Once in a while someone will forget who I am and ask me a question. And sometimes that unfortunate person will ask me about my take on parenting. Specifically, what being a brand new parent feels like. Is it fun? Is it rewarding? Is it as hard as they say it is? What’s the inside scoop on being a new parent? They’ll ask me these questions because all of their other trusted sources have died or gone to jail, I assume.
So I’ll tell them. In those moments, I’m like the old explorer who has returned from Cannibal Island with tales of cannibalism and island dwelling, warning the young treasure hunter about the perils that await him.
“Turn back, enjoy your life.”
“But I want the treasure.”
“There is no treasure—only poop. Years of poop.”
“It can’t be that—”
“POOOOOOP! ON YOUUUUUUUU!”
Unlike the old explorer who has nothing left but his stories and the time to tell them, I’ll sum up early parenting very quickly, in a way anyone can understand.
I’ll tell them that parenting a baby is like driving a car 24 hours a day, to nowhere.
Now I know that Tom Cochrane made driving “all night long” seem glamorous with his anthem to 1991 “Life is a Highway.” But it’s not glamorous at all. It’s tough. That song is 4 minutes and 27 seconds long. Sure it’s easy to imagine driving all night long for the duration of a pop hit, but then in 4 minutes and 28 seconds another song comes on and you’re thinking about some other adventure—maybe about being in love on a Friday. You’re never really forced to listen to it all night long, much less drive it all night and day long. So the song is just a catchy lie.
In reality, driving for 24 hours straight will wear you down. There are people who can do it, 24 hours without sleep, but the next day or two they’re tired and need to get rest. Imagine driving for 24 hours and instead of getting rest, you’re getting back behind the wheel. For another 24 hour drive. And another. And another. For a few years.
Right about now, you probably want to punch that mega-star Tom Cochrane right in his Cochrane.
That’s how it feels being the parent of a newborn. You’re never off. You’re behind the wheel. Nothing might happen for many miles, but you can’t take your eyes off the road. Any second a deer could run out into the highway, or a stalled car could be around the next bend, or the bridge may be out. You have to always watch. And be ready. For anything. All the time.
And if “parenting a baby is like driving a car 24 hours a day, to nowhere,” then think about that “nowhere” part. There is no destination. No end in sight. Any glimpse of your baby’s independence is still years away. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that parenting a baby is like driving a car 24 hours a day, to nowhere, in a tunnel with no light at the end.
Rest stops are far more difficult too. If you have a baby in the car and you have to pee, you can’t just pull off to the next rest stop, hop out, and hit the bathroom unless someone else is in the car watching the baby. You have to think about the logistics of everything you do. There are no simple moves anymore.
It’s complicated and tedious.
Maybe nothing will happen. That’s actually a successful day as a parent. When everyone goes to bed alive, it’s a win. But something could happen. Your whole existence becomes centered on the possibility of something maybe happening. So you watch. And when, eventually, exhausted from all the vigilance, you go to bed, you’re still aware. You’re listening. Bracing yourself for the bomb that will go off in the middle of the night. That’s right, parenting a baby is also like being on the bomb squad.
Driving 24 hours a day. In a tunnel. To a bomb. That might not go off. But will.
Babies also shit themselves. A lot.