation of new mothers and fathers aghast at finding out this 24X7 routine wasn’t what they signed up for. Already, the pressure to have children is very high. Women who are childless in their early 30s — whether married or single — are forced into the defensive about the choice they make. A friend tells me people tell her she’s selfish because she has chosen not to have children. “It used to make me cry. Because truth is, deciding not to have a child is the most selfless decision I’ve ever taken,” she says. She’s right. At the end of the day, parenting is merely foisting the responsibility of finding your life’s meaning on to someone else. It’s the reason why parents — especially mothers — have to continue with the narrative of “this is the best thing I’ve ever done.” Besides giving them an excuse to do nothing else with their lives, it also gives them a lofty platform from which to preach.
Here’s the truth. Parenting is challenging. It’s difficult. Sometimes it’s rewarding. Sometimes it’s not. I agree with Rai Bachchan — it is exhausting. But in a plain vanilla kind of way. The only blissful exhaustion about parenting happens about nine months before the baby is born. Trust me.
(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of Would You Like Some Bread with that Book. Follow her on Twitter @veenavenugopal)