Parenthood. After six years of the stuff, I’m starting to understand how it’s all rigged. Sure, you get the new avenues of wonder and joy, the fathomless wells of unconditional love (and anxiety) it opens up, but the main game is shutting down your personal freedoms.
The first to go is the right to a decent night’s sleep. Don’t even talk to me about lie-ins. Pretty soon, you’ve yielded dominion over your own home. What was once a sanctuary is strewn with broken toys, abandoned dress-ups, half-eaten apricots and an uproar of artworks in progress. Time to yourself? Don’t make me laugh.
But the keenest cut comes in the company we keep. Because once the shackles of parenthood have clasped shut, besides our adorable, ubiquitous and relentlessly demanding little angels themselves, the people we spend most time with are not those we know and like, but people we don’t know and may not care to, given the choice.
I’m talking about other parents. The mums and dads of the kids in our children’s class or pre-school group, with whom we will be exchanging small-talk at birthday parties, school pick-ups and sports days for the foreseeable future, in a cruel parody of a social life.
"The people we spend most time with are not those we know and like, but people we don’t know and may not care to, given the choice."
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a friendly guy. I like people. I’d just kind of prefer to choose my own crowd than have one thrust upon me by the vagaries of school catchment boundaries.
Not that our kids get to choose who they hang out with, either. Within months of birth, they’re sat down in a sandpit with someone they’re meant to get along with, then it’s off to school to be lumped together with their local peer-group, in which they sink or swim, socially, as they careen towards the quagmire of adolescence.
But children have got that whole innocence thing going on, haven’t they? Once they find a fellow human who’s into making mud-pies, fairies, wrestling or just running around the place shouting, they’re away – friendships made in heaven.
Grown-ups are more complicated. We’re more particular in our preferences and have more hang-ups.
Just the other day, the mother of one of my daughter’s grade one schoolmates came over to pick her up from a playdate. I offered her a cup of tea. As the kettle boiled, small-talk turned to my partner’s work. Her job has recently moved to a new suburb, notable for its multicultural demographic.
"Yes, she much prefers it around there," I ventured.
‘Really, she prefers it? I hate it there," replied the mother, with more passion than is usual for inter-parental kitchen intercourse.
"I’ve had a couple of nasty experiences on the streets there," she confided, as I handed her the tea. "You know....with Muslims."
Who was this person I stood smiling at, even as she selected the last chocolate chip cookie from my biscuit jar? Was she about to start quoting Andrew Bolt at me?
I quickly changed the subject to the weather forecast for a forthcoming sausage sizzle, and she soon left. But not before inviting me to one of her husband’s poker nights a few weekends from now.
Alain De Botton, Swiss philosopher, television star and all round clever-clogs, once wrote that "to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed," our place in the world endorsed by those who know us best, but love us anyway.
Following parenthood, we are no longer constantly surrounded by our friends, but by our children, their friends, and the parents of their friends. No wonder we don’t know who we are any more.
I think I need a lie-down – only my bed’s covered in Lego.
PS: I feel bound to state that many parents in my local community are delightful people who enrich my life. In particular any who might be reading this.