Friday, July 31, 2009

Th-Th-That's All Folks!

Sit and Wonder - The Verve (mp3)

"I think a midlife crisis is anytime you're waking up in the middle of the night asking yourself, 'Is this going to be my life?'"
-- my pal Matt

I got to eat lunch with my friend Matt earlier this week. Matt is a doctor in town. We went to undergrad together and were mutual friends of friends who always got along swimmingly, and he somehow found himself completing his residency in Chattanooga of all places.

Matt is a kick-ass pediatrician. If there was some kind of World Series of Pediatric Care, I'd put some money on him because he's the full package: gentle, compassionate, confident, absolutely brilliant, and passionately dedicated. He's passed up some incredible job opportunities (translation: shitloads of money) because he believes so deeply in what he's doing.

He first became a parent four years ago, and now they have two kids. Parenthood hit Matt and his wife like Mike Tyson with brass knuckles. My theory -- we haven't really talked about it THAT much, 'cuz we're, like, guys, and we prefer talking about UNC sports -- is that Matt and his wife were prepared. He's a pediatrician, and she's a nurse who worked in the pediatric ward of a local hospital until recently. They're around kids all the time. He was dispensing advice constantly to parents about how to handle their children. It's our job to know kids, and we love kids, and we're around them all day every day, so raising our own should be pretty easy, is what I think they thought.

I still remember the first time Matt was able to make it out for a night of beer, four or five months after their first child was born, and he looked like a defeated man. "I had no idea" was the general gist of his reaction to parenthood.

He'd seen exhausted parents at the end of their psychological rope hundreds of times. Friends like myself had shared our own tales of the It Ain't All Wine + Roses variety. But when you're brilliant and gentle and caring and passionate and confident, the challenges facing normal humans don't concern you much. It's like expecting Tiger Woods to be worried about a 5-foot putt just 'cuz a lot of duffers miss theirs.

Here are just two things I've learned to believe about parenting:

(1) The smarter and more passionate you are about parenting before you become a parent, the more likely you'll be absolutely miserable and convinced you're a failure once you become one; and
(2) The more of a control freak you are, the more likely children will break your soul (or you theirs) for a while.

(Please note. We're talking likelihoods here, not cold hard absolutes.

We were talking about parenting, and life, when Matt spoke the quote atop this page. He wasn't talking about himself when he spoke the words, but both of us ended up acknowledging that, to some extent, we've both struggled with that question more recently than we ever imagined we would.

Personally, I often struggle with the feeling that I'm "circling the runway."

Professionally, I'm in a position where my only options for advancement require that I leave my current job, and probably Chattanooga, and possibly education in general. But I like my job. My job is "a good, solid 7 1/2." It brings me plenty of satisfaction, and I know with certainty that I am appreciated and of value. Secure, satisfactory, static.

Domestically, I'm in a position where my only options for advancement require that I leave my current wife, and probably Chattanooga, and possibly everyone else who ever had any respect for me. But I love my wife. My wife is "a good, solid... um... 10 1/2..." and my family brings me more satisfaction than I could remotely deserve. I also know with certainty that I am appreciated and of value. Secure, satisfactory, static. [This is a clever joke, people. I don't really consider it "advancement" to leave my spouse. Unless Evangeline Lilly really really needs me.]

Parenting, especially in those first three or four years, is so intense that few people have time for the midlife crisis because the crisis is the poopy diaper and the baby screaming so loud your eardrums start bleeding and the baby throwing food all over the floor. When you're waking up in the middle of the night, it's not to ask yourself an existential question, but rather to change your kid's diaper or rock them back to sleep. But once you get a handle on that -- well, as much of a handle as parents can remotely get -- then the static electricity of life can create some challenges.

Your job, as the loathed saying goes, "is what it is." Your family "is what it is." You try and confront the static electricity with a hobby or two. Maybe you start a blog. Maybe you obsess about World of Warcraft or shoe shopping or rec league soccer. Maybe you do some cool philanthropic stuff like joining a board or becoming a Big Sister. All to figure out whether those things are enough to release that static electricity the way reaching out for a metal doorknob would.

All I know is that, for the most part, it seems like almost everyone I know well enough to have this kind of conversation admits to having asked themselves this middle-of-the-night question somewhere between one and a hundred times.

Thankfully, for many of us in that boat, we can get up at 3 a.m., walk to the doorway of our child's bedroom, look at them sleeping peacefully, dreaming of unicorns or tractors or Ronald McDonald, and find some solace. When they awake in the middle of the night, we calm their fears and assure them everything's gonna be OK; gloriously, the reverse can also hold true.


troutking said...

I heard this quote recently from Edith Wharton which I found interesting and I think relates here, in spite of the fact that I hated reading Ethan Frome in 10th grade. Here it is: "If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we'd have a pretty good time.” Not something I'm terribly good at, but I'm thinking about it.

Goofytakemyhand said...

That was an extremely depressing novel. Maybe the only book I 'read' (skimmed, probably a better word) where even the Cliff Notes were bleak.

Bob said...

And also the worst romantic(?)attempt at suicide of all time--let's both get on this sled and ride it through the snow into a tree! Billy,in spite of your assertions to the contrary, you sound a little down in the dumps here. Luckily, in case you think you're approaching some midlife angst, it never snows in Chattanooga.

Billy said...

Yo Bob, fret not too much. Being a little down now and then is part of a good roller coaster, and I luvs my roller coasters. This isn't a dire downer, just a minor dip.

Besides, I leave Sunday for a four-day poker trip where I risk throwing away (personal) record amounts of money, and my level of excitement about this trip is neither healthy nor wise, but it is quite real.

troutking said...

Who'd have thought, but right here on blogspot is an Ethan Frome blog. Yes, it's going to be a musical?!?