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Existential angst

One of the talks I went to at the conference last weekend was about how intense adults who spend a lot of time in their heads can struggle with bouts of existential depression throughout their lifetimes.

As one woman I talked with afterward said, “That was a great talk, but now I’m SO depressed!”

The speaker was James T. Webb, the wonderful publisher of Great Potential Press and the founder of SENG, the organization that gave me the psychological tools to start understanding what might be going on with my daughter. And with my son. And with my husband.

And with me.

During the talk, Webb asked us to define the major roles in our lives, and then he asked us to strip them away one by one and consider who we really are. There I was, stripping myself bare of mother, wife, writer…

As parents, I know that our roles are so important that sometimes they can take over. When I talk to parents, their complaints often fall into a pretty common set of categories:

“Our kids take up so much energy my husband and I don’t even know each other anymore.”

“It’s such a relief to go to work and not to have to worry about my kids.”

“I’m concerned that I do too much/too little for my child and this is causing the problems he’s having.”

We are the first generation that brought many of our kids into the world “with aforethought.” It took the combination of widely available birth control, thoughtful living, and progressive gender roles to bring this about. Very many of us (I don’t know the number but I bet someone does!) now actually think about having children, or not having children, before we do so. As the bumper sticker says, “A child is not a choice,” but having a child certainly is.

So we thought this all through before we did it, or at least we thought we thought it through! And then along it comes and it’s so very different than what we had imagined. Our children are people we could never have made up. Our spouses change — they will never again be someone who has not raised children. Our relationships to our spouses change — we are now partners in supporting another human life!

Really, there’s no way we could have known how intense this would all be. And as the sort of person Webb was talking about, someone who has always questioned my roles and my place in this world, having children has been, well, life-changing. When he asked me to strip myself of that role, I wondered if I really could.

Before I had children, I occasionally inserted a minor character into my fiction who had children. But the main characters were children, either literally or in the roles they were playing in their lives. Now, I occasionally sit myself down to write fiction, none of which gets finished. And in that fiction, all of the characters have children, and the way I approach the child characters has been indelibly changed by the experience of being a parent myself.

But mostly what I’m doing in my writing now is writing about children and parenting, so really, all three of my major roles are tied into one. I can imagine my husband and I once again living without children in our house, as ours grow up and move away, but I can’t imagine us as we were before we raised children.

In the past, I always liked feeling like I could just up and change my life if I wanted to. At one point I decided to take the LSAT and apply to law schools. I have to say that from my present vantage-point, I think it’s highly likely I never intended to go. I just wanted the option to do something radically different.

But having children changes all that. Anywhere we go, we have to go in a car that has four seats. Even if the trip is just for me, or just for my husband, or just for one of our children, we are all intrinsically involved. I don’t know that there is anything else in life that can change us so deeply and so finally.

We chose to have children, and thus we became parents. And there’s no standardized test that can get me out of this one.

Here I am. Here we go!

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

2 Responses

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  1. Leslie Dinaberg says

    What a thought-provoking post. I can particularly relate to your comment that “I can imagine my husband and I once again living without children in our house, as ours grow up and move away, but I can’t imagine us as we were before we raised children.” Recently I was trying to explain to a young, pregnant friend how parenthood changes you in the long term. I think I’ll just send her your link!

  2. Suki Wessling says

    Hi Leslie,

    I hate to say this but….. I think there’s No Way you can tell people how their lives will change! My husband and I agreed that since I was a poet and went out in the evenings a lot, he’d take care of the kids and I’d keep writing poetry and going out. Hahahahahaha! I think about that, and I realize we had no idea how this would affect us. [I hardly ever write poetry anymore. I hardly ever go out except to kid-related things and to sing once a week.] So I am tempted to tell people things, but I know they wouldn’t really get it. Our babysitter is a preschool teacher, and she says that she had no idea how different it would be before she had hers. But yes, please do send a link to my post… 🙂 Suki

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