I have not slept well this week. It is entirely the fault of my children. I have only been able to keep my sanity by refusing to let them break me. It reminded me again how much I think parenthood is a lot like being tortured by the CIA.
My daughter was born in December of 2004, which happened to be right about the same time American soldiers captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The former dictator was found in what became known as a “spider hole” covered in mud and looking more like a crazy guy who sells flowers on a freeway exit ramp than the leader of an oil-rich nation.
What really interested me was how Saddam’s life was different after his capture. The rumors of where he was being held and how he was being treated seemed somewhat familiar to me. That’s when it hit me: being held by the CIA while they attempt to get you to reveal the location of weapons of mass destruction (even if they don’t exist) is a lot like being at home with your children. Here’s how they compare and how we can all survive.
1. You are pulled out of a safe dark hole: Before you have children, you are the most important thing in your world. Or maybe your spouse is if you’re feeling generous. You can eat rice for dinner while watching Seinfeld reruns and no one’s going to base their eating/TV viewing habits on your actions. In those last few days of pregnancy, you hole up in your own little world, totally focused on your own physical well being. Then your precious child is born crying and fussing, which is actually her way of saying, “greetings from your new master.” They are vicious little task masters, what with their need to eat and bathe and poop and get dressed EVERY DAY. I still grieve my self-centered life. Alas.
**Solution: Enjoy your spider hole every chance you get. When you have a baby say “YES, NOW!” when someone offers to come over and help out. While that person is there, don’t talk to them at all, just go take a nap. As your kids get older, actually take people up on their offers to watch them or exchange baby sitting with a friend. I have one friend who has a neighbor come sit with her sleeping children so she and her husband can have date nights. She then does the same for that neighbor the next week and no one has to pay for a sitter. This is important. You need to be able to go to a dark place and listen to the war from a distance.
2. You are grimy and unkempt: No matter how fastidious you are as a woman, the day you become a mom, you look rough. Your hair is matted, you probably haven’t bathed in a little while, and you are wearing your old lady glasses. Although this problem gets significantly better as kids age, I still find myself with half-chewed Cheerios stuck to my clothing and unidentified baby goo smeared in my hair. After they finished showing the world Saddam’s crazy hair and checking his teeth or whatever, the CIA actually cleaned Mr. Hussein up. You cannot expect that kind of courtesy from your children.
**Solution: Take a shower. Sounds silly, I know, but the noise of the water is soothing, the heat will ease your aching muscles, and no one touches you for about 10 minutes. The cries of “Mooooooommmmmmyyyy” are also a lot harder to hear and you can’t see the tiny fingers under the bathroom door. You will also be clean for 4.3 minutes.
3. Your visitors are limited: Supposedly, Saddam was kept in a sparse room where his only visitors were the 19-year-old soldiers who brought him food. Your social life looks a lot like this when you become a parent. At first, your friends and family bring you food on their way to do more glamorous and exciting things–like bathe. They pop in for a while, chat briefly about how you’re feeling and then leave you with only a glimpse at what the outside world might be like. For those of us who stay at home with our kids, this phase seems to go on forever. It is REALLY difficult to find someone to talk to about something other than your kids. Not that you have anything else to talk about anyway.
**Solution: Talk to anyone who calls you. Even those political town hall survey people. Read the news on the internet. If you can, workout without your children nearby. It doesn’t matter if your only piece of outside information concerns which celebrities have named their children after inanimate objects this week; knowing something about the rest of the world makes you feel connected and like a part of society. And even the Kardashians count as society when you have small kids.
4. Your sense of time is altered: A common interrogation tactic is to wake up the captive at random times during the day and night to throw off their internal rhythms and confuse their sense of time. In a windowless cell, this method can quite literally drive people mad. Your children know this. You will get 8 hours of sleep one night and think, “this isn’t so bad,” only to have your baby wake at unpredictable times that are no further apart than 45 minutes the next night. You might find yourself awake at 4 in the morning asking your 3-week-old why she doesn’t love you. You could go 3 months with great sleep and then have a week where one kid has a stomach virus, one caught croup, and the other just didn’t want to miss out on the midnight party. You know, for instance. Not that I have any experience with that.
**Solution: If you’ve had a really rough night and you can work it in, sleep at any moment that you can. When I was working, I once took a nap under my desk during lunch. Really. If you’re at home, put down the laundry and rest. No one cares about the laundry but you. Make your spouse buy takeout instead of cooking; I promise it won’t kill you. And don’t beat yourself up if you make odd parenting decisions at night. I cannot tell you how many nights I have rocked, cuddled, fed, and wailed at a crying baby only to find a wet diaper when I finally remembered to look. Sleepy You cannot be held responsible for your actions.
5. You are surrounded by photos to remind you of your predicament: According to one account I read at the time, Saddam Hussein’s cell had a giant picture of President Bush on one wall and photos of his dead relatives who had been killed in the fighting on another wall. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that your home has a similar décor. The most prominent pictures in a home with kids are not smiling wedding shots—they are, or will soon be, totally of your kids. Toothless, drooling grins will replace that 8×10 of you looking incredibly skinny at your engagement party. All the small pictures will be of your former, now deceased, life where you toasted the New Year with expensive champagne and took spontaneous ski weekends with old college buddies.
**Solution: Remind yourself that childhood only lasts for a little while. You will be out on New Year’s Eve again. You will go skiing again. You will have time to yourself and be able to do things with your friends. My parents, for instance, are planning a trip to Italy. So, you know, there’s that to look forward to in 30 years. Until then, create new family-centered memories. Those photos of parties past will slowly be replaced with pictures of princess birthdays and pirate pool parties. And you will love every new kid-covered snapshot.
6. Your world is forever changed: Unfortunately for Saddam, the Iraq to which he returned was run by his enemies and he was hung (and decapitated) for his crimes against humanity. This will probably not happen to you as a parent. What will happen, however, is that you will notice that you see the world through new eyes. Your spouse cannot drive slowly enough when your baby is in the car. You won’t like being in elevators at the doctor’s office because all those strangers are breathing near your child. You will be overly specific with your instructions to people who care for your kids in your absence. The world of parenting is both more wonderful and more dangerous than you ever thought possible.
**Solution: Embrace your parent’s world view. You’re right to worry about your kids. If you didn’t worry, you wouldn’t be normal. Don’t let it paralyze you or make you one of those crazy moms who never lets their kid spend the night at the slumber party. But understand that you will always feel like a part of you is wandering around outside in the world and you must do whatever you can to protect it. On the bright side, you will also see how magical and amazing the world is when it is viewed for the first time. Christmas lights? Beautiful! Jell-O? The best dessert EVER! Running? The only way to travel! Child-like wonder is truly a miracle to behold and we all have front row seats for years to come.
So bring on the torture because it is totally worth the effort. It may crack dictators and terrorists, but not you. You’re a PARENT—and you can take anything.