So You Think Its Easy?
A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to
Experience is what you get when you
dont get what you want.--Dan Stanford
"A model dad demonstrates [that] time is
love."--Shana McLean Moore
One of my brothers was married a few years ago,
and soon his wife was pregnant--with twins.
Although I rejoiced with them, I was also a
little concerned. I know what it takes to raise a
kid--and I can multiply by two. In some cultures
twins are considered good luck, an indication of
divine favor. But Ill bet a whole pile of
cowrie shells the men believe this more than the
women do. My brother married after a long
bachelorhood; did he really understand what was
coming down the pike?
For the first six months after the birth of his
daughters, hed always say things were fine.
Two wasnt really twice as much, since you
already had a system going. I knew he was becoming
a terrific father, but I wondered about the fatigue
factor, which is even more important in parenting
than in sports. I couldnt help thinking about
If youve ever run track, you probably know
about the Bear. I heard it from the older guys on
our high-school team. Its like
this, theyd say. Youre
doing a quarter-mile or whatever, and youre
kicking hard for the finish--youre right
about there...--theyd point to a spot
three-fourths of the way around the
when all of a sudden the Bear
comes up out of the ground and jumps on you. Your
legs turn to lead, you cant breathe, you get
dizzy--the finish line suddenly looks a hundred
The Bear, of course, is that
phenomenon whereby a runner making maximum exertion
suddenly feels exhausted. Young runners nod when
they hear about it, but they dont really
understand. Just listen to them, though, once that
beast sinks his claws into their backs. Oh man! I
was starting my kick and all of a sudden...
I wondered if something similar was in store for
Then one day he called me, sounding a little
down in the dumps. The twins had just turned eleven
months. Hows it going? I
Well, okay, he said, the weariness
plain in his voice. Its
Bingo, I thought; the Bear claims another
Like any worthy labor, spending time with your
kids can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright
tedious. It is, as my wife says, both overwhelming
and underwhelming at the same time. In addition,
and in contrast to most jobs, this one is grossly
unrewarded in terms of money and status, with the
extra wild irony that some people dont even
consider it work!
Most mothers, of course, know all about such
ironies. But some men dont realize just how
brave theyll have to be in this new world.
The level of difficulty, of course, depends on your
individual circumstances. But a man needs to go
into this with his eyes wide open--and his heart.
How hard can it be, you wonder? Youll find
For starters, try this little readiness quiz.
Its designed to enhance mental preparation
for the new father. All the examples are taken from
real lifeI kid you not. Answer each question
yes or no. And be
DOMESTIC READINESS QUIZ
1. Your toddler is, as your wife tells the
neighbor, not such a good sleeper. Once
hes weaned he stays up till 11:00 or 12:00 at
night for about six months, waking at 5:30 each
morning, and often during the night. Youre
seriously sleep-deprived and beginning to
hallucinate; your boss has begun to look
sympathetic and kindly. Even the bags under your
eyes are getting bags. Finally the kid cycles
around to a normal bedtime. You enjoy the luxury of
a weeks worth of semi-adequate sleep.
Then Daylight Savings Time kicks in, and
hes right back to midnight.
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
2. This same kid, a little older now and the
worlds lightest sleeper, has just settled
down for a nap, and you desperately need the break.
Once hes asleep, you get ready to tiptoe out
of his room--but like a fool you cant resist
putting a few toys away first. With little plastic
tractor and farm animals in hand, you creep to the
toy barn where theyre kept--but youve
already opened the barn door before you remember it
moos. Your kid sits bolt upright.
Im done with my nap, Dad. Can I play
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
3. You have a guest for dinner, an important guy
who works with your wife. Hes an older
bachelor. In the middle of dinner, a number of
things happen at once: The phone rings and your
older son goes to answer it--the doorbell rings and
your younger son takes care of that--the timer goes
off in the kitchen and your wife jumps up to check
the dessert--and you rush upstairs, having heard a
thump and the unmistakable shrieking of your
four-year-old. Your guest is suddenly completely
alone at the table--and in the middle of a
sentence. And once youve calmed your screamer
down, youre going to have to explain why.
