As a child, I felt like I lived in this town where everyone was pretending to be happy and pretending to be in a good marriage and pretending they had a nice house with a nice living room. I thought, I need to get out of here.
So I went to college as far away as I could think of: Washington, D. C. Everyone at college was pretending to have a lot of friends. And pretending to be smart. And pretending to be well-read. And pretending to have a plan for the future. So I moved to New York City. And I met all these comedians who were pretending to be confident and pretending to be successful.
Now my wife and I have a daughter, Oona, and we live in a neighborhood full of parents who are pretending to love their lives. Our daughter loves dressing up as a fairy and a princess and a bunny. It’s practically the first thing we teach her. To pretend.
When Oona is several weeks old, I’m strolling her around the neighborhood. Part of the stroll is spent dodging potholes and the other part is spent staring at these zombie parents who I am convinced are pretending to experience joy. I may be wrong. This is just how I experience it.
One strange twist of having a child is that people expect you to experience joy. One day our neighbor spots me strolling Oona and says, “Is it the most joy you’ve ever experienced?” The most joy? Um . . . I don’t know. Maybe?
I don’t say this, of course. I think it. I feel like saying a lot, actually. I feel like saying, I didn’t experience joy before. I don’t have to start now. Don’t impose your unrealistic expectations on me. I will be a good dad. A decent dad. The #1 dad in America, according to several ceramic mugs. But my dad did a decent job and he didn’t experience joy.
I experience joy but it’s also a little lonesome, because my wife and child adore each other and I’m perhaps even more lonely because not only am I lonely but I’m not allowed to say I’m lonely. I have to say, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
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My stiff and fake grin creates the expression of a serial killer. My hair juts in five directions, my face is unshaven, my back aches, my shirt buttons are in the wrong holes.
I’m the luckiest man in the world.
I experience joy, but I’m starting to understand joy in a new way. There are different types of joy. There’s “light joy” and “dark joy.” Light joy is eating watermelon in the summertime. Dark joy is smoking pot through a watermelon. Light joy is when a puppy licks your face. Dark joy is when a lady at a bar licks your face. Light joy is flying a kite at the beach. Dark joy is having sex on a broken kite. Light joy is watching YouTube videos of cats. Dark joy is watching waterslide accidents.
“When you have a kid, you can no longer watch yourself living. There’s just not enough time.”
When I was single, I had a lot of dark joy. Dark joy is abundant in your 20s when you don’t care what happens in your life. Dark joy occurs when people tell you “life is sacred” and you think, Nah, fuck that. I’m gonna eat 19 pounds of chocolate and roll the dice. I’m gonna stay out till 5:00 a.m. and get advice from a guy wearing a snake.
So that’s gone. Which is probably for the best because with dark joy, when the joy goes away, you’re literally in the dark.
When you have a kid, you can no longer watch yourself living. There’s just not enough time. And some parents try to do it. They pull out their phones when anything remotely exciting happens: “MABEL JUST POINTED AT HER TEETH!!! DO IT AGAIN, MABEL! ROLLING . . . AND ACTION. SAY THE THING ABOUT YOUR FUCKING TEETH, MABEL!! Oh, great, we missed it. This whole shoot’s been a fucking waste!”
I’m strolling Oona through the neighborhood when it occurs to me: Maybe having a kid is the darkest joy of all.
Because the stakes are so high. Your child could grow up and cure cancer or solve climate change, but she could also be a junkie or a runaway or kidnapped or have a life-threatening disease. There is literally no way you could know. That’s some dark stuff. It’s possible that the only way to cope with these dark possibilities is to pretend.
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