It’s exhausting to feel so much for and through another person.
After rejecting a series of “loveys” meant to help her sleep better, my 16-month-old daughter, Benna, has finally chosen a stuffed animal worthy of her affection: a small Elmo toy that betrays our family’s somewhat lax attitude toward screen time.
It’s adorable to see Benna give Elmo chaste, closed-mouth kisses on his furry, red nose, or carry him around by his googly eyes, or hoist him high in the air from her stroller, letting him catch the breeze on our daily walks. But Benna’s love for Elmo is complicated. Sometimes, love is flinging Elmo through the air, watching him land in awkward poses on our stone floor. Sometimes, love is feeding Elmo the lunch she barely touched. And sometimes, love is smiling profusely at Elmo while emphatically batting him away, even kicking him under the couch, out of reach. It’s almost as if Benna can’t quite handle how much she loves Elmo. The love is too big, too unwieldy, a beach ball in her arms that obscures her vision and makes movement in any direction impossible. Sometimes, she has to put him down. She has to look away.
I get it. Sometimes my love for her feels that way, too.
Parenthood comes with plenty of boredom, dirty jobs, eclipsed identities, and sleep deprivation, and as if being told that good mothers are silent on these matters isn’t enough, our love for our children—the very thing that’s supposed to temper the difficulty of raising them in a society that provides too little support—can be downright crushing, too.
Whenever I share a photo of my daughter in a moment of gleeful discovery—petting a friendly cat, fingering a dandelion in a spring that took light years to come—well-meaning people comment about the joy of seeing the world through my child’s eyes. So innocent, they say, so sweet. And while these moments are indeed lovely reprieves in an otherwise everything-half-done life, they are not the only characterizations of seeing things through Benna’s eyes. There are also moments when I tap into the confusion, frustration, and fear that the world—and consequently, her dad and I—evoke from her, and in those moments of expanded empathy driven by my love, sometimes I can barely breathe.
Come to my house on a Tuesday morning and you’ll see such a scene. My husband normally watches Benna while I go teach at a university downtown, but for a few hours two days a week, we’re both gone, and a sitter is left in charge. Benna knows her sitter well; they have a wonderful rapport that begins the instant I’m out the door. But in those few minutes when I gather my backpack and hand Benna off, you’d think I was leaving her to be eaten by wolves. She clings to the collar of my shirt like a terrified kitten, screaming the toddler scream of doom. The writer in me can’t help but imagine this scene as my daughter experiences it, wondering where her mother is going, and why, and what she can do to bring her back.
I follow all the books’ advice, stay upbeat, and move fast. Every cell in my body aches to run back and hold my kid just a little longer, to sing her one last song, to call in and cancel my classes for the day, but for everyone’s good, I can’t do that. I leave the house feeling like shit, stumbling to the train as I stare at my phone for the sitter’s text that tells me when Benna has stopped crying, or shows a picture of her smiling, everything OK again.
I feel my breath return, and then look for the nearest source of caffeine.
It’s exhausting to feel so much for and through another person. Parenting small people means constantly shifting your perspective to theirs, trying to anticipate what will provoke them, upset them, frighten them. It’s also exhausting to sublimate the primal urge to yell when your toddler heaves the meal you just prepared with great force to the floor, or to cry because you feel lonelier in parenthood than you ever anticipated, or, because irony is cruel, to desire isolation for one minute just to pee and hear your own thoughts. But we take deep breaths and speak in low, patient voices as we clean up the mess, we count to 10 and stifle our sobs, we leave the door open and let our kids scramble into our laps while we navigate the toilet paper around their squirming bodies. Benna has started occasionally hitting as a way to cope with her ever-bigger, ever-scarier feelings; the force of her tiny hand isn’t much to contend with yet, but the force of my own heart shattering can bring me to my knees.
And if we fail to sublimate those urges? If we have a human moment and raise our voices, or let the tears fall? We hate ourselves.
At the same time that our local empathy gets taxed so highly, making parents prone to snapping at their partners, or their dogs, or their well-meaning neighbors who routinely ring the doorbell during naptime, our global empathy expands to an almost unbearable degree. We can’t watch the news anymore. Certain films or TV shows pulverize us. There are books we can no longer read, no matter how much they meant to us in college. We stop falling asleep to the soothing sound of David Attenborough’s buttery voice in Planet Earth because there are too many scenes where predators pick off the babies in a herd as smaller, more manageable prey.
Writers place a high premium on looking. When I find myself having to look away, it scares me.
I’m alarmed to remember some of my pre-parenthood notions: I’d never let my kid have a meltdown in a restaurant (as if meltdowns are preventable), or I’d get a babysitter if I wanted to have a kid-free evening, or, if my kid was a crappy sleeper, I’d simply let her cry it out a la Dr. Spock.
We did sleep train Benna, and it was the right choice for our family, but that bravado about how easy I’d make such calls to teach my daughter “the ways of the world” is gone. I see now what a stunning lack of empathy we show kids and parents in our culture, and it’s become extra important that I extend to Benna the kind of full citizenship I’d give to any character in my writing. But just like, the best work I produce leaves me raw and spent, so, too, does much of my parenting life. This is the kind of conundrum—love that is as burdensome as it is liberating—that drives much of Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. And yet, I’m surprised by this duality everyday.
Like Benna, I’m a crappy sleeper. A few nights a week, I lay in bed, tossing and turning, reaching for my husband’s warmth, and then pushing him away. We keep the baby monitor on his side of the bed because if it were on mine, I’d never sleep again. I have to keep my daughter’s unconscious rustlings at a distance, or they’ll consume my night.
But when I can’t sleep, it takes all my strength not to rise and go to her room. Not to wake her so I can bring her back to our bed. To hold her no-doubt-wriggling body next to mine. To be comforted.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.