When I tell people I have to be home right after work, I often say, “I’m babysitting.”
But that can’t be right, can it? If it’s your own baby, it has to be called something more like “parenting.” But my wife would occasionally argue with me on that point: she sometimes thinks I’m a little too relaxed in my parenting style.
To illustrate the point, witness the scene below. My friend and I were “in charge” of our kids one afternoon and just happened to be filming when things got a little dicey. But really, it’s no big deal. And I think all dads would agree that getting your hair pulled every once in awhile builds character.
Found this entry on a funny site called “White Whine.” It’s basically the inverse of “Stuff White People Like” as it’s the stuff white people complain about. You might think this is a joke. Maybe it is. But many of us have met bat-shit crazy parents just like this.
The text reads:
“Subject: Snack Time. Hi Becky!. This is Kaylyn’s mum . I have a concern about the snacks that you’re serving to kids. Today we were in the store and Kaylyn pointed out the type of cookies that you served at the teddy bear picnic. Much to my dismay they weren’t a name brand. My husband and I pay very good money for childcare and we expect that corners won’t be cut in the care of our child. That and we don’t want to instill the sorts of values in her that make her think that it’s okay to settle for less than the best. That might be hard for you to understand but it means a lot to me.”
Love the passive-aggressive intro that includes a smiley-face! Clearly, this mom has lots of class issues, and I’m pretty sure the content of Oreos and Hydrox are the exact same (perhaps are even made at the same bakery). So all this woman seems to be teaching her kid is to pay a premium for something that’s no better.
Have you ever had one of those days where you just kind of sucked? At life?
I sucked at life today.
I might have seen it coming. Evidence I was headed for suckhood surfaced yesterday. There was the glass I broke. My brilliant sleeper Final Four pick bombed out in the Round of 64. An omen in the form of a “crib turd”—I’ll say no more about that.
Last night, nobody slept (residual mucus, teething). Entering week three of this cycle. We’ve all had it coming.
My daughter doesn’t want to nap this morning.
Alright, then—errands. Errands and lunch. And then more errands—I’ll wear her out.
At Boston Market, she only wants to eat cornbread. Broccoli? Carrots? Creamed spinach? To the floor. Grunts, wails. The behaviorist in me takes over. First a broccoli, then you can have a bite of cornbread. She won’t negotiate. I bribe her. She takes a chunk of cornbread, then refuses the broccoli. I’ve been had. It won’t happen again. I sneak a carrot into her mouth. Victory! She stiff-tongues the carrot back out of her mouth. It mocks me as it rolls down her chin to her floral blouse. She picks it off the dome of her stomach and hands it back to me. Defeat.
I decide that the fare is not worth the fight. We leave our lunch, mostly uneaten.
When you have a day where you suck at life, it’s always best to acknowledge it at the earliest possible moment. A simple, “Wow—I suck today” usually does it. You can at least make a play at Zen detachment.
And if your realization that you suck comes too late for transcendence, there’s always the park.
Years from now, I hope it will not be our battle over Boston Market vegetables, nor the chucked avocados in the check-out line, nor the fact that I approached anger at my daughter for the first time in her sixteen months on earth that I remember about this day. Rather, I hope it will be the belly laughs she loosed as I pushed her on the swing, our trips up the ladder and down the slide, her fascination with the pebbles that comprised the park’s paths.
I’m sure there’s no way I’ll forget that she squatted and peed on the carpet before her bath. I just had to let her run around naked; it was just so funny. Such are the hazards of sucking at life, I suppose.
Gleefully, my nineteen-year-old daughter sprang toward her younger brother, chasing him around the kitchen island.
“Oh, no! Oh, crap!” Logan laughed, dashing forward or backtracking, keeping the island between them. Our informal snack census had revealed that he had eaten twice his ration of cookies, once again depriving Alex of her rightful share, so it seemed fitting that she dispense justice.
Logan escaped, giggling, into the living room with Alex in chuckling pursuit. Snatching up a couch pillow, Logan got a few hits in before Alex tackled him onto the couch. Although six years older, she only has a ten pound weight advantage. “Stop eating all the cookies, you little ingrate!”
“OK! I promise!” Logan vowed into the muffling seat cushions.
Alex released him and returned to the kitchen, but not before an aptly named throw pillow buffeted her head. She whipped around, “Enough! Logan, stop it.” Turning her back to him, she rejoined me and my wife, composing the week’s shopping list. But, lo! A wheat colored pillow entered the room, slowly cartwheeling through the air, missing its intended target, collecting a candy dish off the kitchen counter on its way to the floor, where it shattered, musically.
The pillow did not make a sound. Everybody froze.
“Logan, I told you to stop,” Alex broke the silence.
“Was that,” my wife collected her voice, “my star-shaped bowl?”
From his vantage point, Logan hadn’t seen the source of the sound. Now his gaping eyes opened even wider. “Yup.” Alex confirmed with just a hint of told-you-so.