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
4. Its Christmas day; you want to take the
family to church. But your three-year-old NEEDS a
bath. Youve got one hour before the service
starts. Before she can get into the tub, however,
she has to move EACH of her TWELVE
cardboard-cut-out squirrels up the
stairs to the bathroom. And that means lifting each
squirrel one stairstep at a time. When
you try to hurry her, she protests.
Theyre only little animals, Dad!
Total elapsed time: thirty-three minutes.
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
5. First your kids got Lite-brites,
thousands of tiny colored plastic reflectors
theyre supposed to arrange on a pegboard to
make pictures with. What they prefer, of course, is
to scatter the damn things everywhere. For years
you clean up Lite-brites. Then your wife brings
home an Indian dress for your daughter,
which is covered with beaded fringe, bits of which
are constantly falling off the dress. Soon you
cant take a step in the house without
encountering this new form of litter. Then, just
when you think youve finally vacuumed up the
last beaded fringe, Grandma comes over with a pink
feather boa for your daughter. Within hours your
living room looks like a psychedelic henhouse.
Grandma, of course, is long gone.
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
6. At 1:00 youre going to a local photo
studio for a formal family photograph. Your kid
needs lunch, but youve learned that feeding
any semi-solid food to a child under five
automatically means a complete change of clothes
(for both kid and yourself). So you carefully avoid
pudding, jello, yoghurt, ice cream,
spaghetti-os, applesauce, peanut butter and
jelly, mashed potatoes, canned fruit in juice,
cereal in milk, etc. But you learn rather quickly
that some foods normally considered
solids--like graham crackers--can
easily cross into the semi-solid category. Lunch is
over, your kid looks like a pig after a good
wallow, and the clock now reads 12: 34.
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
7. You've been working your tail off all day for
your kid, doing cosmically-important things like
finding lost coloring books, trying to wash off a
fairy-tale DVD so the picture won't keep hanging
and pixelating, and hooking up the back of her
doll's incredibly tiny dress. You're right in the
middle of some similarly devilish task, and pulling
it off beautifully, when you wife comes in from
work. Your kid looks up and instantly bellows,
"Mom, will you come here and do this better than
ARE YOU READY FOR THIS!?
SCORING: If you finished this quiz without
serious thoughts of abandoning your family,
youve passed. If, however, you answered
No to four or more questions, you
should probably stick with your current method of
Spending more time at home inevitably presents a
number of specific problems. Its not easy on
a number of fronts.
Some of these problems, of course, are practical
difficulties whose major impact is on your life as
an adult. Your career, obviously, will be affected
(like a telephone pole is affected when a car rams
into it; can the pole take the shock, or is it
coming down?). This is unavoidable; even if men
suddenly had years worth of legal paternity leave,
a committed father is still taking himself out of
the loop to some degree. For some, this is just a
bump in the road; for others, it can lead to
serious frustration, even bitterness.
Every man has to make such decisions for
himself. But there are a few clear principles here.
The first is that well-known one about people on
their deathbeds not wishing theyd spent more
time at the office. The second is that you have to
make up your mind and stick with your choices, even
when things get rough. To me its simple,
though difficult: Love is more important than
anything else. My family needs me, and I simply
wont let my career aspirations keep me from
being a happy and loving father and husband. I have
my frustrations, but the compass of my heart keeps
me pointed in the right direction.
A second disadvantage is the financial drain of
lost salary, resulting either from a mans
giving up a job (or a better job), or from not
putting in the longer hours often required for
promotion and higher salary. Some couples work
around this; you can certainly save money on
childcare. But its no road to riches. My
family continues to struggle; our Tupperware
collection, to use one small example,
consists mainly of old whipped-cream and margarine
tubs. Eating fast food is about as high-toned as
our celebrations get. We rent; we have no savings;
we worry. But we make do.
These problems arise, obviously, because your
family commitments keep you from devoting all your
time and energy to your job. Most men can easily
imagine that kind of frustration. But being with
kids also has its own unique difficulties, which
some guys seem to have no real sense of.
