"It's the hardest thing you'll ever do," a friend told me, solemnly, last February.
I wasn't deploying for combat duty, or preparing to climb Mount Everest. I wasn't fighting cancer. I wasn't even muddling through the Sunday New York Times crossword.
It was my wife's baby shower, and we were a month shy of parenthood.
My typically grounded friend was aiming too high with her superlative assessment. She was well aware that, five years earlier, I had struggled mightily to recover from alcoholism and, prior to that, endured a years-long health scare that had threatened to leave me with severely impaired eyesight.
My wife stood by me through both harrowing experiences. We were both intimately familiar with various levels of hard.
Fast forward and, this month, our son Nicholas will turn 1 year old. Though we're certainly not seasoned veterans, our child-rearing experiences thus far have confirmed what we'd already expected: Our friend's uncharacteristic extremism was entirely overblown.
Why, then, had she granted "hardest" status to something that, despite its inherent challenges, literally billions of people around the world have done before us? Why the exaggeration over procreation?
It is entirely true that responsible, nurturing parenting is a persistent challenge not to be taken lightly. Even in infancy, at their most adorable, children can bring an hour of headache for every heartwarming Hallmark moment.
And as they grow, so do the stakes: If I make a careless mistake now, baby Nicholas may spit up or not nap; 15 years from now, similar thoughtlessness might scar him for life.
And of course, parental struggles vary by life circumstance. In the 1950s, my wife's grandparents emigrated, four children in tow, from China to the U.S. without speaking English. The burdens they bore as parents—and as people—far outweigh anything we're likely to face in modern-day suburban New Jersey.
But neither stakes nor circumstance really account for our friend's sincere-yet-silly aggrandizement—one that could be overlooked were it not widely echoed by other parents from our workplaces, personal lives, and, perhaps most prominently, social media.
As my wife once put it: "There are a lot of mommy martyrs out there."
I see her mommy martyrs, and raise her doomsday daddies—men who, knowingly or not, mimic the cultural myth that masculinity is arrested by the metaphorical balls and chains of marriage and children. Dude: It's a kid, not a castration.
These caricatures—the insanely inundated mother; the neutered, forgotten father—are simultaneously alluring and ugly.
The attraction of such behavior, I think, is its implicit invitation to complacency. The emphatically overwhelmed, under-rested and inseparably tethered all have built-in excuses to remain stagnant in their lives outside of parenthood.
It's comforting to claim that, when combined, our careers and children leave us with absolutely zero time to enrich our lives through cultural pursuits, care for our bodies through exercise, or explore hobbyist passions. With few exceptions, this line of thought is conveniently self-deceiving—a forced fantasy in which parenthood becomes a shield of active avoidance.
"Raising a kid is hard enough," we convince ourselves, "I've earned the right to shelve everything else." The need for many parents to broadly announce this is a thinly veiled attempt to squash the nagging suspicion that their stagnancy stems not from parenthood, but from laziness or fear.
Their children aren't preventing them from leading fuller lives: they themselves are. And fraudulently frightening expecting moms and dads serves to normalize this excuse-riddled lifestyle for the next generation of parents. It's prenatal brainwashing as cover-up.
And that brings us to the ugly.
Disingenuously conflating parenthood with some sort of Herculean feat—one requiring supreme, even superhuman effort—is both self-important and self-defeating. Far too many parents step on their children's backs to reach a prideful pedestal, atop which all the world can behold their child-rearing sacrifices. I've been guilty of this myself, and am ashamed of it.
All too common, this manufactured, mezzanine martyrdom isn't just extremely annoying and mildly pathetic; it is also contagious. These actions tell soon-to-be parents—and worse, our own children—that, in terms of leading fuller, more enriching lives, it's better to make excuses than progress. When the going gets tough...frantically tread water, bury your goals and dreams, and passive-aggressively whine about it.
There are, of course, temporary exceptions. All parents hit rough stretches when they're truly swamped or adapting to a new childhood stage. Life happens. Parenting is hard.
But it's not that hard. If it's truly the hardest thing you've ever done, then...well... you've probably never done anything that difficult.
As soon as we, as a society, can admit that, the sooner we'll stop needlessly intimidating people at their own baby shower. Trust me: They're nervous enough already.