I'm Not Proud, but I'm Not Alone: A Lazy Parent's Meditations

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Almost all parents fall woefully short of their lofty child-rearing goals in some way or another. It's not ideal—but sometimes, it's okay.

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"My parents are lazy!" my nine-year-old son exclaimed loud enough to wake lazy parents in a neighboring state. Luckily, there weren't any other adults around. Just me, and three of my son's friends who I was carpooling back from school. They had all been talking about how much fun they had camping out with their families, so my son was explaining why he didn't get to go camping with his family. And, like he said, it's because his parents don't want to pack up and get in the car and go out and lie on the cold ground somewhere in the middle of nowhere so we can get up at some ungodly hour and be uncomfortable. Which is because we are lazy.

In theory, of course, parents are not supposed to be lazy. We are supposed to sacrifice for the children and wake up at ungodly hours and camp in the rain if that will optimize our child's happiness quotient. We're supposed to cook healthy meals at least once a fortnight and clean at least occasionally so that when our friend's infant comes over he can't gorge himself on the ominous cat-sized dust bunnies rolling like tumbleweeds of filth amid the drifts of shoes-missing-their-pairs and half-broken down cardboard boxes. Emily Matchar assures me that parenting is all about expressing my individuality and self-actualizing through homeschooling or attachment parenting. And, hey, our son still occasionally comes to sleep with us because we are too lazy to toss him out of bed at 4 a.m. after we've watched the first half of Return of the King with all the ghosts and blood and death and thus given him nightmares which we knew we shouldn't have done but then we kind of wanted to so we did it anyway. I don't know. Maybe that counts as fulfilling ourselves.

It would be easy at this point to do that thing that writers about parenting love to do and turn my limitations into a statement of purpose in order to shame all of you less lazy parents into worrying about whether you shouldn't be more lazy like me. Here, for example, is Peter Loffredo, writer at a blog with the unsettlingly enthusiastic title Full Permission Living, singing the praises of his own version of lazy parenting. "JOY! JOY! JOY! ADULT TIME!" he aggressively rhapsodizes, and then insists that parents have to make out passionately on occasion or else they'll encourage their kids to grow up into passionless, less-than-fully-actualized adults who will not know the "true joy of mastery." For Loffredo, then, "laziness" isn't so much being lazy as it is just another meritocratic hoop for passionate parents to leap through on their way to better sex and more masterful children, not necessarily in that order.

I do think that kids can benefit from having some space. To the extent that our general lack of get-up-and-go prevents us from forcing some sort of rice-cake-only diet on our son or scheduling his every waking moment with enrichment activities, that's probably a good thing. But let's be honest—no parent sets out to have his or her house filled with feral dust bunnies achieving sentience. And, you know, I'd like my son to be able to go camping if that's what he wants to do—just as long as I don't have to go with him.

There are ways around some of these problems, of course, if you have the resources and the willingness to accept your own inadequacies. I finally managed to convince my wife that we were simply never going to keep the house in an even marginally acceptable state of cleanliness, so we hire a maid once a month — which has eliminated the dust bunnies (though not necessarily the drifts of shoes and cardboard). And when the opportunity came up, we cheerfully sent our son off camping with friends, while our lazy butts stayed firmly at home.

Still, it's not all good. After 14 years plus, my wife and I still haven't really figured out how to manage the fact that neither of us wants to cook at all—dinnertime comes around every day with a dread, predictable, helpless shock. And of course there are whole lists of things I wish we had more energy for, from helping the boy with math homework to organizing that trip to Australia we keep meaning to take, to keeping him away from sweets. He got a cavity when he was around 5, and I almost cried. Here we'd gotten this perfect, beautiful, radiant boy, and we'd barely gotten him out of the package before we'd broken him. What was our problem?

Our problem, of course, was that we were lazy. And perhaps I'm rationalizing, but I don't think it's just our problem. Small human beings are really complicated creatures, and for most parents, keeping them happy and safe is about the most important project you'll ever undertake in your life. There's always something more that you can do for them, and always something you can do better. Which means it's just in the nature of things that no matter what you do, you'll never do enough. Parenting, from this perspective, isn't a DIY project in self-actualization; rather, it's a frighteningly clear demonstration that you can't do this yourself, and that your self is barely adequate, much less actualized. No matter how much you do, you're not doing enough—which means that even the most involved parent knows, deep in their heart, that they're lazier than they should be. Maybe, then, the reason parents are sometimes afraid of letting their kids fail is because they know perfectly well that they are, constantly and brutally, failing themselves.

Perhaps the hardest part of parenting, then, is knowing that—no matter what your income is, or how much energy you've got, or how great a cook you are, or how many parenting books you read—you're not up to the job. And the best part, maybe, is that even when they know you're not up to the job, children are generally still willing to love you if you give them the chance. My son is a little annoyed that his parents are lazy, but he also thinks it's funny. He's got a sense of humor, and he's also pretty forgiving and kind. He's this lovely little human being, and it's at least as much despite me as because of me—which is why children are a gift not just to the deserving, but to the bumbling and lazy as well.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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