Children will teach you about helplessness – and not only children

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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31 comments for “Children will teach you about helplessness – and not only children

  1. EG
    September 4, 2012 at 11:05 am

    This is a beautiful article. Thank you for writing it. Also, this:

    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!

    is brilliant. It’s precisely what I imagine is going on in the heads of the kids/babies I take care of. Have you ever seen The Onion’s “Look! A Fire Truck”?

    • September 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

      Yeah, The Onion was, as always, pretty damn spot on!

  2. Past my expiration date
    September 4, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Yes, this is lovely.

    (And also, I don’t think that a musical potty is a good investment.)

    • September 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm

      Yeah, we ended up going with a regular old potty. I had a sudden moment of clarity and realized that ANY music was going to get pretty damn infuriating at 4 a.m.

  3. moviemaedchen
    September 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Beautiful, and so true. Thank you.

    Being a guardian to anyone can have its moments of ridiculousness, yes. But sometimes it can also be fucking terrifying. I think of the first time I had to be the caretaker for one of my parents, when my father had his heart attack and I flew across the Atlantic to be with him – suddenly being the one needing to take care of All the Things, and make sure he was alright, was like dropping into cold water really hard and very suddenly. That might have been the first time I really realized there was no Secret Decoder Ring for Adulthood that tells you what to do whenever anything happens; you have to make it up as you go along. (But the ten-year-old part of me still wants my Ring, dammit!) So yeah, a lot of what you wrote resonated with me.

  4. tinfoil hattie
    September 4, 2012 at 11:37 am

    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.

    Beautiful. The entire post is just breathtaking. Thank you.

  5. DonnaL
    September 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Thank you. This was really wonderful.

  6. Vidya
    September 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Very true.

    My roommate has autism and depression, and I’ve ended up a caregiver for him for the last several years. Now I’m also dealing with a very sick cat (feeding tube, vomiting, many drugs, many bills, around-the-clock nursing). While part of me is angry that my own life has been curtailed and stonewalled by these responsibilities not of my own choosing, I try to remember the value in what I’m doing.

    It would really be nice, though, if the government, employers, and insurance companies recognized that I can’t continue to do this indefinitely unless compensated in some way. They’ll partly recognize elder-care responsibilities for a parent, but not unrelated-roommate-care or nonhuman-child-care.

  7. September 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    This is beautiful and heartbreaking and heartbreaking in a good way.

  8. September 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    This is so, so, so beautiful.

    Care-giving is something that I personally feel is fundamental to what being human is. I don’t believe in any higher powers looking out for us – I think it’s on us to look out for each other. That is what drives my activism as well as basically everything about how I try to live my life.

    Which is why I find it so painful that care-giving has been slagged as “women’s work” in societies that hate women, alienating *everyone*, men and women alike, from it. That people are forced into care-giving in demeaning ways because they can’t afford not to. That care-giving is used as a cover for abuse or constructed in such a way as to be demeaning and patronizing to those who need it.

    I think this post cuts past all of that. Thank you.

  9. Wiley
    September 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I don’t have anything of particular value to say except thank you for writing this and thank you for the reminder and good luck.

  10. karak
    September 4, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I used to be a caregiver to people with profound cognitive impairments, and there was this constant sense of forced solemnity with hilarity hidden underneath it. You never knew if this was the day a client stealthily snuck in the kitchen, naked, to eat a tub of sour cream. And then you ask, “Xxxx, what are you doing?” in bafflement because it’s 3am and you’re not sure what the hell is going on, and she’s startled because she didn’t realize you were there and shrieks and throws the entire tub at the ceiling and runs out of the kitchen and jumps into bed, still naked, covered in sour cream.

    Or the time my normally taciturn client sat and regaled me and my coworker for nearly an hour about the workings of Heaven, and who he knew was there, complete with complicated pantomime and hand gestures while she and I listened like schoolchildren.

    I’m not saying my clients are/were special magical fairies that reveal the magic in life, they’re people with the same ups and downs and grumpiness of everyone else. But if you’re going to dedicate your time to caregiving, you’ve got to stop and realize what a fun, stupid, bizarre adventure you’re on, no matter who it is you’re working with.

  11. grrljock
    September 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Some parents are assholes on a part-time basis, depending on how much they’ve slept and how well the new baby is pooping

    Yeah, that’s me there. Sigh. There’s something about whining that just gets under my skin.

    Thank you, Natalia, for writing this.

    • September 5, 2012 at 5:48 am

      Sometimes, there’s just not enough coffee in the world…

  12. Tamara
    September 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    This was beautiful. What a lot of my generation are finding is that ware are having small children at the same time that our parents need to be cared for as well. I can’t see my Dad in the rest home as much as he’d like because I need to care for my little ones.

