Updated: Sep 20, 2019
Not. But it's worth it.
Parenting pushes you out of your comfort zone. The skills you have acquired throughout your life pre-baby are likely to be pretty useless. Most of us have been trained to follow a set of rules and instructions. Regardless of how successful we have been in our educational and professional lives, we soon realise that the strategies we have been using so far need some serious updates.
But is it worth it? Does parenting really make a difference? Some seem to think most of it is set in the genes, while others argue that it is all about good habits. Some give up and find consolation in coffee and wine.
If we were marine iguanas, things would be so much simpler. Our parenting jobs would finish the moment we spawned. Then again, the chances we ever got to the point of spawning would be considerably lower. The amazing sequence from Planet Earth II linked below not only teaches us something about life on our planet, but it also invites us to reflect on the role of parenting in our own household.
Marine iguanas don't do parenting. The hatchling is born with all she needs to survive. At birth, her brain tells her whether it is time to stay put or to run for her life. Her body is already able to follow these instructions. Humans, on the other hand, are not ready to run anywhere even months after birth, let alone to tend to themselves. As for the brain, it is natural to wonder whether it is doing much at all (it is, by the way: 700 new neural connections per second, but this is another post).
Photo of my son Leo by Alessandra Gerardi (un-retouched because his eczema is part of his story).
The unspeakable fragility and utter dependence of the human newborn looks like weakness. If it were weakness, how would it be possible for humans to populate the Earth more successfully than any other species? (I might be neglecting a couple of insects or bacteria here, but you see my point.)
Humans lead pretty successful lives in Greenland's icy tundra, in Namibia's sandy desert, in large cities made of glass and steel, and in the wildest rainforests. How do humans manage to survive their first weeks (and months and years) and adapt to almost any environment on Earth?
It turns out that what looks like a weakness is actually our most amazing asset: Our brains are not mature at birth. This means that they can take the environment into account as they mature.
Imagine the brain as cake mix. Every child comes to the world with a different uncooked cake mix. One is the mix for a black forest cake, one for an apple pie. One is destined to become a brownie and another one has all it takes to turn into an angel cake.
Each of these different types of cake mix need a particular treatment to fulfill its deliciousness potential. If you bake a black forest cake as if it were an apple pie, you will end up with a very disappointing result. Don't forget the oven: 200 degrees in your oven is not the same as 200 degrees in your mum's oven. Every good baker knows this.
The cake mix is the genetic makeup of a child, the baking process is how you raise your child, and the oven is the environment that you raise the child. Parenting consists of three main tasks:
Figuring out what kind of mix your child is made of, aka learning to read your child's signals (for help in doing so, see our app);
Picking a good "oven," aka choosing a good environment and community to raise your child in;
Treating the mix in such a way as to reach the full deliciousness potential, aka responding to your child's signals in order to maximises their fulfillment.
Each child has at least one dedicated "chef " (aka, a parent or carer) whose job is to bake her "special mix" in the best way possible (aka, raise her so as to fulfill her potential in the given environment). Human brains have the incredible luxury of not having to deal with surviving on their own for a while. Young humans get fed and are kept safe and clean for years and years. Meanwhile, human brains can devote their resources to picking up signals in the environment.
In order to survive and thrive in their environment, some human children learn to distinguish different types of wind. Some learn to pick up the quietest snake-slither sound. Some learn to watch out for cars and sit still when they are just toddlers. Some learn to express their feelings. Some learn to shut up. Some learn to ask for help. Some toughen up.
This is why humans are so much more successful than marine iguanas at adapting and thriving on Earth.
And this is why your job as parent matters. More than anything else in the world.