A few years ago I found myself comparing vacation plans with a colleague — a single guy about a decade older than me. His upcoming vacation? A month-long backpacking trip to Hawaii, totally off the grid. When I marvelled at his bravery, he offered this wisdom: “Every year, try to do something that pushes you beyond what you think you can do.”
I chewed on this interesting bit of advice for a couple of weeks. On the one hand, I could see its value as a personal and professional growth strategy. On the other hand, something about it just didn’t sit right.
Finally, it hit me: as a parent, I have to push beyond what I think I can do every single day. I get home from a draining day of work, with only enough energy to throw myself into a chair and (if I’m lucky) mix a drink for myself….but I muster the strength to help with a forgotten homework assignment, herd the offspring into the bath, and drive hard towards bedtime. I am sick with the flu, and want to do nothing but commune with the toilet, but I tamp down my own queasiness between pukes so I can comfort my daughter while she has hers. I am at the grocery store with a six-year-old who is pitching a fit because I won’t buy him a lollipop, and instead of doing what every cell in my body is screaming at me to do — namely, telling him to f**k off, and walking out of the store — I have to pick up said six-year-old, hauling him to the car as gently as possible.
Today is one of the days where I’m particularly aware of the effort it takes to pull off these daily acts of self-discipline…to push beyond the level of energy, compassion and restraint I think I have, and find new reserves. As parents, we don’t need to run triathlons or guest star on Fear Factor in order to discover our hidden depths. These little people we have invited into our lives — along with elderly parents, dying spouses, and every other dependent human to whom we feel bound by love and compassion — are here as a daily challenge to push us beyond what we think we can do.
Recognizing and valuing that push as part of the benefit of parenthood — rather than as the steep price we pay for deciding to have kids in the first place — has helped me struggle less with its demands. And on days like today, when it still feels like it might be too hard, I try to remember: these little f**ckers are saving me from a month of backpacking.