The biggest shock to the uninitiated, I think,
is the endlessness of this job (as my brother
recently learned firsthand). Even long hours at a
day job cant really prepare you for being
on whenever youre with your kids,
or, for the stay-at-home dad, 24/7. And if you
think that means time off for meals and sleep,
think again. There are kids who sleep all night and
take long naps, but there are others who almost
never sleep--and even the good sleepers need less
as they grow older. Besides, few kids have the
moral decency to match their sleep schedule to
yours. And your kids will soon teach you what
mealtime really means: While theyre at the
table, you spend your time either serving them or
watching to make sure they don't indulge in those
creative disasters they're so good at. And once
they finish, youre still eating, and stuck in
one place so they can easily find you to present
requests, demands, complaints, and passionate
Almost nothing in domestic life is ever truly
finished. A New Jersey stay-at-home dad says that
trying to clean with two children in the
house is like trying to empty a bathtub
sieve. The basic rule? If your kids are
awake, the house is getting dirtier by the minute.
Children relentlessly seek attention,
entertainment, and animal satisfaction, and this
isnt something they can control. Even my
teenagers dont get it when I finally turn off
the vacuum and sardonically announce, OKAY, THE
HOUSE IS NOW CLEAN--TIME TO GET IT DIRTY AGAIN.
They just look up with blank stares like you see on
zoo animals--that Dont bother me if it
isnt feeding time expression.
And dont kid yourself that carrying around
that egg-baby for a week in your high-school health
class was any real preparation. Taking care of an
egg, to mix metaphors, is a piece of cake.
Parenting never stops. Family life is a kind of
mindless force to which you, with your selfish need
for things like sleep, peace and quiet, personal
space, etc., must continuously adapt. How many
times, while running around madly trying to get
things done, have I found myself praying to get
back some of the time I wasted in my youth, like
listening over and over to all 17 minutes of Iron
I experienced a similar feeling of endlessness
when, as a sixteen-year-old, I started work at a
grocery store. I was a bagger (or "courtesy clerk,"
as management insisted on calling us). On the first
day I spent eight straight hours watching groceries
come down the belt, then piling them into paper
sacks. Somewhere during that eternity it occurred
to me that this whole process was truly unending;
people would always need food, would get hungry and
come back to the store over and over, groceries
would keep coming down the belts, bags would be
ceaselessly filled and emptied and filled again.
That night, in the refuge of dream, my teenage mind
thrilled as some beautiful faceless girl began
taking off her bikini top. But once it slipped from
her shoulders, I saw not the treasure I
expected--only groceries pouring out in endless
streams, apples, bread, canned fruit, cookies,
cartons of milk, as if from some horrible
Domestic life is, unfortunately, quite similar.
A parent cant conceive of his role in terms
of days, weeks, even years--he has to stretch to
decades. This is the reality of family life.
And of course it gets boring. Sometimes I wonder
exactly what the difference is between having small
children and being under house arrest. Despite the
considerable amount of work and endless
attention-switching, theres also a lot of
down time--which can get to be
bring-you-down time. And the world of
kid culture is often less than reviving. I once
took my sons to a Care Bears movie. As the story
unfolded--fuzzy little bears oozing ditties and
plotting cheerfully, among rainbows, clouds and
unicorns, against a nasty wizard--I felt my boredom
reach crushing proportions. This, I
thought, is Hell. Its like
Sartres No Exit. Hieronymous Bosch has
nothing on these bears.
You can glimpse the inherent boredom of domestic
life in what my wife and I call the Kathy at
Farrradays phenomenon. Long ago, in
that now mythic time before we had children, we
went out one night to Farradays, a local
pizza place, with my sister and some friends. My
sister introduced us to Kathy and her husband;
Kathy was a housewife, with two small kids at home.
This meant nothing to me at the time. But
Kathys behavior certainly made an impression.
She drank too much beer, talked too loudly, kept
laughing and whooping it up--in fact, she
couldnt seem to get enough of anything. And
this was at a family pizza place where the wildest
possibility was plunking a quarter into the player
piano. It pains me to admit that I looked down on
her a little for this; I mean, youd think
shed never gone out before!
But Allah is merciful; if justice were
automatic, He would have struck me down then and
there. My karma finally rolled around years later,
when I became the housewife, and went out one night
with some people, so delighted to be free of my
duties, so thrilled with adult company, that I
drank too much, talked too much, laughed too hard
and too long, like a sailor on shore leave or a
prisoner after a jailbreak--acting, in fact, just
like Kathy at Farradays.
