9 years ago, just a few months after my oldest was born, Humanist Dad celebrated his first Father’s Day. He received a t-shirt from a family member as a gift. On the shirt were two pairs of shoes; adult shoes and a smaller pair of child’s shoes right next to it. Underneath the picture read “Fatherhood: The toughest job you’ll ever love.” The shirt is long gone, and I don’t know what jogged my memory, but I started thinking about that quote. Being a parent really is a job. And it really feels like the toughest job in the world, and yet we love it so much we do it over and over again. It made me think of what it would be like if parenting were compared to an actual job in the workforce. I’ve had some shit jobs before, but this one trumps those in every single aspect. The job of parenting reminds me a bit of those “Clients from Hell” stories we all see on social media and hear about at parties and in coffee shops. Parenting is like working for the biggest asshole on the planet, but never getting paid for it.
First of all, everyone lies to you about the job. Before you take it, you’re told it’s the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. You’re told that everyone takes on this job sooner or later (that’s a flat-out lie, they don’t) and that you’re doing your moral and civic duty and will be rewarded tenfold at some point in the future. They don’t tell you when. They don’t tell you how. They just smile and tell you it will be wonderful. Looking at it in retrospect, it is likely because they, too, have that job and want other people to commiserate so they don’t feel so alone. They tell you that the contract is for 18 years, with an option to renew. Job security. Nice. They tell you there will be books and training for several months beforehand, and that you’ll have an incubation period where you can learn all you need to know about the job without actually doing it. They’re wrong. The incubation period could never prepare you for what’s to come.
Your first 90 days on the job are the worst of your life. You barely made it through the initiation. It was the worst hazing in the history of the world. You get a certificate at the end. After everything you just went through, it feels hollow. You’re starting to wonder if this job was the right choice. During those first 90 days, that feeling is compounded. You now have a living, breathing client who demands all of your attention and is emotional af. They go from one bout of crying to another in an endless loop, and they’re terrible communicators to boot. You’re supposed to just know why they’re crying and how to fix it. You don’t. You guess and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t and you want to scream. So does your client. You’re physically exhausted. Your peers tell you it gets easier. You wonder if you’ll make it out of this alive. You hate your peers.
After three months it gets marginally easier. Your client still can’t communicate effectively, but sometimes they smile at you, and you get the ‘warm fuzzies’ for some reason and decide maybe this job isn’t so bad after all. At this point you start getting feedback from those peers. People who have been on the job longer, and some who have never worked it at all seem to think they know more than you and keep telling you what to do. All of it is different and none of it makes sense. You start to feel overwhelmed. They said you would get more sleep after the first 90 days. You don’t.
Your client relationship progresses. The smiles become more frequent, but so do the messes. They start to communicate better, but at some point, after about two and a half years, they start getting more emotional. They get angry more often, sometimes resorting to throwing things and becoming physically violent. It happens in public. You make excuses for them and try to hide it from your friends and family. It doesn’t work. They start to ask “How are you doing?” with a concerned tone. They can see right through you. This is starting to feel like an abusive relationship, but you’re powerless to stop it. You signed a contract. You got the certificate! There’s nothing you can do; a breach of contract means legal repercussions, becoming a social pariah and overwhelming guilt. You decide to stick it out and hope your client will shape up.
Your client progresses to the next stage of their life, and it’s less psychologically traumatizing to deal with their mood swings. You finally feel like you’re getting used to this job. You think you could probably do it for longer.
You have a continuous feedback loop, but it’s always negative. You’re lucky enough to get the feedback from your clients in real time, throughout your entire shift. They have no tact about it. They yell at you. They tell you when you’re doing a terrible job. They tell you they hate you. They tell you that their friends’ employees are better than you. They’re one of those clients who are never truly satisfied because they have some deep insecurity about themselves that they have to take out on other people to feel good. Positive feedback is almost non-existent. You have to read between the lines of your client’s behavior to get a shred of praise. Typically those lines are really blurry and zig-zagged. Sometimes they randomly snuggle up with you on the couch while watching a movie, or give you a big hug for no reason and say they love you. It feels good to be appreciated, however brief, because after about 90 seconds they’ll ask you to get them some milk and then there comes that immediate feedback you know all too well. You didn’t choose the right cup. Your dignity packed up and left years ago. You get a new cup.
You also get frequent performance reviews from friends, family and even strangers who don’t know you, and they all use different rubrics and arbitrary measures that only make sense to them and reflect their own personal situation. But they use those to judge your performance anyway. Newsflash: It’s almost always negative. At the end of every day you are confident that you failed at your job and will inflict lasting damage on your clients. Then you vow to be better, to do more, to sulk less and start all over the next day.
