I saw a segment on daytime TV this morning (yes, I sometimes watch daytime TV – no shame in that) about whether having a child is an achievement. It was in response to an article in the Telegraph which responded to Rebecca Adlington saying that “bringing a new child into the world is without doubt our greatest achievement”. Some statements from said TV show included comparing having a baby to doing the toilet – one is as much of an achievement as the other; and the idea that having a baby is perhaps not a great achievement at all because billions of people have done it.
I don’t have any olympic gold medals, but I’ve achieved stuff: I have an MRes degree which I achieved with distinction; I did some of my research at Yale University; I started my own company from scratch, which I still run whilst being a parent; I am a Tough Mudder, electrocution and all; and since beginning in January, I now speak reasonably good, if basic Gaelic.
I could delve further into my backlog, to things like passing my driving test or getting my first job or the grades I got in school, but that’s not necessary. Because although we might all have that handful of things we are incredibly proud of, most of our achievements are small. For me they might be meeting a deadline, cleaning the house, writing an article that I’m pleased with, or going a run, and running well.
Not only are most of our achievements small, they are also temporal. The goalposts change. A few years ago I would’ve been unbelievably mad at myself if I’d missed a run I’d planned or I hadn’t gotten that ‘A’ I wanted (especially if a classmate did). But when my daughter was newborn I had achieved a lot if I got out of my jammies during the day, washed my hair, walked round the park with the pram and the dogs, and had dinner before 10pm.
One thing I don’t ever see as an achievement is doing the toilet. The delightful gent who suggested that having a baby is as much of an achievement as going to the toilet was a little misguided in his argument. Yes, they might both involve things coming out of various holes in your body. And yes, humans have to be able to do both in order to survive, in one case as individuals and in one case as a species.
But that is where the similarity ends. You don’t have to feed a poo, you don’t have wash and tidy up after and cook for and pay for a poo for 16+ years, you don’t have teach it how to use cutlery, comfort it when it hurts itself or help it learn to walk and speak. And you certainly can’t just flush your baby when you’ve finished having it. We tend also, not to be emotionally attached to poo’s, nor do they to us; not screaming when we leave them nor attached to our leg when we are trying to cook.
Billions of people have had a baby though. Is that as great an achievement as something that only a few people have done? By that token, is graduating from university less of an achievement now than it was a few decades ago when fewer people, and usually only the elite of society did so? And on the flip side, is being able to eat 69 hotdogs in 10 minutes (well done, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut) more of an achievement than running a marathon?
I don’t think that you can make a judgement in any comparison of achievement. Because big or small, achievements are personal. You can’t compare graduating from university with having a good run one night last week, or passing your driving test with setting a world record for eating hotdogs, or saving up enough money to go travelling or buy a house or buy those shoes, with finishing that article, and liking it.
The word ‘achievement’ itself seems to have been the issue for Lucy Denyer in her Telegraph article. I looked it up and achievement is defined as “a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage”. It might not take any particular skill to have a baby, but childbirth is difficult. It is also pretty scary. So is pregnancy. Both of those take a lot of courage, and quite a bit of effort. And once the baby is here, well, effort has a brand new level that you never knew existed.
Having a baby is of course “just a part of life,” but it is absolutely an achievement. Nothing I have ever done or experienced has compared with bringing a baby into the world and seeing that tiny human, that I made with my body (and my husband), grow into a person. Rebecca was right.