How I Turn the Have-Tos of Parenthood Into Want-Tos

Anna Quindlen on the balance of obligation and fun in relationships.

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"Wo ai ni."That's the sentence I will always remember. Perhaps over time I will forget how to say "When are you free?" ("Ni shenme shihou youkong?") or "I like Chinese food" ("Wo xihuan chi zhongguo cai").

But I will never forget how to say "Wo ai ni," or forget what it means.

My husband and I are studying Mandarin. "Oh, that's wonderful," people say. No, it's not. It's terrible. Except for the lovely young woman who is our tutor and is unfailingly positive in the face of homework noncompliance (him) and dreadful tonal pronunciations (mine), there's nothing wonderful about it. It's a hard language to learn, nothing like our native tongue or the one we studied in school, which enables us to buy things in Paris and order from a pretentious menu.

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And we are learning it for the sake of a little boy who can't even speak yet. Our first grandchild will grow up bilingual, one set of grandparents born in Beijing, parents both fluent in Chinese. I will be Nai nai as well as Nana.

Arthur, ni xiang qu gongyuan ma? That means, Arthur, would you like to go to the park? At least I think it does. Someday a small boy will say to me, Nana (or Nai nai), your Chinese is terrible!

Here's the thing about loving people: you wind up acting in two distinct ways when you do. There are the things you do because you have to. And there are the things you do because you want to. Over time, the balance between the two makes the difference between something that is a helium balloon and something that sinks to the floor and begins to wrinkle, the remnants of a party that is over for sure.

Hasn't it happened to all of us? You have this friend, and you love her and she you, and you tell each other almost everything and text each other dozens of times a day. She needs you to meet this guy to see if he's as nice as she thinks. She asks you to look at apartments to see what she should rent. She wants you to come to her party, and give her some work advice, and lend you that dress you have, the one the two of you got together at that cute little place and you can't believe that it was on sale!

Here's the thing about loving people: you wind up acting in two distinct ways when you do.

And over time, something happens: the things you have to do — because she insists, because she won't take no for an answer, because she will have hurt feelings and suddenly the texts will stop — overwhelm the things you want to do. Eventually you don't want to do anything much for her anymore. And that's when the friendship goes south.

This desire, and this balance, changes over time. When I was in my first year of college, I met a guy whom I really wanted to impress. I was a fledgling feminist, which may explain why I decided one weekend when he was away to clean his dorm room. (He was away seeing his high-school girlfriend. That's a different essay.) His room wasn't particularly filthy, especially by the standards of college-age men. I did it because it was so counterintuitive, me as maid, that I thought it would telegraph that I was so sold on him that I wanted to do things that no one would ever expect me to want to do.

That guy is my husband, and I cannot count how many years — no, decades — it's been since I wanted to clean on his account. There are things I do for him because I want to — cooking is one of them, not because I love to cook but because I love to feed people — but cleaning is not one of them.

Now, I'm not saying that some part of loving someone is not doing over and over again the mundane tasks that no one really likes to do. I was at home with my younger siblings and my mother when she was terminally ill. I basically hated everything I had to do then: make meatloaf, drive to the hospital, do laundry, handle the morphine, what I thought of as the have-tos of a suburban housewife if the suburban housewife happened to have ovarian cancer.

And today I wouldn't change any of it for the world, except that I would have been less obvious in my lack of enjoyment. I suppose those months helped prepare me for motherhood. So much of being a parent is about the scut work you have to do: feeding, changing, simply showing up. So much of motherhood is about having to do things that, in retrospect, you realize you were glad you did, not only for their sake but for your own.

A lot of the want-tos sneak in around the margins. Changing a poopy diaper is a have-to; singing an invented-on-the-spot song about the poopy diaper, or blowing raspberries into a belly button after thoroughly cleaning up the poopy diaper, is a want-to. Feeding is a have-to; making airplane noises while moving the spoon is a want-to. I suppose the difference between being a parent and enjoying being a parent is how many have-tos you manage to turn into want-tos on any given day.

Because there's nothing to kill a love affair, or a friendship, or even a family relationship, like that feeling that it's all obligation and no options. Learning Mandarin is a want-to. In fact, it turns out that, unlike being a mother, being a grandmother is much more about the things you want to do than the things you have to do. Maybe that's why so many people talk about it as though it's the best thing that can happen to you. I get to choose what I want to do for my grandson. His parents have to — have to put him down for bed every night, have to take him to the pediatrician, have to make sure there are diapers and little socks and a sippy cup. Since they are the bread, I can be the cake.

By the way, "Wo ai ni" means "I love you." But maybe you already figured that out.

Anna Quindlen has written eight novels, all best-sellers, including Miller's Valley, which has just been released by Random House in paperback. As a columnist at the New York Times, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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