There’s a moment in The Theory of Everything, the mainstream film about Stephen Hawkins, in which a game attempt is made to explain the “twin pillars of physics… quantum theory and general relativity.” For the benefit of a dinner guest (and us, the audience) Hawkins’ wife holds up a single pea on the end of a fork, to illustrate the former. Here, she explains, are “the laws that govern the very small particles, electrons, and such.” Then, to demonstrate the latter, she hoists up a potato on the end of a knife. Here are “the laws that govern the very large planets and such.”
Just the one snag, she continues. Quantum theory and general relatively “don’t remotely play by the same rules.”
Back from a long weekend in Washington D.C., where I went with my family for a friend’s wedding, I find myself similarly perplexed by parenthood. How, I wonder, can its daily triumphs and disasters possibly play by the same rules? And how can the best thing to ever happen to me so often feel like the worst?
One unexpected outcome of having children is a sudden increase in empathy for wheelchair users. Pushing around a stroller (or, indeed, two), you soon realize that many places are mighty hard to access and navigate. Steps, heavy doors, and narrow passages become either testing or impossible. Ramps, elevators, and open spaces, likewise are a blessing.
Our friends’ wedding started at six, and we began our preparations for it at noon. By getting our two young daughters to nap, we reasoned, we’d avoid making an unwanted contribution later in the evening: namely, two cranky souls expressing their crankiness out loud. Apart from a fearsome headache each for mum and dad, all pretty much went to plan – including the one extra provision my wife insisted upon: arriving early.
Just the one snag, though. Between us and the ceremony was one flight of stairs. No big deal for my two-year-old, Colette, but a premature goodbye to the comforts of a stroller for my one-year-old, Isla. Late in the day, we figured, she’d be ready for sleep – and, in her stroller, we’d ease her gently back-and-forth along the way.
Cut forward half-an-hour. Isla is neither asleep nor happy, and Colette is neither settled nor quiet. There’s, maybe, two-hundred of us in a relatively small space, and standing-room-only at the back. Increasingly – and intuitively – it feels like there’s trouble ahead, no matter how sweet our girls look in their pretty little dresses. Sure enough…
In the universal, time-honored way of doing so – by going shush – a man in the middle of the room gets everyone’s attention. Very effectively: as the wedding party enter between two rows of seats, an excited hush replaces the loud chatter of moments before. Except, it seems, for my two. Colette took great delight in joining in the shushing, but, in a way that rapidly became incongruous, didn’t ever stop. And, for her part, Isla picked a fine time to amplify her fidgeting with crying. The entrance of bride and groom.
Our exit followed fairly swiftly. I’m not sure there’s much credit to be had in leaving a wedding before it really starts… but, well, I didn’t want to be that guy with those kids.
Moments later the ceremony began. Me and my two daughters: downstairs in a large empty room where the reception would follow. Everyone else: upstairs, enjoying what I was unmistakably missing. Oh, and soundtracking my growing feeling of failure and despair with laughter and applause.
Colette and Isla, meanwhile, treated their new surroundings with indifference (to the point of falling fast asleep in Isla’s case). We three circled round the empty room until it was socially acceptable to leave, and then, a four again, we left.
Defeated, once again, by the strange, unknowable physics of parenthood; adrift in space, sad, and still, somehow, happy.
* A whole year went by between starting this post and finishing it. Which probably says just as much about parenthood. Or I how manage it, at least.
Today’s post soundtracked by: