Four Years Old

Athena woke up today to her mother and father thrusting a birthday cake at her and singing “Happy Birthday.” This confused her since she didn’t know that it was her birthday — we don’t tell her until it happens, partly because it’s fun to be surprised, and partly because this way it’s easier to manage expectations. She already knows Christmas is coming up; contemplating Christmas and her birthday together would be enough to cause her little head to pop. In a few years, of course, she’ll probably learn to dislike it because of the whole “one gift for Christmas and birthday” thing people will pull, but hopefully between now and then we’ll have a chance to impress upon her the idea that it’s not the gifts that count. In the meantime, however, we got her this really cool talking globe.

It will not come as news that I adore my child. Indeed, this is the position that one is assumed to have, and I’m quite happy to conform to expectations. Athena is exactly the child I would have wished I would have had: Smart, strong, stubborn beyond belief, and curious in all the sense that the word can be applied to a child. She’s also heartbreakingly beautiful, loving and happy (except when she not. And then she’s very not. But usually this passes quickly). She’s not a perfect child, just perfect for me. The idea that I get to help this quirky little human get a running start at the world fills me with a sense enduring and constant joy.

The bitterest of childless folks that marinate in various “childfree” groups online seem to think that feeling of joy is akin to getting a lobotomy, and as much as I’m inclined to dismiss that as the feculent bleating of the terminally selfish, I will grant that they’re on to something, even if once they’re on it they wallow in it. What they’re onto is the fact that parents fetishize their children, which annoys everyone else (even the folks who don’t endemically hate children for dark, squirrelly reasons of their own) and is really no good for the kids either.

But I think all this fetishism is something different from the joy I’m talking about. And honestly, I don’t know what’s at its root, since I don’t much understand it myself. I’m not likely to become one of those parents who schedules their kid’s life from 5:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night and who then whines, in a petulantly prideful way, about how much time and energy they have to devote to their children’s well-being. I’m certainly not going to be one of those parents who tries to block out anything in a culture that’s not child-safe, if for no other reason than that most of the things that these type of parents see as a threat are things I see as an opportunity to teach my daughter how to mock. It’s already working; when the commercials come on the TV, she typically turns to me and says “Would you mute these, please, daddy? These commercials are evil.” She’s well on her way.

A good friend of mine who is also a parent recently commented that as much as she loves and adores her child, there’s a part of her that misses the freedom she had before, including the ability to actually have a thought process that goes for more than 20 seconds before it’s interrupted by a little human asking for a juice box. And it’s true enough that parenting fundamentally means giving up part of yourself into the service of someone else, who is at first too young, and in the teenage years typically too self-oriented, to conceive of the idea that you also belong a world with which they do not intersect. Everyone remembers the disorientation we felt when we first realized our parents had more going on their lives that we had ever suspected. Now we’re on the other side of the equation.

I’m pretty confident my friend will figure out the right balance in time; she’s smart and if nothing else, in time the kids go to school, and you have several hours in a day in which you can link thoughts together without interruption. For me, it’s always been that what I’ve gained from being a parent has outweighed what I’ve had to put aside. This is partly due to my own personal inclinations — I’m not now nor have ever been one of the 24-hour party people, for whom the introduction of a small person would mean schedule crimpage, and the things I do enjoy are easy enough to juggle along with family. But I also simply suspect I’m one of those people who is reasonably well-designed for parenthood. At the very least, I can be pedantic, which suits having a kid. In the short term, at least, my kid enjoys hearing me rattle on about stuff.

I’m looking forward to the next few years. I was pleasantly surprised by Athena’s early childhood — I thought my assumed particular skills as a parent would be wasted on the infant and toddler years. I learned that they weren’t, and that the skills I thought I had were different from the skills I actually do have. And I do know that I already miss Athena as a baby.

But now Athena’s asking questions about the world — really good questions — and she’s at the point where she’s able to understand answers. And she asks a lot of questions. And boy, am I ready. Finally, all those years of learning pointless information are going to pay off, since it’s no longer pointless. It serves to expand my daughter’s knowledge of the world, and she’s loving the fact that her world is expanding. It’s fun.

I can’t wait to see what the next year brings for Athena and to us as her parents. We are blessed and lucky. And hopefully we can make our daughter feel the same way. We’ll try. It’s what you want as a parent: The hope, the effort and the enduring joy.

Happy birthday, Athena. I love you.