It’s been said by many smarter than myself that two of the strongest human emotions are fear and love. Nothing makes this more relevant than being a parent. I think the late great Christopher Hitchens hit the nail on the head when he said “To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened.” The love of a child is something I don’t need to elaborate on. Any parent would agree with me that it’s the strongest love in the world and a potentially life changing level of love. But it unfortunately makes sense that to balance all that love out, our human nature dictates that there also needs to be life changing levels of fear you carry with you.
Of course we all fear the loss of a husband or wife. But while that fear sits comfortably in the depths of our unconscious mind, rising every now and then, the fear of losing your child is a constant presence – sitting there like a spider in the corner of the room, always within eyesight. You wonder whether having a child and allowing yourself to have this constant fear is a good or bad thing. But of course it’s a good thing. For a selfish Ayn Rand disciple like myself, having a child is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me. Suddenly there’s something greater than yourself in the world. Something to serve, to give you real purpose. Your efforts to be successful at life and in your career become things you reflect on more because you’re no longer in it for yourself. You’re the leader of something so much more than a work department – you’re leading your child’s life.
There’s also this overwhelming sense of compassion that bursts into the realm of your emotions and makes you wonder where it was all your life. I now find myself sitting at traffic lights looking at little children standing alongside their begging mothers in the hot sun with a crushing sense of pity for the small child and what it has to endure. It’s a sobering reminder that we can never choose the lives we are born into, which leads you to consider how many children around the world are born into lives of destitution, hunger and suffering. It’s one of the tragedies of our time that there’s a trend of poverty stricken families generally having more children than middle class ones.
I don’t think anything gives you a sense of the speed of life and your own ageing and mortality than seeing a baby go from one milestone to the next in the blink of an eye. To see a life move this fast gives you a sobering sense that as adults we might not see it in the mirror, but we’re growing older every day, as if we needed reminding. If you’re breathing you’re living, and you start questioning whether you’re making the most of that living while you’re here. And I’m not talking about partying it up or living each day recklessly like it’s your last. Watching your child teaches you that there is wonder in the ordinary, joy in the simple pleasures, nothing beyond the here and now, and that to live is to feel. Some people spend their entire lives in a search for meaning, when I myself have found more meaning in simple moments of playful games making my child laugh than any philosopher could provide.
Indeed, your own death suddenly seems both infinitely more terrifying but much more acceptable at the same time, as strange as that sounds. You suddenly place a far greater importance on your own life, in the primal need for survival and to be there for your young one. If you had to ask me two years ago about death I would have probably told you I could die with the sense of gratitude that I’d lived over 30 good years in relative luxury to the majority of humans we share this planet with. I didn’t really fear death. If it came for me, I think my dying attitude would have been So Be It. But now it’s different. There’s a sense of desperation to be able to be part of our children’s lives and to see them grow into whatever it is they become. A simple drive to Nelspruit and back, for example, leads to an irrational fear as you say to yourself I need to make it back alive. My God, what if I don’t? Perhaps there’s a small element of selfishness in this, because you desperately want to be remembered by your child.
But at the same time it feels like one can now face one’s own mortality with a sense of peace. When you look at your child you realise that nothing you’ve done before and nothing you do in later years will be a greater achievement than this. You’ve perhaps ensured some sort of everlasting life for yourself by ensuring a future generation will be there with your blood in their veins and your heartbeat, no matter what happens to you.
I mentioned selfishness – and in all of this, even child rearing, one can’t escape that desire to find elements of your own self in your child. Was that expression similar to mine? Do I see my forehead shape in hers? In some moments you find yourself hoping she resembles you when she grows up, or even better, that she takes on your personality type. This of course is all wrong – selfish whims that I suspect with many parents grow into obsessions as children get older – this need to ensure the child exhibits exactly the behaviours that we want them to. Why are we so eager to mould things in our own image and so desperate for affirmations on our own beliefs? I’m sure that having a child will, in later year, ensure that I experience a great deal of this inner struggle between the Need to Let Go and the Need to Control – or more pertinently, what to Let Go and what to Control.
Then there is home. Home is no longer just the place you settle into and live. When couple becomes family, home takes on a somewhat different, more important meaning. I think this is where the animal instinct really kicks in. Home becomes your nest, your shelter, your burrow, your den. Your refuge – where your family is kept safe. Home is where your daughter laughs, eats, plays, goes to bed. It’s her world. . . . and yours. It’s troubling when you’re not there, as I suspect a male wolf feels while leaving the cubs to go hunt.
When it comes to your wife, I also don’t think you get a true sense of the term ‘life partner’ until you have a child together. Before a child she’s the woman you love. After a child she’s the woman you can’t live without. My appreciation levels skyrocketed. Of course, couples react to having children differently. With some it doesn’t quite work well. But the ones who make it work, I suspect, are the ones who treat is as teamwork and are comfortable in their roles. That’s where the term ‘life partner’ becomes so prevalent. You’re two partners in a team with this massive task, and if you don’t work with and support each other, the team fails. Walking through a mall and seeing a child holding the hand of a mother also fills me with more emotion than it did before, and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because you never really come close to understanding the bond between mother and child until you see if for yourself in your own life. Maybe because it’s that childhood innocence and vulnerability and how important the parent is to the child, and it makes you think of your own. Everything comes back to your own child. Always.
At 14 months my daughter is becoming increasingly adept at copying what you do. Whether it’s brushing her hair with my comb, wanting to brush her teeth when I do mine, using the same hand movements or trying to imitate me clicking my fingers, it always amazes me how these things are picked up – immediately. But what’s more interesting to me is this willingness to imitate. The funny side is doing silly things with your hands and seeing if she responds, but it makes me realise that as an authority figure to a young one, how your own behaviour will always be more important than the lectures, lessons and books you give your children to read. They’re watching you. They’re learning from you. Mine may be 14 months but soon enough I know she’ll be learning from how I deal with people, how I handle frustration and disappointment, how I speak to and treat my wife, or how I act when happy or angry. And I know she’ll learn more from this than what I tell her. Is that scary or re-assuring? I don’t know, but again – my child leads to more self-reflection, and long may that continue.