Only if youve known the hours of ticking
clock, the half-coherent twists and turns of a
pre-schoolers conversation, the endlessness
of laundry and dusting and sandwich-making, only
then can you understand why parents sometimes get a
little crazy out on the town.
And the nature of the child, of course, adds to
the challenges. Kids really are wild animals; I
dont think Miss Manners understands them
nearly as well as Charles Darwin might. Emotional
instability is a natural and essential part of
childhood. A good parent accepts this, but that
doesnt make everything easy. For one thing,
kids tend to communicate through noise and action
rather than through language. A screaming child is
to life at home what Old Faithful is to
Yellowstone. She wants this or that; you say no.
Suddenly she becomes an air raid without planes, a
rock concert without melody, an invisible
jack-hammer assaulting your cochlea. When she gets
a good one going youre sometimes tempted to
run out into the street. You know its your
job to put up with this, so you go to comfort the
little car-alarm, but silence has become your drug,
and you crave it with a junkies despair. If
you have more than one kid, theyll look after
each other, right? Sure, occasionally--except for
those times when they all scream at once, keening
like lost souls, endangering your own. Or those
equally priceless moments when, as your
pre-schooler is shrieking with the force of a North
Atlantic gale, your teenager blithely asks,
Dad, could you make me a sandwich?
If the two of them were mad cows, you could
shoot them. But theyre kids--and you
dont shoot kids.
This, however, is only one of the things that
can drive you nuts. At times this life takes almost
insane twists. Yesterday, just as Id picked
up the full laundry basket AND the ten shirts on
the multi-clothes hanger and started up the
basement steps, the phone rang. All right, I told
myself with jock-like determination, I can do this.
So I rushed up the steps, balancing the basket on
one hand and carrying the multi-hanger with the
other, in a flurry of flying socks and underwear.
But I had to pause at the top of the stairs; our
refrigerator is so close to the basement door we
have to lift the laundry basket over the fridge to
get it out of the basement. This is usually a
two-handed job, but I managed to do it with just my
left. More clothes went flying, of course--and the
phone rang a second time.
Still balancing the basket, I pulled the
shirt-heavy multi-hanger through the tight space
and quickly hung it on the refrigerator door
handle. Its weight, however, pulled the door open,
and with that movement the flashlight on top of the
refrigerator crashed down, bouncing off the
door-shelves and into the refrigerator. I can leave
it there! I told myself. Surely no one would eat a
flashlight!--and the phone rang a third time. I
dropped the laundry basket, pushed the refrigerator
door shut, and sprinted for the living room.
But when I picked up the phone--take a wild
What kind of person calls a house where kids
live and lets it ring only three times?! I slowly
replaced the receiver and closed my eyes. The
(It was partly my own fault, I supposeI'd
so desperately wanted to hear another adult at the
end of the line, be it telemarketer,
survey-questioner, or phone evangelist. Hell, I
would have settled for a robo-call).
An experienced parent learns that you can never
predict the craziness this life will bring. You
just have to roll with it. Why should I get upset
when my young sons have removed every book from our
five-shelf book case and piled them on the
living-room floor? Why should I lose patience as
Shilly-Shally belts out her forty-third identical
verse of The Song That Never Ends? And
surely Im not the only parent in America who
stands picking peppercorns out of the sliced salami
for my sons bag lunches, dropping the foul
things into the trash can where they belong. They
feel no compunction whatever in saying, We hate
salami with peppercorns--but we like how it tastes
when theyve been picked out...
A further problem with life at home is the way
your own needs and desires are often crushed under
your parenting role. Committed parents cant
avoid feeling, at times, like overworked servants.
This is an intrinsically thankless job. For one
thing, it takes twenty years just to find out how
you did! And thanklessness goes with the territory.
Children just arent capable of understanding
parental behavior, and by the time theyre
teenagers their own developmental needs tend to
overwhelm any appreciation they might feel. Parents
have to more or less check their personal lives at
the door. I sometimes find myself mutely crying
out, in an immature yet heartfelt way, But
wholl take care of me?
