Once his energy is depleted, his mother and sister are safe. Though she’s nearly six years older, Sis outweighs him by only 15 pounds, and five of that is Rapunzel hair. She’s all arms and legs, no plump cushion of fat to blunt the jab of little elbows. (Happily, I own such a cushion.) My wife grew up with sisters and lacks the sense memory of childhood rambunctiousness. Although she rode a big wheel and climbed trees, she didn’t throw hands. When her son snarls like a bull and launches the crown of his head into my gut, she covers her eyes in horror.
And yet, they are not fully human until they learn misery. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad moments for which there is no remedy, only empty complaint, reluctant acceptance, and a stiff upper lip. No, kids are not people until they learn that life kinda sucks sometimes. Here then, are eight minor miseries that confirm your kid’s humanity.
In the years before children, my wife and I cleaned with enthusiasm. We Swiffered and vacuumed, we scrubbed and polished, we swept and mopped. The couch pillows were plumped, the bed was made and the clutter was boxed and labeled. We’d spend weekend hours moving through the house systematically, blasting tunes, putting things in order. We’d invite people over for dinner, and I’d pick crumbs up off the shining floor and load the dishwasher while our guests chatted uneasily, noticing the way their existence in my home made the place unclean.
Have you ever tried to put a preteen in time out? It looks ridiculous, like a giraffe in a shopping cart. There she sits on the floor, nearly as tall as her mother, gangly legs criss-crossed, staring at the wall, fuming. And when she is released from her imaginary prison, what has she learned? Judging by the frequency of time out-threats, not much. The power of time out, we found out, fades. What the hell are we going to do now? we wondered.
Very little of what my phone shows me is interesting, but all of it saves me from being bored. Like James Woods following a candy trail, I never know hunger even if the meal is never quite satisfying. And now I’m trapped. You ever close the Twitter app on your phone, set it down on the couch for 1.2 seconds, then pick it up to see what’s new on Twitter? You’re trapped, too, buddy.
The new reality is a conspiracy. The boy doesn’t realize he lives in a house divided. Like spies, me, my wife, and my daughter maintain the charade. We don’t want to dampen his yuletide cheer. It feels a little odd to me, sharing a secret truth with one child but not the other. Almost like our daughter learned how to curse and now sits around with us after her brother’s bedtime dropping F-bombs. I know it makes her feel grown up, to be included in the scheming.
Driving two hours out of the city to chop down your own tree? Stringing twinkly lights from the gutters? Falling off the ladder while holding a strand of twinkly lights? Caroling while tipsy? Eating too many sugar cookies? Hurriedly building toys four hours before they will be unwrapped? Those are traditions. This diminutive imbecile who invades your home between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve? Not. A. Tradition.
When you move in, The Busybody may come over with a fruitcake or a Jello mold to welcome you. Like the witch’s apple in Snow White, The Busybody’s gift is poisoned, an ingratiating diversionary tactic. While you exclaim over the fruitcake’s unusual colors, her eyes wander over your possessions, evaluating your station in life, judging your taste in cookware, furniture, reading material — anything she can observe without getting a search warrant.
Preparing my daughter for the world at large requires tact and empathy and — most of all — a willingness to admit that I don’t have all the answers. It begins by telling her that her body is her own, always and forever. That she doesn’t owe anyone a hug or a kiss or a smile. That her path in life should never be influenced by the way the world sees her, that her looks are unimportant, that her brain matters most. I will promise to advocate for her, to believe her, to support the ways she learns to protect herself, to stand with my wife as she walks with our child through the gauntlet.
During this morning ritual, I consider the movements needed to remove ingredients from the pantry, dishes from the cabinets, utensils from the drawers. I make little refinements day to day, experimenting with methods that will let me do more with less effort. I am always thinking about the step I will complete five steps from now and what I can do to complete that step faster. I do this for the sake of my kids. When I was young, the way my mom ran her house made me feel calmer. Things didn’t just happen. They happened for a reason, and in the correct order.
I regret that I worked so hard to try to force my kids to talk like me. It’s good to be from a place, to carry the evidence of your rearing out into the world. To set your throat and lips dancing together in a manner learned in your mother’s arms and at your grandmother’s kitchen table, the sound of your little symphony rising like steam from the magnolia trees after a summer rain.
My Bad Dream De-escalator role grows out of the comforting ability I’ve always had with the kids. Something about my great, hairy, hulking body and rumbly deep voice soothed them as squalling infants, and it soothes them now when they wake, panicked and confused, crying out as a nightmare fades from their minds. I didn’t plan it that way. Like most of my parenting wins, I got here through a combination of good luck and good instincts. But if I was telling you how to help nullify the nightmares in your own house, I’d tell you to keep these tips in mind.
Kids, I feel your pain. When I was your age, I hated hearing the words “because I said so.” I really did. But, as a parent, I can tell you that saying the words is an act of love. The words spare your feelings, your innocence, and your eardrums from having to listen to non-stop rants and lectures. “Because I said so” is better than the alternative, is what I mean. If you don’t believe me, let me share with you a few examples of the internal monologue that lead to those vexing words. Read this and understand, children. Do it because I said so.
