“Suppose one of you has a servant who is plowing or looking after the sheep. When he comes in from the field, do you tell him to hurry along and eat his meal? Of course not! Instead, you say to him, ‘Get my supper ready, then put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may have your meal.’ The servant does not deserve thanks for obeying orders, does he? It is the same with you; when you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are ordinary servants; we have only done our duty.'”
Coming across these verses in sunday-school bible study*, I thought that Jesus was being a bit of a prick. Some of that, I guess, is because we have a different perspective on what constitutes “hard work” these days. If I asked someone to please put a cover sheet on their TPS reports, and they put a cover sheet on their TPS report, would I thank them?
Damn right I would, come to think of it! Well, maybe Jesus was just
a jerk more of a stern middle-manager than I am. Anyhow, where I was going with this was that I used to get told all the time “Oh, John, you’re going to make such a wonderful father!” every time I’d astonish a kid by magically pushing a salt shaker through a table*** or perform the Whirling Dervish of Doom with a five-year-old, which always elicits hysterical laughter and sometimes puking.
So I was pretty confident that I’d be a good father, only to discover that all the things that I was getting praised for have NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO WITH BEING A GOOD PARENT. I was a pretty good Dangerous Uncle, or whatever (look! he shoots fireballs from his hands using flash paper! He knows which part of town sells fake ID!) and I’m right up there in the top tier of summer camp counselors, if I do say so myself, but it turns out that fatherhood is almost exactly unlike being a Dangerous Uncle.
For one thing, all the glory you get for entertaining a group of five-year-olds for a couple of hours is nothing. NOTHING, even when compared to taking care of one happy baby for fourteen hours straight. The most I’ve ever done is eleven hours straight, and I was just about crying with nervousness and general strung-out-i-tude by the end of it. Why, I can’t say exactly, but there’s something about just being the One In Charge with nobody to talk to that depletes a small but vital part of the brain. And, with a baby, that part of the brain rarely gets recharged. Then there’s the whole lack-of-sleep thing. Plus, most of the work is not glamorous. Planning what to eat for the next five days does not elicit storms of giggles; doing laundry consistently earns no brownie points; washing the sink for the eighteenth time in three days is not something that you get complimented on.
So, I’m only about the trillionth parent to come to learn what parenthood is really all about. I do believe that I am a good father, even though so far I have not had occasion to emit even one fireball. I am humbled, however, by the amount of work that Kate does — she’s home twelve hours a day to my four — and how the mental burden of being a mother seems to be like the mental burden of high-altitude climbing. None of what you’re doing would be particularly onerous by itself, but when you’re doing it for the thousandth time on sixty percent of your mental capacity, each washing of the sink becomes a difficult act of grace.
So: to my parents, who worked really hard to feed me healthy food: thank you. And to my wife and co-parent, who does the lion’s share of the baby work: thank you. And to my baby: hang on, let me just wash the sheep smell off my hands and get my apron on, here.
* Until I was six, my parents were parapsychological investigators, then the whole group became pentecostal christians, plus I went to Quaker school (theologically, modern Quakers are like Unitarians, but with older buildings and fewer purple healing crystals.) So my religious background is eclectic. I was an evangelical christian through high school, and even got some summer jobs in college flying around the country doing Christian stuff and some preaching. Then I went to seminary to get my head straight, and decided I was an atheist, though the “a” word has connotations of humorless, professorial types who carry string cheese snacks around in sandwich baggies**.
** Of course, the “c” word has connotations of humorless, pale minivan-drivers who tuck in their t-shirts and put passive-aggressive stickers on their bumpers, so what are you going to do? Become a gnostic and have fun at late-night velvet-robe drinking parties, I suppose.
*** You put a paper napkin over it, then move the napkin off the edge of the table so the salt shaker falls into your lap, leaving the shape of the shaker in the napkin. Then you smash the napkin flat, yelling “Banzai!” or “Elvis!” or whatever. This trick has not come in useful ONCE so far, and I’m sure that it will only be a source of horrible embarrasment to Lydia later in life.