My wife set her pen down on the grocery list, crossed to the master bedroom and closed the door.
Each of us has a ’star-shaped bowl story’ from his boyhood. My dad and his twin brother spent a glorious afternoon throwing brick after brick at a cement wall on a neighborhood building site, watching the red clay burst into powder and fragments on impact. Only when the pallet was empty did it cross their minds that perhaps the bricks had some other intended purpose. Once, my brother and I played dodge ball on opposite ends of our long front hall. What were the odds that our tennis ball would collide with Mom’s vase on the tiny table in the middle?
Like young George Washington and his apocryphal cherry tree, some potent event scars each of us with the lesson of regret. Just as I did thirty years ago, my son learned that some mistakes can’t be superglued. And even though he’ll dip into his X-box fund to take his mom shopping for a replacement, he’ll never forget how he felt that day, crying over the broken shards of her all-time favorite dish. Hopefully, he’ll think before he acts from now on, and that’s the real lesson of the star-shaped bowl.
I believe I’ve been quoted around these here blog-parts as saying that for the first few months a child is simply “luggage that eats and poops.” I stand by my words. However, there’s a point where that little bundle of discharge begins to earn his hungry little keep:
The first laugh.
Whether the result of a tickle or a notion, the first time your child laughs is the first genuine confirmation that it might actually be human. And it’s nothing short of pure joy.
Evidence: some of the biggest viral videos on the interweb are laughing baby videos. I defy you to watch one without letting a dopey smile creep across your face.
But if the first laugh is miraculous, your child will double down a few years later. He’ll hear a joke he’s heard or read in earnest dozens of times, but this time he’ll stop you after the punch line and say the three most beautiful words a child can say:
“I get it!”
Yes. The epiphanous moment when a child finally understands what all that knocking was about, what was worth traveling to the other side of the road for, and why a bartender would be concerned about the length of a horse’s face.
This is wonderful in three, perfectly arbitrary ways:
1) It confirms your child is a brilliant and intelligent human being. Consider how many complicated moving parts are at play in a joke. According to Joel Achenbach (smart person and author of the awesome Why Things Are books), humor involves overlapping but incompatible frames of reference. That’s a lot to keep track of, your child can keep up, and that’s awesome.
2) Your child has reached the tipping point of acquired cultural knowledge. He finally understands how duplicitous waiters are, that elephants fear mice, and zebras are prone to sunburn. And if he were being raised in Western Australia he’d know that dingoes are foolish, priests fart showtunes and the ocean is jealous of the mountains (none of this is true).
3) But more than cognitive thresholds and reference points, your child’s newfound appreciation for jokes means he’s beginning to sense the truth about life and society, and he’s learning how to cope with the absurdity of it all.
That’s why we need humor, and that’s why kids need jokes. Moreover, at the age where kids start to really get into jokes (age 7 or so), their sense of humor aligns perfectly with dad’s.
Pee? Hilarious. Poo? A laff riot. Farts? The limit!
Mommy can be a lonely, lonely person at the dinner table.
Still, at our house we place such a high value on jokes that one of the columns on our daily behavior/chore charts is “Tell a Joke” (my wife’s idea, actually).
So at the end of every day when we’re checking off whether everyone made their bed in the morning, cleaned up their mess or brushed their teeth, each child (boy, 7, girl, 5) has to tell a joke, improvised or otherwise. Sure, most of the improvised jokes make little to no sense, but a surprising number of them have enough potential that, with a little bit of workshopping, are actually worth a laugh.
Here are a few originals:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To hang out with some chicks.
Q: Where do monkeys go for beers? A: The monkey bars.
On a visit home recently, I bowled an entire game with my 8 month old strapped to my upper body. We got a strike on our first frame. And a 120 overall. I thought this was reason for celebration. Others seem to think it’s reason to call the Department of Child and Family Services.
What could be more dangerous than subjecting your child to the physical demands of bowling? Luckily, the only other people were dads bowling with their younger kids. They wouldn’t dare report a fellow father to the authorities for exercising his right to bond with his child.
The long drive to Rutland, Massachusetts, reminded me of the one my wife and I had taken with our son Daniel nine years earlier. Back then, we were taking him to Fairfield University to begin his freshman year. Now he wasn’t going off to college but a job as an intern at Overlook Farm, a model farm and educational center for Heifer International, a non-profit organization whose goal is to help people in 66 underdeveloped countries improve their agricultural skills. Think Peace Corps for farming.