Our recent experience with the evaporating
week is a good example of this.
On the morning of our anniversary, my wife and I
sat at the breakfast table talking
calendar. It was a rather pitiful discussion;
money-wise and time-wise, all we could squeeze out
for this august occasion was a quick dinner-date
(Anywhere but Macs! my wife
pleaded). What we really needed, of course, was a
weekends worth of the various blisses
available in any decent Montreal hotel, just an
hour north of us. But that was okay; the whole
situation, in fact, struck us as funny, and we
laughed. (Of course we still had all the Saturday
house-cleaning to do, which wasnt quite as
So how did we manage to be so accepting, so
unselfish, when we hadnt been on a date
together since Grandma Moses danced disco? Parental
altruism, you ask? No. It was partly because we had
no choice, and partly because we had a
much-better-than-average week planned.
But then we started talking details.
My older son had agreed days earlier to babysit
Tuesday night so I could go hear the
Pulitzer-Prize-winning feminist journalist speak at
the university (my wife had to work; ironic, eh?).
But a time-check revealed the talk didnt
start till 8:00 p.m. Im Shilly-Shallys
bedtime guy; she simply wont sleep till
shes gotten two picture books, a story, and
usually a lullaby out of me. If I dont get
back till ten, shell be up till at least
eleven, and well all pay for that the next
day, her most of all. Besides, Im not
comfortable with the irony of supporting feminism
by disrupting my little girls life that
But that was okay--my wife and I had planned to
catch a jazz concert on Wednesday night, and our
younger son, mirabile dictu, volunteered to
babysit. But then we find out its a 7:30
start (normal enough for everyone in the world
except the parents of small children with sleeping
problems). And I just remembered I have to give a
talk to an out-of-town group on Thursday night,
which Shilly-Shally will have to deal with. Two
late nights in a row, and their inevitable fallout,
just arent worth it.
Hey, I say to my disappointed wife,
maybe the boys could go to the lecture and
the jazz concert.
Uh, Dad? the younger says, with a
charming smile (quite aware of the brownie points
hed earned by offering to babysit).
Im broke. Could you guys...pay for my
In less than five minutes, a week wed
looked forward to for some serious adult fun
simply...evaporated. Theres no other word for
But then thats pretty much the way it is,
once that plastic stick in the home pregnancy test
turns blue. Parenthood is by definition an exercise
in selflessness. But even parents are only human,
so it also becomes a difficult kind of balancing
act. Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons wise
words about mothers can be applied equally to
Motherhood brings as much joy as
ever, but it still rings boredom, exhaustion,
and sorrow too. Nothing else ever will make you
as happy or as sad, as proud or as tired, for
nothing is quite as hard as helping a person
develop his own individuality--especially while
you struggle to keep your own.
Another of the hard realities of domestic life
will probably surprise some men: Being with kids is
a surprisingly complex undertaking. Despite a lot
of ignorance on this point, the job actually
requires great skill, and experience can make a
I learned this the hard way. When LeBron flies
toward the hoop, he makes it look easy; Jimi
Hendrix would fling off those amazing guitar riffs
with a fluid power that seemed simple. In the same
way, what looks uncomplicated in domestic life is
usually the grace of the experienced
I love this caption from a picture, in Baby Talk
Magazine, of a father feeding an infant :
Feet and hands in motion, Maggie eagerly
downs her cereal. Shes a neat eater unless
she can get her hands on the bowl. Then its
all over. You want the bowl as close to the
mouth as possible, for obvious reasons, but that of
course puts it in the danger zone. If you fail,
guess what? Wipe down the highchair, mop up the
floor, launder the clothes, and bathe the kid. And
keep in mindthey eat more than once a day!
Talk about pressure; its worse than a
potentially game-winning free throw. Another
section in the same article features a
mothers struggles to get her two daughters to
nap at the same time; the difficulty of this task
is matched only by its intense desirability from a
parents point of view. Think about it: Just
how do you get such a thing to happen? Its
possible, I suppose--but you need at least the
patience and skill of a bonsai gardener to ever win
Some examples will underscore the point. The
following chart is my attempt to bring some order
to Shilly-Shallys drinking cups.
