My paternal grandfather died a long, protracted death. Seven years of dying, to be exact. He struggled with diabetes, and diabetes took its time with him. One amputation, then losing his eyesight, then a second amputation. Me sitting next to his rocking chair, reading newspapers out loud to him, his mouth set in a thin line. He hated hospitals, and wanted to come home to die. He knew it would be more painful and difficult, but that was his final wish.
His dying days probably taught me more about parenthood than any book, or any well-meaning article along the lines of “should children be allowed in bars.” Distilled to its basics, the idea was – everyone experiences periods of helplessness. Everyone needs taking care of – some people more so, some people less so. The guardian role itself is usually thankless. After my grandfather passed, the neighbors just didn’t understand why grandma gave the cat away. That poor animal! How cruel of grandma! She must have always wanted to give away his cat – and now that he was dead, she finally got her wish! None of them knew that the cat took to sitting in grandfather’s empty bed, and screaming. There was room for only one grieving widow in that apartment.
Here in Moscow, I have an acquaintance whose brother suffers from some form of mental illness. His family is not entirely sure what it actually is – he’s been misdiagnosed and re-diagnosed many times. He will have a stretch of time in which things go just fine, and then his sister will get a phone call late in the evening – and it will be about how he’s having a breakdown in a restaurant bathroom. She will go there, the security guards and the well-dressed patrons staring at her, hating her, because the man sobbing in the bathroom stall won’t register their hate and by God, they have to let someone know how inconvenient and creepy this entire episode is. She is understanding of them. “Vanya’s a big guy,” she’ll say. “A big guy crying – it freaks people out.” She’s been putting off becoming a mother, “because who else will be there for Vanya?” – but now I hear she’s pregnant, and that Vanya’s in a good phase, and bringing her flowers.
Being a parent is usually easier – but not always so. Not all kids measure up to society’s standards – and their guardians also routinely fall short. A blogger friend, also in Moscow, has two sons. One of them is partially deaf. Relatives, friends, strangers keep accusing her of having failed him. “I heard mothers who hit the bottle end up giving birth to deaf children!” An old woman on a bus yelled at her once (she had asked her son a question, and when he failed to respond properly, the old woman started screeching about rudeness and manners).
It’s hard for me to cast the guardian role in a single light. Some parents are assholes – having kids only accentuates this fact to the rest of society. Some parents are assholes on a part-time basis, depending on how much they’ve slept and how well the new baby is pooping. Sometimes it helps to remember that being a parent, or a guardian in general, isn’t always about being Busy and Important. It’s also an exercise that involves its share of ridiculousness.
I like how in Russia, people are more in tune with the ridiculous aspects of parenthood. None of my friends act surprised when the nanny stays over while I end up at some party, looking for a corkscrew in the kitchen and muttering curses to myself. “Natalia, darling, let’s calm down and look for that corkscrew together,” they will say. “Will it be red or white?” – because they are good friends. This past August, my husband dragged me to Crimea, where we lived for two weeks in a tent, among nudists and punks and punk-nudists, all the while Lev was back home with nanny and uncle – because he is a good husband. Rarely do people freak the fuck out if I pick up my accreditation at festivals with Lev strapped to my chest – or if I take him with me to cover a political protest (from a safe distance – and say what you want about the riot police, the one thing they get is the fact that mothers don’t cease being journalists).
No one thinks it’s weird that I’ve kept working (“What choice do most of us have, darling?”) and most people reserve their drive-by-mommying to criticizing the fact that we’re raising Lev in a bilingual household (comments range from “You’re confusing the poor child!” to “Go back to America!”). After work, I will allow myself to drink and work on a play sometimes, and fall asleep in backs of cabs with my head on my husband’s shoulder. While Lev sleeps, we will debate Chekhov and Lars von Trier and whether or not a musical potty is a good investment. My husband is a scarily intense person, so hearing him sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in heavily-accented English has added a new dimension to our relationship. He claims I’ve improved as well (“You used to dye your hair an awful color, and weigh two pounds, and be so stuck-up – and now you’re actually human!”).
Lev hasn’t made me jealous of my childfree friends – though he has certainly made me feel more like a child myself. Sometimes it’s painful – as you feel your sudden irrelevance. Other times – you’re seeing the world all over again, through the eyes of someone small and excited to be here. Soap bubbles! Oh my God! The world is a place that contains soap bubbles! The Beatles! Oh my God! How can I learn to dance to that shit?! Boundaries? Fuck you! This trashcan is fucking fascinating! Vacuum cleaner! Holy shit! Run like hell!
If you put aside the fact that whole “propagating the human race” thing, parenthood is just one important way we learn to take care of each other. It’s a reminder of the fact that life is fragile – and if we don’t take responsibility for one another every once in a while, we’re kinda fucked. And it’s also a reminder to be silly – because, once again, life is short. With his eyesight going, my grandfather sometimes asked to be seated outside on the balcony, where he could still make out the grapevine he had planted when he was a young man. On days like that, he wanted me to skip the politics in the paper, and go straight to the section that contained inappropriate jokes. I’d read them out loud and we’d both laugh – quietly enough so that grandma wouldn’t immediately know what we were up to. Years later, she told me that she knew, of course – but never minded much.
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