The road that took Dan from Fairfield U. to Overlook Farm was a convoluted one. In college, he was a studio art major with a minor in psychology. In his senior year, he was the editorial cartoonist for the school’s weekly newspaper. But after graduation, Dan was uncertain of what he wanted to do. To my surprise, he had little interest in pursuing fine art or cartooning or going to graduate school in either area. After a few short-lived jobs, Dan went to work part-time for a neighbor, a lawyer specializing in divorce mediation. He found the work interesting enough to go back to school at a local community college and get a degree as a paralegal. For a while, we thought he might pursue law school, but one day he declared that he had no interest in being either a lawyer or a full-time paralegal. Instead, he had developed a keen interest in natural foods and nutrition. Like many young people, Dan had gone through college on a diet high in carbohydrates and processed food. Now suddenly he was taking to healthy foods with the zeal of a convert. He devoured information about them on the Internet. He drove near and far to farms and whole food stores to buy raw milk, pasteurized eggs, and grass-fed beef and poultry. Our kitchen became thick with the smells of meats slow-cooking in a crock-pot. But our son wasn’t content to eat his new diet; he wanted to produce the product himself. He wanted to be a farmer. As surprising as this was to his parents, it didn’t totally come out of left field. After all, my grandfather had been a farmer, one of my uncles had been a dairy farmer, and another uncle had raised chickens. And I have enjoyed growing vegetables since I was a kid.
Of the farms hiring young people that Dan investigated online, Overlook seemed the most intriguing. We drove up for a visit over Labor Day Weekend and were impressed with the variety of grains and vegetables cultivated; the livestock, ranging from your common pig and sheep to more exotic beasts like llamas and a camel; and the model homes representing a number of the countries where Heifer operates. Dan applied for a seven-month internship and soon received a call from the head of volunteers offering him the position of administrative assistant for the educational program. Given his background working summers with children at a top school in the Washington, D.C. area, this seemed logical. But Dan wasn’t all that interested. He wanted to be a farmhand–and nothing less. A few days later the volunteer head called back and informed him he could come on board as a farmhand. Dan was ecstatic.
So here we were, arriving at the farm on a late Sunday afternoon in February. A number of the other interns had already checked in and welcomed Dan and us with warm smiles while they went about preparing a communal dinner. We later learned that of the 20 interns, 16 were female. Not bad odds for a single 26-year-old guy. Dan’s roommate, a recent college grad, was going to be a farm chef, helping prepare meals for the many visitors who would be staying and eating at the farm in the months to come. We got a quick tour of Dan’s apartment in the basement of the main building, complete with a modern kitchen, computer, and TV. Not exactly the farmhouse my Dad grew up in. Both my wife and I would have liked to have stuck around and met some of the other young people and soaked up some of the atmosphere, but we could see from Dan’s face that it was time to leave. This was his experience, and he wanted to dive in without his parents fussing around. We gave him our good-bye hugs (well out of sight of the others) and headed out the door into the darkened parking lot. There were no tears on the drive back to Connecticut, but happy talk that at last our son had found a career path that satisfied him. It wasn’t the path I would have expected or even chosen for him, but it was the one he wanted. What more could any parent wish for his child?
Yesterday, at the wholesale club, as I guided the fat cart down an aisle stacked twenty feet high with mega-packs of bread crumbs and canned beans, kicking at the back-right wheel to quiet its screeching on the concrete floor, my daughter Leslie, fifteen months and fighting a fever, said, “Mom?” and I said, “Yeah, sweetie?”
Leslie wasn’t confused about who I am. I speak her language pretty well, and I understood her “Mom?” to mean, “Where’s Mom?” or, “Are we going to go see Mom?”
Still, I answered as if she were addressing me. I’ll chalk it up to absent-mindedness—to the way I’m trained to respond to speech with speech; to bargain-hunting without a shopping list, as is my custom; to wanting to get out of the warehouse as quickly as possible so we could hit the bank, fill up the car, grab lunch, and make it to the doctor for a 1:45.
Then, at the accountant this afternoon, my wife held Leslie while I settled our tab with the government for this year. “Mom,” she said again—this one more just a “Nice to see you” by nature. “Yes,” my wife and I said, together. “That’s Mom,” I affirmed quickly, in a tone I hoped deflected the weirdness I felt at answering to my wife’s title for the second time in as many days.
I’m not confused about who I am: I’m Dad. I’m also the primary caregiver in our family. My wife chairs the Fine Arts department at a nearby high school; she teaches in two disciplines and runs the theater program solo. As such, her schedule doesn’t permit her to be at home until dinner. I also work—two afternoons a week at an organization that provides behavioral services to children on the autistic spectrum (and has in-house day care), and three nights a week at something a little more menial. I’ve got about a semester-and-a-half left of grad school, but foremost, I self-identify as “Dad”—the only job I’ve ever felt truly predestined for.
I’m not ashamed of who I am—not at all—but I still sense people’s surprise when I tell them what I do. Our family’s type of arrangement has become more common in recent years—moms with careers, dads who nurture, the bread-winning and child-rearing roles reversed—but I am still regarded with the same kind of disbelief you’d expect to be reserved for mythical creatures.
Or maybe that’s all in my head. I’m a sensitive guy, after all. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.
Leslie can say my name, too. Her pronunciation—“Da-eee!” (exclamation point hers)—ranks among my favorite sounds on earth. But to do what I get to do—spend my days in the thrall of this little person (I’ll admit) I’m not strong enough to be away from—I would answer to just about anything.