LONDON–Whoever created the German word schadenfreude—it is defined as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others”—must have been a parent.
I am standing on the precipice of parenthood and I am scared as hell. And it seems that many of the people I encounter—from my family and friends to acquaintances at the gym and strangers in shops—when they find out that my husband and I are about to become first-time parents of twins, either smirk knowingly or suppress a mocking smile. Then they pause and, oozing with schadenfreude, give really unhelpful advice like “better get caught up on your sleep now” or “well, you can kiss your freedom goodbye” or “babies are a steep learning curve so just double that with twins.” My advice back to you: so very unhelpful.
I have been struggling with infertility for years, both when I was single and once my husband and I committed to having children (our babies are being born via surrogate in the end of the month). So we have had plenty of time to think about what we have gotten ourselves into and we have intellectualized what this will mean for our lives, our jobs and our lifestyle. Yes, it will be life changing, but it almost feels like people either don’t think we have contemplated these things (“your travelling days are over” said one friend, with schadenfreude detectable from the corners of her mouth) or they have forgotten what it was like when they were presumably contextualizing and dissecting how their lives would change once they had children.
Recently when I wanted to riff about my excitement of becoming a parent but also my fear of letting go of my career–at least for a little while– my two friends said they didn’t really remember ever feeling that way. Say what? Because these were the exact same gals who I listened to freak out about exactly what I am freaking out about now. It’s as if goblins had come into their heads and erased all those pre-childbirth doubts they had about their lives and their concerns about being a parent.
It reminded me of when I was in graduate school in London and we were told at the beginning of the school year that none of our papers counted towards our final grades; it was all irrelevant because in the British schooling system, the only grade that mattered is what you get on the final exam in June. I was highly stressed out for months and around Christmas, I ran into a friend of a friend who had done the same program a few years before me. Amped up and full of angst, I asked her how hard those exams had been and how tense she was when the exam time rolled around in June.
“How,” I asked, “did you cope?” Her answered floored me. “Uh, guess it was stressful but I don’t really remember,” she said. I was gobsmacked that she could have forgotten just how intense and scary those exams were. However, 20 years later, if a nerdy grad student were to ask me how I survived exams, I guess my reply would be similar. All of my first-time parent stresses and anxieties—which are of course ubiquitous yet somehow feel uniquely specifically to me—seem rather hilarious at best and delusional at worst to my friends and family who have had children already. They have already taken their “exams” and there’s me all over again, stressing and wondering how one survives it all.
I used to gently mock my friends who were first time parents—the obsession with room temperature, acting like military generals when it came to getting guests to wash their hands before picking up the baby, detailing ad nauseum the benefits of both swaddling and the importance of tummy time. I would have to catch myself from rolling my eyes and launching into a story of how I had once seen a 10-month-old baby in St. Louis, Senegal crawling down a filthy dirt street covered in horse and dog excrement, and putting her hand in her mouth as she contentedly gurgled. Babies, I would surmise to myself, are resilient and my friends were nutty over-the-top first time parents. Now, however, I am about to eat a massive slice of humble pie.
I have had holiday/dinner/lunch/brunch/shopping/museum plans cancelled at the last minute because of a friend’s baby either getting sick or that there was some logistical reason at home that prevented them from coming out. I would get it but also be slightly slighted by it all. Yet, in the last week I have cancelled loads of plans/interviews/brunch/lunch/drink invites because I have so much pre-baby stuff to do and my mental load cup runneth over. And I don’t feel guilty (a first) and, as one friend told me, there is a freedom in being a parent because sometimes if you don’t want to do something, you can blame it on the kids. (This seems to be a secret though, as it’s only seemingly admitted once you are about to be a mom).
I have patiently listened as my girlfriends at dinner, on more than one occasion, spend the whole evening talking about getting their kids into the right schools. Because I was the only one who was childless, I was odd man out and so I would sit there in silence throughout entire meals and wonder what happened to my friends. Could they talk of nothing else these days except their kids and why did it not cross their minds that this conversation was something I could neither give any input into nor relate to their dilemmas, which often felt like the echoes of first world problems?
Oftentimes I would have just come back from some exciting work-related trip (I am a journalist), maybe having helicoptered into a war zone in the Middle East, trekked through the forests of Nepal on the back of an elephant looking for tigers, met Maasai girls who were able to avoid female genital mutilation by attending boarding school or hanging out with traditional boat makers in Fiji. And yet I was often made to feel (maybe it was me being sensitive), that what I was doing, while exciting, could never be as tough and as enriching as being a parent. It felt like a parental cult had taken my friends. And yet here I am about to join that same cult, totally whigging about getting my kids into a good nursery.
Already my mommy friends—those same ones who freaked out over what was the best snot nose sucker to buy and obsessing over using organic baby wipes—are laughing at me, not unkindly, and telling me I need to relax, kids need to get germs, babies are more hardy then I give them credit. And I shake my head because those goblins sure did a great job on them. The tables have turned and I have spent way more time than necessary researching the perfect stroller and weighing the benefits between Graco and Maxi Cosi car seats.
I recently ran into a friend who is also going to be a first time mom in her mid-40s and we had a good rant about how our mommy friends couldn’t understand why we were freaking out about our careers, what would happen to our independence and which was the best brand of muslins. But then we both admitted that we will probably end up doing the same, throwing shade on someone else who is about to become a mom. Ah, schadenfreude, you nasty devil.
Photos from Shutterstock