(Encyclopedic knowledge like this has always been
tucked away in the already overcrowded brains of
hard-working mothers). And remember, theres
more than a little at stake here. Kids love
routine; they crave it, demand it, go crazy without
it. Offer your charge the wrong cup at the wrong
time and youll hear about it. And if
youre callous enough to insist that it
doesnt really matter, your monkey may
freak on you.
Whatdont tell me you thought one cup
Place of Use
apple juice, water
apple juice, milk
bedtime snack always causes spills
occasionally dinner so sometimes
sometimes. Alice in banana milk bedtime
Wonderland cup, tea-set cups
the very idea!
Im anywhere, anytime
Oh no! That would drinking, which
prevent her from
she will then want back-washing
And note well: Straws are a very big deal. At
last count, Shilly-Shally had the following types:
regular, bendy elbow, dolphin, turtle, and four
kinds of crazy (a phrase which, coincidentally,
describes Shilly-Shally herself). And her straw
preferences can be as intense and whimsical as
those for cups.
But this is nothing compared to footwear.
Raising kids is a kind of perpetual war, with
battles breaking out suddenly after long periods of
boredom and slogging work. But the World War III of
dealing with pre-schoolers is footwear. Yesterday,
for example, I gently suggested that Shilly-Shally
wear her tennis shoes to school. But she insisted
that her hiking boots look Indian and
match her Pocahontas dress. The fact that the boots
no longer fit was irrelevant--that is, until she
couldnt get them on and started to cry and it
was suddenly all my fault.
And yet theres one thing worse than these
almost daily battles--and thats your usually
doomed attempts to actually buy new footwear. If I
had my way, wed all have our kids feet
sprayed up to the ankles with some kind of heavy
porous polyurethane--hand-washable, teflon-coated,
and grip-soled--that could be re-sprayed on a
But theres really no way around the hell
of buying shoes for kids; its just something
you have to do.
The situation: Shilly-Shally in a shoe crisis.
Her tennis shoes are too short; she screams. Her
sandals are too tight; she screams. Her
aqua-socks are not only losing their
inner pad (the only thing that keeps them from
actually being socks) but have begun to smell like
dead things on the beach. We wont let her
wear them; she screams. Shes worn her black
dress shoes twice; now they pinch her feet. She
screams. We kiss that forty bucks goodbye, suppress
So we go out to buy new shoes. But dont
let the simplicity of that statement fool you.
Walking into the store, were met with a
vision of footwear paradise. There are rows and
rows and rows of shoes for kids. Our hearts
brighten; surely we can find something in this
Store of Wonders!
But once each of the interested parties has
asserted its own demands, the actual number of
possible purchases shrinks dramatically--the
interested parties being, of course, myself, my
wife, and Shilly-Shally.
You might think Shilly-Shally is
underrepresented in this process, or at least
out-gunned by parental authority. Nothing could be
further from the truth. We have the authority, but
she has the lungs. And were in public.
Although were the ones who usually initiate
legislation, Shilly-Shally exercises her
ear-splitting veto quite freely. It constitutes a
kind of final vote.
My wife is, naturally, the Prime Mover. But her
ideas about what to buy are fairly complex. She
knows we need something that (a) fits, and (b)
Shilly-Shallys little magpie-heart will love
enough to actually wear. But my wife entertains
other notions too, dangerous ones, to my mind,
about style, matching color,
season-appropriateness, and the like. This
complicates things enormously. When our
daughters godparents sent her a tri-colored
sweatsuit with matching troll-doll barrette, for
example, we had to find sandals to go
with the new outfit. The pair my wife decided
on fairly bristled with straps and buckles; they
looked like little strait jackets. I cringed to
imagine the tearful, scream-punctuated scenes each
morning as I struggled to get Shilly-Shally into
these sandals-from-hell and then buckle all those
tiny buckles with my thick dumb male fingers. But
my wife insisted, and she had an incontestable
principle on her side: The sandals matched the
outfit. Theres a federal law about it
somewhere. How could I possibly object?
You may have already surmised my only request
when it comes to childrens footwear: Velcro.
