In the background
The things you lose when you become a parent, and the things you gain.
You lose a lot when you become a parent.
The gains far outweigh the losses in the long run, at least in my experience, but you notice the losses first. Free time disappears. Lazy, relaxing Saturday afternoons? Nothing but a memory, and a hazy one at that. You lose sleep, of course, and increasingly—this one might be related—hair. Money? We won’t even begin to try to truly quantify the size of that loss, but suffice it to say my children are like a tech startup: they’re years away from being profitable, and I’m not sure they have a plan to make money at all. Bringing new people into the world and raising them means you’re giving up lots of things, and large parts of yourself.
But now I’m actually starting to lose stuff.
I’m slow on the uptake, so, like most trends, it had been happening for years without me realizing. I first really took notice of the shift this winter; we got a handful of heavy snows in February, something that’s not an every-year occurrence here in Kentucky. In bundling the kids up to go sledding, they ended up donning a few of my old things, having far outgrown their gear from our last real winter. A fleece cap I’d purchased at the University of Cincinnati campus bookstore as a freshman some twenty years ago (My kids have been blessed with the same gigantic heads as their father. We're just a whole family of English bulldogs.) A plaid scarf I purchased at a souvenir shop in Edinburgh during a college backpacking trip. Earmuffs I’d bought when training through the winter for a marathon some fifteen years ago.
Seeing them stomp through the snowdrifts in these things, items that predate their existence by decades and were obtained at a time when the idea of them one day being part of a child’s wardrobe would have been terrifyingly inconceivable—that’s when I realized how much of the flotsam of my life had been absorbed already.
The first “nice” towels I ever purchased, in a mid-20s effort to look like less of a wild animal when I would bring a girlfriend back to my apartment? Long supplanted by actually-nice wedding-registry towels, they were repurposed as burp cloths for the new babies, because you always need more than you realize. That Cleveland Browns throw blanket, the one I’d often fallen asleep under while watching Sportscenter on my couch, because—despite the towels—I did still live like an animal? It’s now a comforting talisman in a child’s room, retconned into “Daddy’s favorite blanket” meaning after a bad dream one night. From baseball gloves and ballcaps to stuffed animals from my own youth, a lot of little things have gone from being mine to theirs.
(They love stealing my water bottles, often to my chagrin after returning from a run.)
It’s not just me taking these losses, either—a number of my wife’s old things, purses and scarves and costume jewelry, to name a few, have ended up in our daughter’s overflowing dress-up bin, ready to enable the roughly twenty costume changes she makes in a given day.
Of course, there’s no real material loss here, for either of us. A hat is just a hat to me, but to them it’s Daddy’s Hat, filled with all of the imagined magical powers that name might suggest. I’ll happily cede any of these things to them, things that had been lying around in the bottom of a box or the back of a closet for ages before finding new life and utility in the face of their many complex and often-unpredictable needs.
The real loss is a loss of self, of the person I once envisioned myself to be. Slowly but surely, these little objects that long served as tiny markers of times long past in my life have taken on new meaning as scenic dressing for a different production, one in which I’m no longer the main character.
Parenting forces you to give up, and I don’t mean that as a negative, although I’ve made a few questionable sartorial concessions along the way. (Say what you will, but New Balance really does make a good, supportive sneaker.) It forces you to give up the conception of yourself as a solitary entity, a person without context, limitations or obligations. The kid who bought that hat two decades ago wasn’t thinking about someday starting a family, wasn’t thinking about rooting down in the suburbs and worrying about schools and summer camps and dance lessons. He was going to take on the world by himself, as every dumbass nineteen-year-old imagines they will. None of his dreams involved anyone else, except as ancillary characters, the people who’d be clapping in the background of his incredible exploits.
That kid’s long gone, and good luck to him.
My dreams are no longer ones of running wild and free, of living outside of any context or narrative where I’m not the primary protagonist. Instead, I dream of what they’ll be. What they’ll be capable of, how they’ll take on the world someday. I haven’t given up on my own dreams, but I now see those dreams in a new light: as part of a real life with other people in it, people who will both constrain and empower them.
What I’ve lost in self I’ve gained back in purpose; I’m not just a person standing alone in a field, challenging the world. I’m the trees and the sky, I’m the field itself.
I’m in the background, and it’s their world now.
That doesn’t feel like a loss at all.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
"[M]y children are like a tech startup: they’re years away from being profitable, and I’m not sure they have a plan to make money at all." Let me know when that turns around for you. (My kids are 25 and 23.)
The more serious comment: Our college years and young adulthood in this country are very much about stepping out as the sole protagonist in your own life and making your way into the world. It's exhilarating and fun but, for most of us, also somewhat incomplete. Marriage and kids help you realize that you don't have to be the sole -- or even main -- protagonist in your own life, and it's frequently more rewarding if you're not. You haven't lost your sense of self; you've blended it into a greater whole.