You are a maid. Notice I did not say glorified maid. There’s no glory in this job. You spend at least 70% of your time cleaning up your client’s messes. Any kind of mess. The worst kinds of messes. You are slaving away cleaning up the yogurt that was swirled around the table like a painting, vacuuming up the glitter explosion, ripping play-doh out of the carpet for the umpteenth time, scrubbing pee and poop off of the toilet seat, and the toilet bowl, and also the floor…and also the underwear where the offense was initially committed…and in the middle of that, they look you in the eye while making another mess…and smirk. Then they demand to know why you haven’t finished cleaning up the mess yet because they want lunch and today it has to be Rice Krispies because they tried to think and there’s nothing else that sounds good except for cookies but they know you’ll say no because you always say no and you never let them have cookies. You’re told that these messes should be allowed so your clients can grow and find their passion. You’re pretty sure their passion is making people suffer.
You have to keep them alive, when they are clearly set on dying in the most horrific and painful ways imaginable. You have to remind them not to play near a campfire or stick a knife in the toaster. You have to explain that they will not fly if they jump off the roof with an umbrella. You have to tell them not to run with scissors or drink chemicals from under the sink or run near a pool. You start to think that humans got the short end of the evolution stick because Jesus Christ how god damn stupid can they be? How does it take so long for someone’s brain to grow just enough so they don’t try to kill themselves in every way imaginable?
You have to civilize them. It’s not easy. They pick their nose in public. They point out people who look different than they do and ask why. They refuse to bathe or brush their teeth. You must be vigilant lest you get judged for having the smelly client.
The worst part about this whole thing is how clear it becomes as time goes on that you have Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to your awful clients. They keep knocking you down and making your life miserable, and then one day they smile at you or bring you a dandelion from outside whilst tracking mud on the carpet and you instantly melt and consider yourself the luckiest employee in the world with the most important job ever created. You take lots of pictures of them to convince yourself and others that they’re genuinely pleasant to be around. You find joy when they dance and giggle. Their dancing is terrible, but you mimic their moves anyway. It looks even worse when you do it. You keep doing it.
Then as your clients age and demand less of you, you start to forget all the unspeakable things you had to do for them and it all becomes normal and then you start to think that maybe you want to take on ANOTHER client. Maybe your new client will be good company for your current client and maybe putting them together will take some of the pressure off you. You already make a million meals a day and clean up a million messes, a little more will likely make little difference. You understand the concept of economies of scale and think they would work to your advantage in this job. Your client does not approve of you taking new clients and will do their damndest to make you feel guilty for even considering taking on another client, and if you go through with it anyway, they’ll make even bigger messes and start hitting you or maybe even hitting your new client because all the sudden it’s a fight for scarce resources.
You were wrong about it being not much more work. You were wrong about economies of scale. You were wrong about all of it. You are brought back to reality when you get hazed again by your new client and have to go through initiation whilst still tending to the needs of your original client who seems to be acting even worse than usual. You get another certificate. You wonder why you ever took this job. You don’t even get health insurance from your client. You pay $2000 just to obtain the damn client in the first place. You want to call the staffing agency who introduced them to you, but remember there isn’t one and you made this decision. You cry a lot.
Time passes and sometimes you love your job, but sometimes you dread going into work. They make you start earlier and work later. Overtime is mandatory. You don’t get time and a half. You fantasize about a no-call no-show. You fantasize about driving into the African jungle and leaving them there, hoping they’ll get picked up by some talking animals like in The Lion King. You say “Hakuna Matata, motherfuckers!” and drive away, laughing. Then you get squirted in the face with a water gun and are brought back to reality.
After awhile you find a tribe. A bunch of other overworked employees with clients from hell. You start to commiserate and learn they are going through the exact same thing you are, and experience the exact same fears and insecurities. Their clients seem even worse than your own. You start to feel more relaxed about everything when you’re with them. You all secretly call your clients names behind their backs and swap embarrassing stories about them. You and your tribe dream of forming a labor union and demanding basic rights from your employer. It never materializes.
Then one day, you are talking to someone and learn they are considering entering your line of work. They ask what it’s like. You tell them it’s the most rewarding thing they’ll ever do, and explain that they have a moral and civic duty to join the workforce. You tell them that they will be rewarded tenfold sometime in the future. They ask you when, and how. You smile and tell them everything will be fine, and wish them luck. Maybe someday they’ll join your tribe and you can do a babysitting swap. Probably not.
Let’s face it, you’ll renew your contract after 18 years because you have somehow grown oddly attached to these clients, despite their treatment of you over the years. You will then renew your contract indefinitely, and then one day you’ll sign another contract when they have clients of their own promising that you will help anytime they need it. Their clients are cute, but you are relieved when you get to hand them back at the end of the day. You’ll hear yourself telling them to cherish every moment with their new clients and take in every experience with an open heart. They’ll look at you like you’re crazy, all haggard and exhausted. And you’ll just smile, because that’s what those bastards get for what they put you through all those years.