    Ridiculous situations abound. This morning I was in the shower while my three year old was raiding my makeup drawer. By the end of my shower her face was mottled in green and crimson eyeshadow and the green pottle was upside down on the white tiles. Then she said she was washing it off! I said no you’re not, you will leave it on so that my cleanup isn’t for nothing!

  13. September 4, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Great post.
    Today I went grocery shopping with my sister and my son, and my son napped through the whole thing – on me. He’s a year old and getting rather heavy, but it was cute and he really needed the nap, and my sister didn’t mind gathering various things for me from the shelves.

    My husband has been known to sing “Old Macdonald” in heavily accented English as well. And tonight he was singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Russian.

  14. Tabby
    September 5, 2012 at 5:04 am

    Nice post but… Am I the only one deeply disturbed by the dehumanizing jokes your husband makes at your expense? Talk about scaring people off from starting a family. Your husband sounds like a real anti-feminist and promoting his views on this platform is poor form, sorry. I don’t understand why the other readers here see this as appropriate.

    • September 5, 2012 at 5:44 am

      O hi.

      My husband and I engage in this rare and complicated family ritual known as Making Fun of Each Other. Anthropologists have asked to study it – but there’s no room for them in the cramped apartment we’re renting at present, so I’m afraid a full-on scientific explanation for this curious behavior will not be published any time soon. I did refer your concerns to him. He grunted in a manly way.

      • Tabby
        September 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm

        Um, I just don’t think this is appropriate…?

      • September 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

        Tabby, since I already know you to be a troll from way back when, I don’t think I’m going to be discussing the “appropriateness” of my relationship with my husband with you. And I probably wouldn’t do that with a non-troll either, come to think of it.

      • September 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm

        Yes, clearly Natalia’s relationship with her husband is “inappropriate” because based on one anecdote in a blog post, it is not 100% entirely feminist (defined, obviously, as being 100% approved without reservation by every feminist-identified person on the internet AND every person who visits feminist blogs).

        Natalia, how dare you.

      • number9
        September 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm

        Ha! My husband and I have been honing this ritual for years. I sometimes wonder what the random people on the street that have the (mis)fortune of overhearing our fine comedic stylings must think. I used to not care much, but, thanks to tabby here, I now realize I have not considered the possibility that random strangers on the street might be some manner of feminist police, there to judge the appropriateness of our inside jokes! And now I know that my relationship is PROBLEMATIC. Woe.

    • Bagelsan
      September 5, 2012 at 10:32 am

      I, for one, am glad she’s not a 2 pound snob; that seems like the domain of kittens, frankly. :D

      • Tabby
        September 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm

        But how are these jokes about a woman’s weight ever OK? Serious question.

      • EG
        September 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm

        I’m glad somebody has finally caught on to the really important part of this post. I thought for a minute we might all just be appreciating the well-written, nuanced thoughts on interdependence and love.

      • September 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm

        Sometimes, in certain contexts, jokes about things that would otherwise be offensive are ok. For example, between close friends or partners who understand each other. I have a very close friend who I sometimes call Big Boobs McGee. Because she has big boobs and they are awesome. I also sometimes call her Sticks, because she is very tiny, and her body looks to me like two sticks stuck to the bottom of a slightly larger stick. She calls me Jowls because I have a wide jawline. She often teases me about my disproportionately large rear end (i.e., “Big Butt McGee” or “business in the front, party in the back”). I would not call a woman I did not know Big Boobs McGee. Or Sticks. She would not make fun of a stranger’s jowls. Or their ass. I would be pretty pissed if some stranger on the internet commented on my jowls. Or my ass. But given our relationship, and our love for each other, it is ok. It is loving, intimate teasing. I think that’s a pretty normal experience.

        Or maybe I am just The Internet’s Worst Feminist and she should be fired as my best friend.

      • Past my expiration date
        September 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm

        If there is a list of things that it is never ok for a person to make jokes about with their partner(s), I would like to know what is on the list. I want to behave ok-ly.

      • samanthab
        September 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm

        When no one is hurt by them?

      • September 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm

        Good. Neither Natalia nor her husband were hurt by his joke that she used to weigh 2 pounds. So can we all agree that it’s ok that their relationship involves joking around? Or is it also a requirement that no one on the internet feels hurt by the joke?

        (And if someone on the internet is actually “hurt” by this particular joke in this particular context, directed at Natalia by her intimate partner and not directed at you or related to you in any way, I would suggest that perhaps the issue does not rest with Natalia and her partner).

        Ok, back to an awesome and thought-provoking post!

      • September 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm

        … And concerned parties should note that I never actually weighed *two pounds*. Just in case you’re already sending in the paramedics.

        I weighed more like four.


  15. SWNC
    September 5, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Beautiful. Thank you for this. Caregiving is profoundly human, profoundly important work, and it makes me sad and angry that the US doesn’t value it as it should. Just look at the people who make their livings providing care for the young, the elderly and the disabled–what they receive in wages and social status is deeply shameful.

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