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from the January 2018 issue

Joyful, Painful, Surreal: Life As a Parent

Not long after I returned to work following the birth of my baby, I was reading the news during my morning commute when I came upon a sentence containing the verb “to cling.” It wasn’t a sentence to savor or reread, just a description of something happening in the background. But I was unable to move forward. My eyes teared up, my heart raced, my body reacted to this word.

During those early weeks of nurturing a tiny, clinging baby, an otherwise commonplace verb had taken on new power and could somehow bypass my intellect to produce surprising physical effects. Parenthood, which already dominated much of my waking (and sleeping) life, had also invaded what was once a very private experience: reading. And if a single word like cling could elicit such a visceral response, I soon learned that stories that were explicitly about the joys or trials of parenthood could quickly transform me into an emotional mess.

I asked our editors for trigger warnings on pieces about children in peril and hoped the rawness of my new parenthood would eventually fade (it hasn’t really). But I also found myself looking around and wondering: if I was going through this, were other parents, too? In becoming a parent, I’d forged an utterly generic but almost painfully specific connection to parents around the world, and I was newly drawn to writing that explored this experience at once singular and universal.

By some estimates, parents make up over 80% of the adult population worldwide. A more universal experience is hard to imagine, and chances are that even if one hasn’t been a parent, they’ve had a parent affect their lives somewhere along the way. The intensity of the parent-child relationship, with its high emotional stakes, life-and-death responsibility, and inescapable physical proximity, makes for powerful stories.

For this special issue of Words Without Borders, we searched our archive for stories where the parent-child relationship plays a central role. Making a selection proved a difficult task: we’d published dozens of stories over the years that fit the bill. The ten pieces ultimately chosen, by writers from as many countries, portray the isolation, the anxiety, the challenges, the pain, and the absurdity of modern parenthood. Though their contexts couldn’t be more diverse—from suburban Finland to rural Madagascar, with stops in Argentina, Syria, Spain, Tibet, Brazil, Iran, Mexico, and Belgium—the parents in these tales struggle with questions faced by parents everywhere: What is my identity now that I am a parent? How can I help my child succeed and thrive? How do I protect my child from pain and suffering? How do I continue living if my child dies? 

The narratives here explore the full scope of parental phases, from pregnancy to adulthood, and the shifting dynamics that characterize each. Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin is best known for her hallucinatory novel Fever Dream, in which a dying woman recounts events at the urging of a shadowy boy not her son. At one point he asks her why mothers always "try to get out in front of anything that could happen.” In "Preserves" she depicts one such mother, half of a married couple facing an unplanned pregnancy. The baby is not unwanted, simply a few years early—she “jumped the gun,” as the conflicted mother sighs. This problem of timing leads to a solution both elegant and totally unexpected.

Cristovão Tezza’s “The Eternal Son” follows a new father into the delivery room, where he receives news no parent wants to hear. Reeling, “he learned the power of forever. . . . Everything could be started over, but not now; everything could be redone, but not this.” Refusing to look at his wife or the baby, he is like a child who puts his hands over his eyes to make things disappear; but his “stubbornly prolonged” childhood ends here. Tezza won Brazil’s Jubuti Prize for this novel’s harrowing portrait of lives changed in an instant.

Catalan writer Teresa Solana, known for her antic detective tales, contributes "A Stitch in Time," a rollicking tale of extreme maternal devotion. When her married daughter turns up covered with bruises, an elderly widow enlists her equally aged friend as a confederate and gives her unsuspecting son-in-law a taste of his own medicine.

In a more somber tale, "Plastic Wrap," Belgium’s Lize Spit observes a man searching for a cure for his daughter’s mysterious rash in the wake of his wife’s abandonment. His deepening anguish mirrored by the spreading eruptions on his daughter’s legs, the desperate father turns to both conventional and alternative sources for advice. (Echoing the evocative word mentioned earlier, the household supply of the title is known in the UK as "cling wrap.") 

In a turn from the distressing and macabre, Shimo Suntila’s “Daughters!” documents a day in the life of a Finnish single father and his two rambunctious little girls with magical capabilities. His exasperation with their antics—the coffeepot burned through, bugs brought into the house and enlarged, all set against the typical bickering of siblings—is tempered by his obvious affection.

If you’ve ever wondered how any parent manages with multiples, "Maria Times Seven" offers one example. Maria Batiz conjures a magical tale of the mother of septuplets who, in a Seussian turn, names them all María. The seven girls turn out to share not only their names but physical reactions: anything one feels is felt equally by the other six (“they suffered forty-nine cases of appendicitis, measles, and mumps, fourteen fractures, innumerable scrapes, sprains, head colds, and upset tummies . . .”). The arrival of puberty is even more disruptive; the aftermath, more surprising still.

No parent should have to bury his child. In Kader Abdollah’s searing "Eagles," a stoic father’s worst fear—that his son will die before he does—is exacerbated by his son’s status: a resistance fighter murdered in prison, he cannot be buried in their town cemetery. Enlisting his other son, the bereaved man travels throughout the region seeking a place to put his son to rest. Abdollah fled his native Iran as a political refugee and lives in physical and linguistic exile in the Netherlands, documenting his lost country and history in his adopted language of Dutch.

In another tale of wartime tragedy and the burden of history, Zaher Omareen listens in on "A Bedtime Story for Eid" as a Syrian mother conveys the coded truth of the horrific massacres of 1982. In her description of a missing soldier and his mother’s determination to find him, we hear the younger woman's recognition of both the need to protect her own child and her limited ability to do so.  

While many parental decisions are shaped by local culture, traditions, and restrictions, some environments present more obstacles than others. Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato's "Omeo Zamako" shows an impoverished Malagasy man struggling to raise his son after the boy’s mother dies in childbirth. The boy is intelligent and ambitious, but in this sharply divided society, promotion in school is limited to those who can afford to pay for the required examinations. The father’s attempts to buy his son’s way to success bring only loss and tragedy. 

Pema Bhum’s sly portrait of Tibet under Mao, the appropriately titled "Wink," has a happier ending. After a man is banished from the local Party for desecrating Mao’s Quotations, his infant son becomes seriously ill. In search of medicine, the desperate man and his wife travel to a hospital and find themselves caught up in the mourning after Mao’s sudden death. Their baby’s random act, and its misinterpretation by a local Party officer, lead to unexpected redemption. 

Our January issue is a reminder of what connects us: deep family ties, concern for loved ones, a human instinct to nurture—feelings a parent in the United States can share with a parent in Syria. Or for that matter, in any country in the world.

Susan Harris contributed to this text.

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