My life is pretty relaxing right now, but there’s a chilling period each day that derails all of my sleekest and sturdiest emotional trains, and that’s the dark corridor between 8:30 and 8:42 a.m., when my two daughters leave for high school.
I would offer you details — sounds, mostly; terrifying sounds! — but your delicate sensibilities might not tolerate such descriptions. If you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson’s oeuvre or you started to read Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” and then stopped because you couldn’t handle it, you have some grasp of the possibilities.
My older daughter is now driving my younger daughter to school in our minivan. This feels like watching Toonces the Driving Cat take the car out for a spin with her little sister in the passenger seat. The minivan is very beat up, which my older daughter complained about ferociously, until she started contributing some dents and scrapes of her own.
I started the downward trend 10 years ago, when our van was savagely mauled by an invisible but vicious curb somewhere outside of Las Vegas. Since then, an entire side panel has sagged and sometimes dragged along the road, a compromise in aerodynamics and peace of mind that didn’t even register back when we were stopping at gas stations every five minutes because someone small had to “go potty.” The term “go potty” alone is enough to conjure that bright and jittery era when half of the words in our mouths were bequeathed to us by teachers and other parents determined to baby talk themselves straight into the bowels of hell.
But back then, it often felt as if our bodies and minds had been seized by cheerful demons from the bowels of hell, or maybe we had been abducted and forever changed by mischievous aliens from distant galaxies. Because as we wiped butts and filled sippy cups and sang about baby whales (a tune they are surely playing in hell as we speak), we always tried to keep everything peppy and light, loving and together-y, light and rhymey and not too grimy. We were not ourselves, in other words.
So of course we drove a crumpled minivan around town without shame. The aliens who controlled our brains didn’t care about style or image. They were silly aliens (silly, another ubiquitous parenting term, that could signal either naughty or irrational). Those good-natured idiots from outer space just wanted us to squeeze some delight out of each and every calamity. Our lives alternated between panic and delight. We were never fully at rest, we were always on call, but it was somehow delightful anyway.
Onlookers sometimes believe that parents force a life of filth and chaos into a happy shape, just to avoid regretting their bad choices. This is an understandable take on human beings who are engaged in round-the-clock efforts to reshape green vegetables into tasty treats and recast scary unknowns as fun mysteries. One reviewer on Amazon complained that I was dishonest about parenting in my marriage memoir “Foreverland.” I made it sound fun and that was obviously a gloss. Parenting is all chills and spills and torment. I was a liar.
It’s really too bad comments on Amazon aren’t carved in stone on cave walls, so generations to come can marvel over the fascinating emotional afflictions suffered by these mysterious ancient peoples. But mostly what I think when I read those comments — or encounter yet another article about how parenting is an exhausting hellscape — is that the chills and spills and torment of parenting are the fun.
Even hardship can be joyful, when you surrender to the chaos and marvel at the rustic redesign of your life at the hands of parenting. Even as you lose track of concepts like serenity and self-respect and human dignity, you gain a sense of calm acceptance of the beautiful imperfections and suspenseful twists inherent to life among tiny savages.
That said, it’s tough to see it clearly when you’re in the middle of it. Now that our years of juggling mewling babies made of terror and magic have been compressed into 12 minutes of scary sounds in the morning, plus one peaceful hour of conversation over dinner each night, I’ve entered an era of reckoning that sometimes feels like studying cave drawings to understand the last 17 years of my life. As Toonces and her little sister disappear down the road like some strange lingering punchline, I can see that the chills and spills will unfold elsewhere now — out of sight, out of reach.
Case in point: The minivan has two new dents in it now, both in the front, both smeared with white paint. The white paint on the left is from the porch of a beach house with a very small driveway that was packed with cars at the time. The white paint on the right is from a high school student’s white BMW.
It’s too bad I can’t carve the receipt for that BMW’s body repair work into stone on a cave wall, so generations to come can marvel over the financial entanglements that arose among ancient youths learning to align their fossil-fueled chariots alongside each other’s.
At least the van’s bumper has been rendered triumphantly trapezoidal, a true beacon unto the more privileged children driving to school in shiny, perfect sports cars. “They must envy you,” I told my older daughter, explaining how her crushed bumpers are a sign that she is crushing it without undue assistance from any wealthy overlords.
Imagine driving your dream car before you’ve even had your first job! Imagine never knowing the character-building satisfactions of menial chores like vacuuming and cleaning toilets, tasks that must seem so silly to her rich classmates, since their cleaning lady handles them each week. Yet these are precisely the filthy and demeaning hardships that build resilience and fortitude!
Not surprisingly, my older daughter remained unmoved by my words, and right now she’s stomping around angrily upstairs. My husband looks preemptively agitated and ready to lay down the law, but I give him a look that says, Surrender Dorothy.
Because even though the minutes between 8:30 and 8:42 are dark and full of terrors, it’s a lot for small children who were just slurping out of juice boxes a millisecond ago to be showering and gathering their things and doing the expert-makeup-artist level of pruning and polishing they learned on TikTok and then eating breakfast and then navigating a fossil-fueled chariot without bashing into another chariot by accident. That’s hardship, for them. But I keep telling them to notice that it’s also fun. I keep pointing out that it’s scary but it’s also joyful, all of it, even the part where they’re crying on the phone to say that they smashed a car and what do I do now?
When my daughter asked me that, I told her what I tell myself each morning: “Don’t overthink it. These calamities happen all the time, to everyone. Try to enjoy the drama of it all.”
I might be talking about joy too much, so much that it makes me unbearable to be around, like a bubbly baby whale. I’m not surrendering to chaos now so much as savoring it. But can you blame me? Those playful idiots from outer space are starting to pack up their spacecraft, getting ready to leave for good. The terror and the magic are slipping out of my sight, out of my grasp. And it’s a lotfor a middle-aged woman who was possessed a millisecond ago, to face a life of autonomy and free will. Don’t leave yet, I whisper to them. Not yet.
Heather Havrilesky writes the “Ask Polly” advice column and is the author of “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage” and “How to Be a Person in the World.”