I feel nothing but pity for parents who lived
before its invention; they were ignorant savages,
and they suffered for it. Mt. Rushmore should have
five heads: those four political guys and the NASA
hero who invented this miraculous material.
My wifes reaction to this enthusiasm for
Velcro is very interesting; in fact, shes
downright ambivalent, though she hates to admit
that. On one hand shell dismiss the whole
topic as one more example of male laziness. And she
has a point. If left to themselves, many men would
live without the finer things: no
pictures on the wall, no curtains at the window, no
flower beds, no holiday celebrations. My wife has
helped me see how sad this actually is, and how, as
I've already mentioned, parents must continually
enrich family life with rituals, celebrations,
niceties, all the special touches. I agree with
her, though of course I can only take it so far. To
her, my insistence on velcro is akin to my
affection for old torn sweaters or a steady diet of
hamburgers and tater tots. From a certain female
point of view, men are pretty much like dogs.
Ive come to understand and appreciate her
perspective on this, and Im grateful to her
for teaching me. So I try to apply the general
principle in my fathering. But buying shoes for a
pre-schooler is, by definition, a crisis. So I go
with Velcro every chance I get--and watch with
amused detachment how my wife sometimes waffles on
her principles as the pressure at the shoe store
Standing there in the aisles, were hoping
to get our kid a sensible, long-lasting, convenient
pair of shoes with a decent fit. (We also dream of
world peace and an end to the budget deficit). Our
daughter, though, takes one sweeping look,
immediately fixes on the Princess Jasmine sandals,
then grabs them and wont let go.
You people at Disney--what the hell's the matter
with you?! Did you have to design these cheap
plastic sandals, encrust them with rhinestones, and
then slap HER picture on the side?! Its like
a box of chocolates in the middle of a broccoli
farm. Every little female in North America was
currently going weak in the knees over that cartoon
Madonna, parents standing pitifully behind,
wringing their hands. And the sandals themselves!
Somewhere under all that glitter is a pair of truly
crappy shoes. They pinch, they dont stretch,
the plastic rubs--have mercy on us! Do we have to
start blindfolding our kids in the shoe aisle like
we do in the cereal aisle at Safeway? We go to your
movies, buy your videos, your t-shirts, pajamas,
what not; couldnt you give us a break on the
It takes ten minutes to talk Shilly-Shally out
of the sandals--and we have to muster all the
pre-school reasoning were capable of. But
those ten minutes take their toll.
Shilly-Shallys emotional resilience, never
that strong to begin with, is wavering. She looks
like shes about to use her veto...!
But suddenly my wife spies a pair of white
loafer-type sneakers. No snaps, buckles, laces,
buttons, or deadbolts. The slip-on kind! Can it
really be true? Yes! They fit! And the kid wants
We take them home--she still loves them! That
is, for twenty-four hours. The next day she decides
they dont fit and she hates them. She
screams. And we have to face facts: If a kid
doesnt like the shoes she wont wear
them. So we drag ourselves back to the mall
(stopping on the way to buy rum and coke for the
aftermath). Ive learned my
lesson, my wife declares. We just
cant buy cheap shoes. Thats why they
dont fit. (Forgive us, oh mighty
American Economy, for our reluctance to drop $40 or
$50 on a pair of shoes this weed will grow out of
in two months).
At the pricier store we find a pair of sandals.
Velcro straps--Im satisfied. Big black bulky
things like the kind Mexican farmers wear--but my
wife is now well past aesthetics. We start in on
the big sell. Oh, honey--what beautiful
shoes! They look cool! (a word our
daughters recently begun using, though God
only knows how she defines it). I bet you
could run like the wind in those! Hey! Theyre
the same kind Alex has (the little boy next
door). He got them last week, remember?! And
theyll match all your dresses... (Black
goes with everything, right?).
Looking tentative, Shilly-Shally stands in the
sandals, peers in the little foot-mirror, then,
saints be praised, begins to jump
How much are they? I whisper
anxiously to my wife.
I dont care if its seventy
bucks! she hisses.
