I’m a Parent and a Cynic
My son almost got into an altercation at the park recently. As he was playing excitedly in a sandpit, scooping out the sand and pouring it into a plastic container, another child snatched the scoop out of his hands and usurped the area, leaving my son a little stunned.
“WTF!” my husband exclaimed from the sidelines. “He didn’t whack that kid?????” No doubt, my husband had overreacted to a childish antic, but I understood where he was coming from.
You see, our day invariably starts with a row. “Why do you bring your dogs here?” people demand of us, every day, at almost every place we can take our dogs — on the sidewalk, in the park, in the elevator. Depending on how spitefully it is said, we have a mild argument or a raging fight. It only gets worse from there — the rantings of difficult customers, the inefficiencies of our city and systems, the dark reports in the news. Our days are filled with unpleasantness of all kinds. My husband came home recently with a busted lip and a bruised cheek. He had been beaten up by the driver of a car that first nicked him; when he protested, the driver got out not to apologise but to thrash him. Even this has become banal.
My husband’s world view has always been very bleak, and now, jaded by the millions of little battles I fight every day, I am coming around to his way of thinking. Our cynicism flies in the face of becoming a parent, though, of having a child, which is an inherently positive act: You bring a child into the world because you think you can give him or her a good life. You feel that the world is a decent enough place for them to come into. No matter how onerous the task of raising a child, you do it with the anticipation of a bright future.
But what if you don’t see a bright future?
We don’t. What we see is more of the same. All my youthful idealism about a changed world and my own role as an agent of that change has dissipated. Like my husband, I now believe people are entitled and selfish, life is unfair, and good things don’t necessarily happen to those who try. The air is dark with pollution, and the food is poisoned with chemicals. It isn’t going to change or get better.
It isn’t easy to parent with such gloom. Our instinct is to instruct our children to be polite to people, to share with their peers, to eat well, to play heartily, to participate in the hundreds of opportunities that will come their way. We don’t tell them to hold back from life. But there is also an instinct to protect and to prepare them for when those opportunities don’t pan out, or crash and burn. Some parents do this by pointing out life’s silver linings; others, by being the rock to which their child can always turn. We’ll probably take a different route.
We may not shield our son from disappointment. (Really there is no way we can.) There will be no participation trophies, if we can help it. We may want to give him everything or the best of everything, but many times, enough and good enough will have to suffice. We may not always tell him to be nice when he stands up for himself; we may advise posturing to stave off bullies. I don’t want him to grow up in a bubble, impervious to everything but himself. But I also don’t want him to wallow. I want him to have empathy, to understand that we are not unique or alone in dealing with the vagaries of life and the world around us. These experiences will prepare him for the world beyond his home, and this understanding will protect him when that world hurts him.
My husband and I might be cynical, but we are not despondent. We have a bleak view of the world, but our world is not all dreary. We think life is unfair, but one could always get lucky. We don’t fight with every person who pisses us off (well, my husband wouldn’t be opposed to it in principle), because we pick our fights carefully. It is like we are prepared for the worst, and are happy when things don’t turn out too bad. We are not dishonest, because we are not looking for an easy way out. We work, struggle, fail, bitch, sulk and pick up and start again. We revel in good luck and celebrate minor successes as pleasant surprises. It isn’t a joy-less life, but happiness is tempered with a feeling that it is not here to stay.
I hope this view of the world will not sadden or harden our son. I hope it does not cast a shadow on the bright future I hope for, even if I don’t quite believe in. Because as much as we plan to prepare him for a world that won’t always have his best interests at heart, we also plan to tell him extraordinary happiness is possible, like the kind I felt the day he was born, and extraordinary compassion is all around us, if he chooses to look for it, like the neighbor who feeds the strays every day outside our home, or the cousin who cares for her community’s elderly. Maybe, in this way, he will turn out better than us, more patient and accepting. And maybe, in this way, so will the world.
We would be pleasantly surprised.