By Jay SmithUpdated Mar 04, 2020
When my children were very young, I sang them silly songs. Waking them in the morning, as I unpeeled my daughter’s covers, I’d croon: “Who’s my favourite Jeanne?” I’d pause, tickle. “It’s Jeanne!” To my son, a similar ditty: “Who’s my favourite Finn? It’s Finn!” Nowadays, I write them Valentines cards addressed to “my favourite daughter” or “favourite son.” Same thing at Christmas. I think it’s hilarious.
I thought I was evading a hopeless contest. Who was my favourite? My daughter, the bright, conniving, trickster girl? Or my son, the sly and poofy-haired sweetheart? Neither! They’re both my favourites!
My attempt at humour masks an obvious taboo. Parents aren’t meant to talk about how these creatures come along with personalities, indelible and already formed. And sometimes this makes them not always equally easy to raise. Sometimes who they are just makes it easier to like them. Like most of us, I think, I prefer easy parenting to excavate-your-human-weaknesses-via-your-offspring parenting. I confess.
Anyway, my daughter, Jeanne, arrived as a punchy promise that I’d have a friend for life. How could this not be true? She was me. Roguish, verbose, witty. Independent and hilarious. We went to Mexico City for two weeks while I was pregnant with Finn. She was nearly two years old. We spent our days walking in parks, going to galleries, cramming into women’s-only subway cars. It was bliss. In our last days, she even started to speak some cute little words of baby Spanish. Very cute! Very trilingual, ease-with-language me!
Not long after, my son punctured my ego. He was born as a tiny little old man with long fingers who augured a lifetime of messing it up. The feeling was almost a texture in the air. An old friend once told me that his mother, when he was born, passed him as a swaddled newborn to his father. “I don’t get this one,” she had announced about him, her third son of three, and that was that. This kid was his father’s son. His mother loved him, but his father “got” him.
Like my friend’s mother, my maternal instinct, which I had so taken for granted with my other child, had evaporated. I studied the small bald head, unable to determine if his face was more like mine or his dad’s. I wondered how I could be so certain that he was different. Here was just another baby. He slept well, ate well, was pacific and pleasant. But all the confidence that I felt with my daughter was gone. He was a diminutive stranger, taunting my limits of self-knowledge. This being had lodged itself inside of me, quite literally, and now out in the world, he was unknowable.
Which is to say, talking about favourites gestures the fundamental loneliness of parenting. It’s not just the grunt work—the endless washing of diapers and floors and faces that transforms into endless washing of clothes and dishes and ferrying to places and planning birthdays and report cards and parent teacher interview—that is lonely. It’s also Sisyphean work of the soul. It’s the deep and every day ache of putting in so much work so that someone can, eventually, not need you anymore. It’s knowing that you’re not getting anything back.
To think about favourites puts this whole absurd task into question. It’s shameful to think that this child that ruined my tooth enamel with pregnancy-induced heartburn is actually, according to me, a dud. Or that the PhD I didn’t finish is because of this kid who steals my makeup and then lies about it? Parenthood is only giving and you’re supposed to be perfect at it.
Put differently, if your love for your children is not perfect and equal, then it’s your fault. If you don’t connect. If you aren’t soul mates. You’re a monster, in it for yourself, egoistical in parenthood. A failure at the only selfless task you’ve really got.
It reminds me of the early-2000s screensaver of a disappointing university boyfriend had: “We live as we die, alone.” This is an existentialist philosophical maxim, I know, a cliché of twenty-something-year-old masculinity. But I remember watching the reverse type jagging across the cheaper desktop monitor and feeling a “Yes, but…” that I couldn’t quite articulate. A few years later, when Jeanne came, I could put my finger on it. No woman could grow a body inside her body and have that second body come out into the world and then roll over, boobs heavy with unsucked milk, and announce that life is an indelibly solitary experience.
Moreover, this is the trite reason that people have children to begin with, right? Never to be alone? Not to mitigate an abstract existential dread, necessarily, but to have companionship. To have someone to feed messy pablum to so that someday they will align the plastic straw for your tin can of Ensure. When I look at the implicit trust that I have with my daughter, I feel that certainty, innately. With my son, I hope that I will have raised him well enough.
Nowadays, my daughter and I turn in early and my son stays up late. Sometimes he’ll call his dad in the evening to chat (another night owl), while Jeanne and I brush our teeth. She is pathologically early; he is late, always. When friends who knew me when their dad and I were together meet my son out in the world now, they gush. He is a miniature version of his father! His facial expressions (when he’s quizzical or alarmed, the curve of his eyes when he laughs), the space between his front teeth, his head of frizzy ringlets. I can see it. He saunters along, always at his own pace, and I am reminded of how infuriating it was when his father made us late for everything.
And then I have to remember, too, that children aren’t one or the other parent. They’re themselves, heartily, and to think otherwise is doing a disservice to the whole human making its way in the world. Moreover, my kids complement each other. To my daughter’s verbosity, my son is contemplative. She loves talking, whereas we spend his toddlerhood in speech therapy for stuttering. She gets lost in the emotional current while he stays put, quiet until he issues an observation that resonates like a zen koan. Sure, parenting (and single parenting) is a thick soup. But the joy and raucous wonder you can dig up comes from our differences.