Picture a narrow street, almost a wide alley. A short stage sits under a tent. Before it, four or five rows of folding chairs on the asphalt. The evening sun is hot and bright in the blue sky. A man speaks into a microphone off stage, introducing the magician, urging applause from the audience. It’s not a large number. A few sets of families. An older couple. The magician steps into view, speaking a greeting. It’s the same voice as the off-stage introduction. The performer and the audience regard each other warily.
If you’re going to let your little bird flutter out of the nest, better check the surroundings first. The most direct route from home to school may not be the safest. This didn’t occur to my parents, who shoved me out the door, told me to turn left at the end of our driveway and walk until I got to the correct brick building.
That route was easy to remember, but it took me past a warehouse that exhaled a stream of rumbling tractor trailers and a creepy old house whose owners let their twin Dobermans roam the property to aggressively investigate grade school students.
An unintended — but delightful — side effect of my son’s blue fingernails: he became super focused on keeping them looking nice. That meant no more digging through the mulch with his fingers and no digging into his nostrils for juicy boogers. Sure, he asked for more snacks because his favorite one was no longer available, but I was happy to accommodate him.
Back when I was in grade school, my dad’s grocery shopping always ended with a few lottery tickets. Our trips to the store were impromptu — when an empty pantry coincided with an un-empty wallet. He’d load me and my brother into the car, and the three of us would push the cart up and down the aisles. There was never a list but always a calculator. We kept a running total as we pitched items into the basket. Our debt limit was whatever currency he had on him. Sometimes, we messed up the addition somewhere in the frozen foods or the pasta and pickles aisle. Then, the grocery line horror: taking food off the conveyor belt, the cashier voiding items one at a time, calling for a manager over the intercom.
You asked for a quesadilla. Everyone else wanted tacos, but not you. I warmed the big cast iron griddle slowly, letting the shredded cheese melt without turning the tortilla crispy on the bottom. I know you like it chewy and soft. When it was done cooking, I cut it into triangles on your plate. I put some spinach leaves there, too. I know you like those — but only with ranch dressing. If only I’d poured more carefully. Alas, the dressing spread on the plate, contaminating two of your warm, melty triangles. Cry all you want, little buddy. Make your own dang quesadilla next time.
That one came into our lives like an earthquake. In the years before, we had built the structure of our life together. A temple of two. We worked long hours, traveled abroad, kept the house tidy and folded the clothes promptly. That temple crumbled after the birth, and we rebuilt it slowly and piecemeal into something Seussian. Purpose twisted by unreasoned joy and at-our-wit’s-end impulse into a structure that held our three lives. Me with the little one at home, stealing naptime to clock in at headquarters. An isolated outpost, disembodied speaker voice in staff meetings. For my wife, a new career and a new office, drag racing home every evening to beat bedtime. We spent weekends holding tiny fingers, practicing steps in the sunshine, playing peekaboo around the ottoman, spooning words into the baby’s ears and food into her mouth. She was a flock of giggles amid grumpy cats.
It’s true that doubling the number of children in your household creates five times as much logistical and emotional chaos. But you, a veteran parent after having one, are better prepared to handle a monkey wrenched life. Things are a bit easier the second time around because there’s much your first child has taught you. Like what, you ask? Here are seven things our first born taught us.
One of the many ways becoming a parent changes you is that it loads extra capacity magazines into your tear ducts and prods you to shoot at anything that moves. Dappled sun on the water? Better start crying. Gap-toothed grin from your oldest kid? That’s a gusher. Perfect performance at the school play? Drink some water buddy, you’re gonna get dehydrated.
The best thing about having kids is living vicariously through them. More specifically, reliving the past through your kids is unbeatable. And the best way to do that is by showing them awesome movies from your childhood. A few months ago, my daughter and I watched E.T. Everything was fine until we got to the scene where Elliott’s older brother teases him about being scared of the creature in the backyard shed. Elliott jumps up from the dinner table and shouts, “Penis breath!” Heh-heh, I thought. Good one. Oh, wait! Little Elliott’s calling his brother a cocksucker!
The point is, we are more than our stats. We are each of us a bundle of complicated and contradictory urges and wonderings. It’s possible to be an excellent singer and a fantastically terrible but enthusiastic softball player at the same time. If we turn away from what sparks our curiosity just because we happen to suck at it, then the terrorists have won. Ok, maybe not the terrorists, but definitely the robots.
Saying it better: the boy sees time the way I see everything without my glasses. The blob across the room stirs from the couch, slinks along the floor to my feet, resolves itself into something with fur. It’s brushing against me before I know for sure. Cat. That’s how Wednesday approaches the boy. A murky thing with no meaning until it’s right next to him. Right there in the moment.
On television, we’d watch a couple tour through a trio of homes, none of them quite right, bickering about man caves and grand entrances and bathroom tile and closet space. Then we’d stroll the neighborhoods around us, going on “walks” that always revealed themselves as curbside window shopping. We looked at ads, noted open houses, collected fliers. But the market was too hot, and the houses kept sprinting out of our grasp.
When an 8-year-old has a school assignment, it’s really an assignment for her parents. No, I’m not hunched over a child-sized desk sweating out the solution to 13×27. But I am cajoling, bribing, and threatening all evening to make sure she’s hunched over that desk. Hear me now: homework destroys lives. And, after a year without it, I have a sneaking suspicion that’s the point.