What kind of person cheers for the bad guys in police chases? Has used the phrase “urban renewal” to describe a shooting? Laughs at the people who have lost their home to natural disaster because, in their retelling, they all inevitably describe the event the same way: as “sounding like a freight train”?
What kind of person flips off a crying baby in a crib?
Me, that’s who. I’m not proud of it. But in the high-stress worlds of television news and parenthood, sometimes gallows humor is what you have. It’s what you say and think and do to detach yourself from the more complicated emotions of sadness and rage and confusion and empathy. When your job is to write about bad things happening, and you have to do it over again every day, year after year, it helps to think of what you’re writing as less bad. To deny reality a bit. Like a basketball player who has missed his last 10 shots might find it useful to pretend the next shot is his first one. Deadlines have to be met, after all. When your fingers fly effortlessly across the keyboard to produce words like murder and abuse, it helps to find a distraction in the small details of those stories, and to use those details to reach the conclusion, “This isn’t really part of my world” even though it is. All of it. Good, bad, ugly.
Detachment and denial are not options at home. Fussy baby? That’s our reality. Nights without much sleep? That’s our world. We wanted this. It helps to have a sense of humor. To laugh at the funny faces Declan makes as he’s screaming his head off. To quote Austin Powers when he’s gassy (“Who does a Number 2 work for?!”). To make jokes about how rockin’ our life is, going to bed at 9 (and worse, wanting to). And yes, sometimes, to trot out the darker stuff. The gallows humor. The things you say (but mostly just think) about your baby during the most trying times. The other night, Deck and I had the best time talking and playing on his activity mat and I thought: “Having a kid is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.” A few hours later, when he wouldn’t go to sleep, I remember thinking: “Why did we do this? I’m so tired of having to deal with him.” From the gates of heaven to the gallows, just like that. When your job is to serve the needs of someone who can’t clearly communicate what they want, nor thank you for providing it, sometimes it helps if you look deep into their eyes, smile, and coo in your best baby voice: “Who’s my little attention whore?” At least that’s what I’ve heard.
The idea of gallows humor– of cracking a joke right before your execution–is, at its core, about releasing fear. It’s about taking a bad situation and making it less bad, if only for a moment. You make a joke, you release tension. You release tension, you’re better able to focus on the task ahead of you. Shushing the baby to sleep for the 3rd time before midnight, for example. Gallows humor, strangely, helps you live to fight another day. And when the days feel like a baby-shaped tornado just blew through, and you’re not sure it’ll ever end, it also helps to know that the experience is basically the same for all parents. By which I mean: it sounds like a freight train.