Music, more than any other form of art, tells us immediately about ourselves and those around us. You hear the first chords of a great song, shocked, locking eyes with someone across the room, someone who gets it. You are sharing something with that person, in real time, and your big emotional brain is remembering every moment of that powerful discovery, storing it for recall every time that song comes on the radio. That’s why people love music— because it reveals their connections to other people.
This will be a kinetic operation. You’ll serve as escort, confidant, valet and bodyguard. Your discomfort, embarrassment, hunger or sleepiness is irrelevant. Success is a new mom holding a tiny infant to her chest. Failure is a Craigslist ad for a used Subaru Forester with a navigation system, tinted windows and a front passenger seat soaked in amniotic fluid. Do not fail.
A great advantage of traveling with your family is that you won’t hate your seatmate. Hopefully. Once your kids have outgrown the heavy-lifting parenting stages that end with grade school, your interactions with them can be more spontaneous and fun—no matter where you are. The airplane is simply another loathsome place, like the DMV or the dentist’s office.
Think about the cultural statement your kid’s haircut will make. Last summer, my son wanted a buzz cut. He intended to look like a friend of ours, a man who handles his receding hairline by clear cutting the remaining forest. I was savvy enough to realize that I shouldn’t allow my son to look like Caillou, but clueless about the compromise we settled on—an undercut. Instead of letting my blond kid look like an annoying cartoon character, I made him look like one of Richard Spencer’s pals. If only I’d paid more attention to Macklemore.
After my first quarter of college, I returned home for the holidays. What greeted me was the family dog, Peanut, laying under the dining room table, breathing fast and shallow. I went into the kitchen and called my dad to ask if he knew the dog was dying. He did. There was a plan for an executioner’s trip to the vet. I hung up the phone and went back into the dining room to find that Peanut had quit before we could fire him. Then I had to tell my stepsister, who I hadn’t seen in 10 weeks, that the dog she grew up with, who she loved dearly, was dead. Later, my brother and I dug a grave in the backyard. My dad returned home in time to preside over the rainy funeral.
This is no time for euphemism. If your father is in hospice care, he’s not “feeling a little sick.” When your mom flatlines, she is not “sleeping.” Your dad is dying. Your mom is dead. It’s brutal, but it’s the truth. Your kids need the opportunity to say goodbye, just as you do. If you hedge reality, the gravity of the situation will escape them. Kids learn the reality you define, and you’ll only blur it if you speak in clumsy metaphors. A side effect of euphemism is anxiety. The kiddos may become scared of going to bed or getting a cold. After all, PawPaw was feeling a little sick, and now he lives underground in the big flower garden.
The last time we hosted a sleepover for our daughter, I took her younger brother to watch Despicable Me 3 (again). I munched popcorn and napped while he guffawed at jokes he knew by heart. It was great. By the time we got home, he was ready for bed and the sleepover kids were ready to be locked in the basement. When our boy is old enough for sleepovers, I’ll take his sister to a play or a concert—something just for big kids that we’d skip ordinarily.
You think you can do better than that ref making five bucks an hour to chase clumsy grade schoolers around a half-sized soccer field? Well, get out there and show us, Big Talker! There are a thousand excuses not to do this, but if you’re serious about supporting youth sports, there’s no better way to prove it than with your time. Learn how to be a referee, either locally or online. Volunteer to assist the coach during practice—as long as you can do so without undercutting his instruction. You don’t want the Beverly Hills American Youth Soccer Organization to institute a rule named after you, the way the Lakers have done with LaVar Ball.
Some parenting questions have a correct answer, like whether to vaccinate (yes), use car seats (yes) or hang babies in window cages (no). Co-sleeping is a muddier issue, and the AAP has advised me not to make your choice for you. But if you would like to declare the square footage of your mattress the one area in your house untainted by the sounds, smells and fluids of children, I have some ideas.
You might think these relaxation techniques are unnecessary, but after you’ve gotten the evil eye from your boss for clocking out early, parked five blocks from the school, folded yourself into a tiny chair and grown nauseated from the overheated smell of 900 bodies in the cafegymatorium, don’t be surprised to find yourself chanting “Ohhhhmmmm.”
The paradox of parenting is that you can perform all the functions and still feel like an imposter. Changing diapers, playing peekaboo, giving piggyback rides—it can all seem like play acting. Then comes the moment when you become a real dad. One day, you’ll be hanging out with your kid, open your mouth and produce a Dad Voice. Like a patronus, it will gallop across the air and freeze its target in his tiny toddler tracks.