Of all the hardships endured by the stay-at-home parent, probably the worst is watching your work-a-day spouse come home on a Friday night feeling sick. You’ve spent the last five days enduring a WWF tag-team cage match against Junk Yard Dog, George “the Animal” Steal, and their little bro, Super Fly Snooka. You’ve been unable to tag out because your partner, a plain-clothes amateur like yourself, is 30 miles away, sitting at a desk. You somehow make it to Friday. Relief is on the way. Your spouse shows up. The Animal has you in a figure-four leg-lock, Junk Yard Dog is sitting on your head and Super Fly Snooka is back up on the top rope. You reach your hand out for the tag and…your partner says she needs to lay down for a bit. She says her throat hurts and she feels kind of shivery. Making matters all the worse, you now have to pretend you’re concerned about her.
You take the beating. And if you’re me you go down ugly. You complain, you moan, you ask to see the thermometer. If it’s a cold, you ask to see the snot because if it’s not green, she’s not fighting anything. But by Saturday morning, it’s clear she’s really sick (unlike some people, she never fakes it). Yet you still hate her. And this makes you feel bad, like you maybe you’re a bad husband. So by noon on Saturday, you hate your kids, your wife and yourself.
You get time to think about these character failings Sunday at the playground. You get to watch the weekend dads chase their kids with a week’s worth of absentee-dad exuberance. They’re going down slides with them. You look away. Because there’s nothing more awkward or degrading than a dad going down a slide. But the guilt gets drained. The dads are smiling. And it’s because they’re genuinely happy to be there. They’re genuinely happy because they know it will end soon. They know Monday will come and they’ll be back to life on their own terms.
It was fascinating to watch, in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, a malaise sweep through the playgrounds. Suddenly they were filled with dads who didn’t know when this would end. They were still going down slides but now it was with their eyes fixed wistfully on the jagged-toothed city skyline off in the distance. On one occasion I watched a dad hide in one of those tube tunnels during a game of hide and go seek and not come out even after his three year old started crying. I literally had to walk the kid over to his dad who was sitting all scrunched up in a ball in the middle of the tube. Did he not hear his son? Or had he found his first moment of peace in days while hugging his knees in that tube?
So, what’s so hard about it? There are the obvious moments, of course. Like when all three kids are crying at the same time. Note: I tried to record this hellish noise one night while putting the kids to bed but Kate, who had just gotten home and was trying to parent, caught me and I was scolded. I think I got all three in there though…
And there are the games you get pulled into. Games like ‘Baby’. When I die and go to hell (see above), I have no doubt there will be a little girl down there cajoling me into the role of ‘Baby’ for an eternal game of…’Baby’. I did ‘Baby’ for a few solid months. I was good even. I dribbled spit out of my mouth so Louisa could wipe it. I fake cried so she could pat my head. (She, of course, asked me to put on a diaper, which, I’m proud to say, I refused, because I couldn’t fit into one). Then I started finding excuses. Like, I’d tell Louisa I just needed to finish washing the dishes before I started playing, and go in and pull glasses out of the cupboard and stroke them slowly with a sponge while closing my eyes and praying to God she’ll forget about ‘Baby’. But, she never would. The ONE thing she doesn’t have… ADHD.
After a while, I just couldn’t do it anymore. She’d ask me to be the ‘Baby’ and I’d say something like, “but I’m not a baby. I’m a grown man.” And she’d respond so heart-breakingly sweet and innocent with something like, “I KNOW, daddy. I just want you to PRETEND to be the baby.” To which I would respond, “No. Honey, I’m sorry, I hate that game.” You would think I’d feel bad about that. I don’t. Honestly, I feel proud of myself for sticking up to her.
But why is a simple game of Baby so hard? Louisa doesn’t have particularly high standards for the game. Yet it’s still exhausting. Physically. How could it be? I mostly just lie there. So, is it possible that compromising your dignity can actually be a physically tiring endeavor? I think it is. I think if you were to hook some electrode monitors up to a dad going down a playground slide, you’d find his energy levels were sapped in a disproportionate manner to the actual physical energy exerted.
I have another theory. It’s called ‘the theory of pressurized uncertainty’. It’s like this: When you’re alone with your kids there’s a weight on your mind. It’s tough to pinpoint but it’s definitely there. Otherwise, why do you feel so ridiculously free when you just step out to run an errand alone? Or when you pull off the highway onto the shoulder and get out of the car, shut the door and stand there, breathing in the cold air and letting the weight of the world lift as the kids scream inside. The weight, I’m pretty sure, is derived from two things. One: The underlying notion that these kids in your presence are the most important things to you in the world. But it’s not like looove exactly, it’s more like an alarm going off in the reptilian, ‘must pass on genes’ part of the brain. It’s loud and it’s sort of annoying. But you’re not consciously hearing it. Note: Seasoned parents can achieve this subconscious state of hearing with actual loud screaming children but it takes a lot of practice to get there. Two: These kids…you’re pretty sure that at this moment you could be doing something better for them. But you don’t know what, because, at the heart of it, you really have no idea what you’re doing. It’s sort of like unloading someone else’s dishwasher. It’s not a hard thing to do in and of itself but when you don’t know where things go… it becomes annoying and stressful.
So, these two things –the high stakes ‘love’ emanating from your alligator brain in the back and the cluelessness emanating from your more highly evolved brain in the front– are sending messages back and forth across your brain a million times per second* trying to inform the other part of the brain of what’s going on. But you don’t actually see a ‘problem’ –the kids seem content enough. So the signals keep going. Back and forth. It’s exhausting for them. And It’s exhausting for you. And sometimes these signals run into each other. This is what causes headaches.
*actual rates may vary
Then there’s my final theory. The ‘fear’ theory. Note: I realize you’re sick of reading this post by now but I’m going to keep going because this is really important.
Here’s a scenario. Kate’s en route home from work. The kids have eaten dinner and the two older ones are now watching a TV show. Theo is bouncing happily in his jolly jumper. It’s calm. It’s easy. My little WWF wrestlers have been subdued. Yet, I’m sitting there stewing over how long it’s taking Kate to get home. Why? There’s nothing bad going on. I could be doing just about anything I wanted. And yet there’s… something. Something uneasy. Theory #2 is at work, no question. But there’s an added ‘impending doom’ sort of element. Not exhaustion, not confusion, but… fear.
I started thinking about it and realized the fear made a lot of sense. If you got attacked by a lion most nights on your walk home from work, at some point, probably pretty quickly, you’d start to not want to walk home from work. Phobias work this way. As do children. Just because the kids happen to be pleasantly occupied doesn’t mean I shouldn’t fear them. Just like you don’t stop fearing a lion just because it’s sleeping.
There’s enough of a precedent set to warrant fear. You’ve cut the hot dog the wrong way at dinner and been blind-sided by the resulting tantrum enough times to justify a fear of dinner time. And bedtime…you’ve thrown your back out enough times trying to throw a screaming, kicking 60 lb child up on his top bunk to justify a fear of that particular part of the day as well. In short, your fear is justified. You should embrace it. As I do.
So, to recap and summarize… The early parenting years are some of the best, most rewarding years in a person’s life. And being a loving and supporting spouse is the best example you can make for your kids.
I know, I know…it’s all rather unappealing –the complaining, the sarcasm. But bear with me. I’m working out my demons here. Just as they’re working on me…