When we get home the three of us rush in, all
excited to tell the brothers. Then of course we
invite in the neighbors, slaughter the fatted calf,
set out food and drink, hire musicians. The war is
So I decide not to say anything when I notice
how the soles of Alexs sandals--the little
boy next door, remember?--are beginning to flap
apart and obviously wont last the month.
Theres plenty to get you down in life with
kids; it would be naively dangerous to think
otherwise. I wish I could say Ive never lost
my temper, wallowed in self-pity, snapped at
people, etc. Ive done all this and more, have
acted just as childishly as my child does. You
probably will too, if you havent already. We
all fail as parents from time to time. And what we
hate most about such failures, I think, is simply
having to face the fact that were capable of
such things. But that, as Stuart Smalley says, is
In fact, its more than all right; such
lapses are an essential and natural part of the
overall process. They remind our kids that
were just as human as they are, that no one
is free from error, that adults too have limits.
And children, whose lives are shaped by adult
power, very much need to be reminded of such
things. Besides, our mistakes with our kids, if
theyre not truly damaging, help us to
maintain our compassion and empathy for the
struggles of childhood, inspiring us, through a
certain amount of shame, to do better. And we
All the problems Ive mentioned so far can
in fact be overcome by hard work, loving patience,
a willingness to learn, and an active sense of
Not everything, though, can be attacked so
The hardest thing of all, at least for us, is
what my wife and I refer to as the siren
call--which at times has seemed almost
capable of destroying us.
An adult home with kids can get to feeling very
strange, almost unnatural (which is odd when you
consider how profoundly natural parenting is, with
all the force of evolution behind it). But there
are times, as Ive said, when your house feels
like a prison. You get lonely; your brain begins to
go soft; you feel so out of it! The neighborhood
streets are empty except for occasional children,
very old people, cats and squirrels. Sometimes it's
as if youve been marooned. From time to time
Ill glance out the living-room windows and
happen to see some adult walking down the
street--and suddenly feel strong unbidden emotions
rushing through me. I should be out there, an inner
voice says, out in the world. That should be
For a moment then I cant shake off the
passions I usually manage to keep quiet: pride,
ambition, my love of physical activity, my career,
even the echoes of my male upbringing with its
emphasis on action, reward, and respect--and I look
at myself and my life with something like disgust.
What am I doing here? I wail silently to myself;
Ive turned into a goddamn housekeeper !
But even this isnt the truly difficult
moment. For one thing, I recognize such outbursts
for exactly what they are: frustration,
selfishness, impatience, all the shallower emotions
growing restless beneath the primacy of love, which
rightly holds sway over them. As quick and hot as
such feelings burn, they pass away--because I know
what my presence in this house means to my
children, to laying the foundations of their lives.
But my sudden vehement protest leads me, sooner or
later, to the other moment, the truly difficult
one--difficult because its not mere
indignation but a profound call, a power trying to
seduce me not with weak and childish selfishness
but with the deeper reality of myself and the
Just as the sirens called Odysseus when his ship
sailed past their rocky islet, the world itself
suddenly sings to me with overpowering sweetness,
right in my ear, as if a divine temptress standing
next to me. Im bending over the wash machine
in our little basement, lifting soggy laundry out,
when I suddenly picture Mt. Kilimanjaro above the
savannah, clouds sweeping from its dark summit,
just as we saw it that long-ago afternoon--and then
see stilt houses over shining mud at twilight, a
fishing village on the South China Sea--and then
Paris, the Pont Neuf and the Orangerie--all places
Ive been, in a life we had to give up, at
least for a time. Then I imagine myself with a real
office of my own (we dont have the room just
now), with hours and hours before me for the
thrilling labor of writing or music, the life of
art I crave--and then with even greater suddenness
the Call itself comes, searing through me like a
summons from some Rilkean angel. For a moment I
feel an indescribable pang. To be stuck here like a
janitor or cleaning woman, in this basement with
its half-dirt floor, in this little house, this
little town, day after day, when I should be out in
the world living my life to its uttermost!...
I hang my head for a moment. Then I notice water
from the wet clothes dripping onto my tennis shoes.
So I push the sodden load into the dryer, take a
deep breath, feel my heart begin to slow.
Not yet, I whisper to myself. Not yet. Love is
©2013, Tim Meyers