Monday, July 21, 2008

More Thoughts on Tattoos

A friend of mine has a small tattoo on the inside of her ankle. She got the tattoo many years ago, and although it is relatively discrete and in the shape of a flower, she now regrets her tattoo. My friend has a young daughter, and whenever the girl remarks on her mother’s tattoo—or anyone else’s tattoo—my friend says, “Big mistake.”

Today I saw a man who had large black tattooed marks all over his arms. It was as if he had painted most of his forearms with a wide brush. It took me a moment, but I soon realized the man had tattooed over older tattoos he no longer wanted to display. It was impossible for me to make out what was underneath, but my mind raced as I imagined all manner of embarrassing or offensive images.

Those who turn their bodies into works of art and make indelible strokes upon that pallet risk growing tired of their creations. No action can be undone, but some decisions are particularly difficult to reverse.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Great Child Divide

Here is my latest op-ed, which appeared in the Providence Journal yesterday. The title I gave it is above, but in the newspaper business, titles are the editor’s prerogative.

Having children: A way to learn tolerance
01:00 AM EDT on Friday, July 11, 2008

SCREAMING BABIES on airplanes don’t bother me anymore. It’s an odd thing. Years ago my teeth would clench, my blood pressure rise, and, more often than not, I would turn to the person next to me and make a malicious comment about the bratty kid, the irresponsible parent, or both. But today I remain calm. If anything, I am filled with a sense of relief in the knowledge that, yes, that kid is making a terrible racket, but it isn’t my job to do anything about it.

The difference between the old me and the new me is, of course, that I’ve done my time. I’ve had my own children and suffered the stares of irritated fellow travelers who were hoping for a quiet airplane, train, or bus ride. I’ve scurried out of restaurants, grocery stores, and theaters carrying an infant who suddenly and inexplicably decided to erupt into shrieking peals of terror. These are humbling experiences, and once you’ve had them, you have a far more understanding attitude toward those who carry on the tradition.

Years ago when my wife and I were considering whether or not to have children, a friend gave me a small gift. This woman had a daughter who was the center of her world, and yet when I told her what was on my mind, my friend said being a parent had not been the measure of her worth. This woman believed that had she chosen not to have a child, her life could have been equally meaningful and valuable.

Hearing this from a devoted parent, just when I was considering becoming one myself, was somewhat liberating. This mother was saying, “Either decision is fine. Just find the right one for you.” In the end, we had two children before we were through, and looking back, I like to think that my friend was right. Being a parent may be one of the most important and difficult jobs you can take on, but it isn’t the only way to give your life purpose.

But having kids changes your life forever. I did not have much money when I was young, but what I had could be spent freely, with little concern for anyone else. Once the children came, huge sums of money, time, and energy went to them. Entering into the parental contract commits you to a certain level of selflessness. You are forced to accept the principle that you are not the most important person in the world.

Parenthood also makes you a member of a unique society. When parents socialize, the conversation invariably turns to kids. Non-parents sometimes ask me about my children, but I often feel like a foreign correspondent, doing my best to communicate with someone who doesn’t quite understand the language and customs. In contrast, speaking to another parent means you can adopt a familiar short hand without concern for losing your audience.

The different dialects of the parental divide can subtly but powerfully alter the course of your life. Looking around me I notice that many of my closest social relationships are with people whose children are about the same age as mine. In some cases, these are not people I would have otherwise sought out. Our kids chose each other first, and eventually the adults also became friends. Now, as my children get older and leave home, I can see that many of these friendships will carry on. What we shared during our children’s formative years continues to provide momentum in our adult relationships.

In addition to cherishing the children themselves, I am thankful for what parenthood has taught me. There are other ways to learn to be more tolerant of other people, to learn the value of service to another, and to learn that friendships can grow across any number of barriers. But being a parent has done it for me, and every time I hear a screaming baby, I am grateful.

Stuart Vyse, an occasional contributor and a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, is the author of the new book Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money (Oxford University Press).