A dozen or so years ago, I told a colleague of mine that parenting was “a never-ending litany of need.” At the time, your mom and I had been changing at least one child’s diapers for seven years straight, plus chasing around a succession of toddlers each of whom seemed more likely than the last to wind up in the ER.
I already knew just how tiring it can all be—raising kids while trying to pay the bills and excel at work and still find some time for your significant other. I had already realized that, in a parent’s world, there are always at least three to-do lists: a must-do list, a should-do list, and a list of ain’t-gettin’-dones. And there’s typically a set of at least four things that are clinging to the second list but actually belong on the third, if we’re being completely honest.
To make matters worse, those lists don’t even include life’s biggest challenges. Losing a friend or a parent or a loved one, say. Or changing bosses or jobs or careers. Or getting sick or losing faith or—after all the hard work—just stretching out into something weary, worn, and brittle. All of that just has to be borne, lists be damned. And the tasks still have to be tackled, of course.
I knew all of that back then, a dozen years ago. But there were a couple of things I didn’t yet sufficiently appreciate about the never-ending litany of need. One is that it really never ends: The parental tasks change as the kids grow, but the activity lists just get longer. And at some point a new set of needs starts up, as aging parents slow down and the approach of college accelerates (or seems to). Meanwhile, the emotional baggage doesn’t get any lighter—even though your joints get weaker.
The other thing I didn’t sufficiently appreciate is that the litany of needs isn’t just a function of parenting; it’s a defining property of adulthood. Being a parent lengthens the list of needs to meet for sure, but every adult has to assume responsibility for some set of needs—both their own and those of others (whether a child, a loved one, a boss, a team). That’s basically what it means to be an adult: to be one of the people who take care of themselves and help look after the group.
Realizing that, you might well decide that it’s best to stay a child for as long as possible. After all, who wants to spend their life being the person who has to go around meeting needs—especially other people’s? Think a little more, though, and you might realize that meeting needs brings some pretty considerable benefits.
- It’s liberating: When you learn to pour your own milk and cereal, you start to take control over breakfast. When you start to do the shopping and buy your own groceries, you become the breakfast champion.
- It’s empowering: the impact you have on the world is largely determined by how you affect others—and nothing affects others like meeting their needs.
- It connects you to meaning and purpose: If you take it upon yourself to find food for someone who’s hungry, to find water for someone who’s thirsty, or to find kind words for someone who’s hurting, then you will—in that very instant—change the world for the better. You will wield a rather awesome power, one that has long been associated both with divinity and with what’s best in humanity—not to mention what it takes to be a decent parent day in, day out.
Does that mean you’ll always find it satisfying and fun to meet the many needs from the litany? Hardly. Does it mean that you’ll eventually develop a complex relationship with the litany, such that you long to be free of it even as you find fulfillment through it? Probably.
Life as an adult—and especially as a parent—is often complex, confusing, and a little bit ironic like that. We long to be independent. But most of us find our deepest sense of meaning and purpose in caring for others. We wish to be free to become our best selves. But we’re most likely to find our best selves precisely in the moments when we’re looking out for each other.
In the end, the never-ending litany of need is both a burden and a path to self-development. It can even serve as a guide to understanding: Want to know who really loves you? Look at who steps in to help when your litany gets too long. Want to know who you really love? Ask whose needs you’re willing to add to your own litany. Want to know how you can have a real effect on the world? Don’t just think about what you have to give. Think about what others need. Then put yourself wherever their needs meet your gifts.
Need help figuring any of that out? Don’t hesitate to ask. I’m your father. That’s what I’m here for.