So You Think It’s Easy?

A chapter from Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood

“Experience is what you get when you don’t 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 I’ll 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, he’d always say things were fine. Two wasn’t 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 couldn’t help thinking about “the Bear.”

If you’ve ever run track, you probably know about the Bear. I heard it from the older guys on our high-school team. “It’s like this,” they’d say. “You’re doing a quarter-mile or whatever, and you’re kicking hard for the finish--you’re right about there...”--they’d point to a spot three-fourths of the way around the track--”…when all of a sudden the Bear comes up out of the ground and jumps on you. Your legs turn to lead, you can’t breathe, you get dizzy--the finish line suddenly looks a hundred miles away...”

“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 don’t 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 my brother.

Then one day he called me, sounding a little down in the dumps. The twins had just turned eleven months. “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Well, okay,” he said, the weariness plain in his voice. “It’s just...well...it’s pretty constant...”

Bingo, I thought; the Bear claims another victim.

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 don’t even consider it work!

Most mothers, of course, know all about such ironies. But some men don’t realize just how brave they’ll 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? You’ll find out.

For starters, try this little readiness quiz. It’s designed to enhance mental preparation for the new father. All the examples are taken from real life—I kid you not. Answer each question “yes” or “no.” And be honest.


1. Your toddler is, as your wife tells the neighbor, “not such a good sleeper.” Once he’s 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. You’re 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 week’s worth of semi-adequate sleep.

Then Daylight Savings Time kicks in, and he’s right back to midnight.


2. This same kid, a little older now and the world’s lightest sleeper, has just settled down for a nap, and you desperately need the break. Once he’s asleep, you get ready to tiptoe out of his room--but like a fool you can’t resist putting a few toys away first. With little plastic tractor and farm animals in hand, you creep to the toy barn where they’re kept--but you’ve already opened the barn door before you remember it “moos.” Your kid sits bolt upright. “I’m done with my nap, Dad. Can I play farm too?”


3. You have a guest for dinner, an important guy who works with your wife. He’s 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 you’ve calmed your screamer down, you’re going to have to explain why.


4. It’s Christmas day; you want to take the family to church. But your three-year-old NEEDS a bath. You’ve 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. “They’re only little animals, Dad!” Total elapsed time: thirty-three minutes.


5. First your kids got “Lite-brites,” thousands of tiny colored plastic reflectors they’re 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 can’t take a step in the house without encountering this new form of litter. Then, just when you think you’ve 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.


6. At 1:00 you’re going to a local photo studio for a formal family photograph. Your kid needs lunch, but you’ve 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-o’s, 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.


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 Dad?!"


SCORING: If you finished this quiz without serious thoughts of abandoning your family, you’ve passed. If, however, you answered “No” to four or more questions, you should probably stick with your current method of birth control.

Spending more time at home inevitably presents a number of specific problems. It’s 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 they’d 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 it’s simple, though difficult: Love is more important than anything else. My family needs me, and I simply won’t 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 man’s 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 it’s 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 can’t really prepare you for being “on” whenever you’re 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 they’re 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, you’re still eating, and stuck in one place so they can easily find you to present requests, demands, complaints, and passionate dessert preferences.

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…with a 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 isn’t something they can control. Even my teenagers don’t 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 “Don’t bother me if it isn’t feeding time” expression.

And don’t 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 Butterfly's “Inna-gadda-da-vida”?

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 cornucopia.

Domestic life is, unfortunately, quite similar. A parent can’t 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, there’s 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. It’s like Sartre’s 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 Farrraday’s” phenomenon. Long ago, in that now mythic time before we had children, we went out one night to Farraday’s, 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 Kathy’s behavior certainly made an impression. She drank too much beer, talked too loudly, kept laughing and whooping it up--in fact, she couldn’t 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, you’d think she’d 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 Farraday’s.

Only if you’ve known the hours of ticking clock, the half-coherent twists and turns of a pre-schooler’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 you’re sometimes tempted to run out into the street. You know it’s 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 junkie’s despair. If you have more than one kid, they’ll 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 they’re kids--and you don’t 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 I’d 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 guess.

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 bastards!

(It was partly my own fault, I suppose—I'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 I’m 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 they’ve 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 can’t 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 aren’t capable of understanding parental behavior, and by the time they’re 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 who’ll 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 Mac’s!” my wife pleaded). What we really needed, of course, was a weekend’s 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 wasn’t quite as humorous).

So how did we manage to be so accepting, so unselfish, when we hadn’t 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 didn’t start till 8:00 p.m. I’m Shilly-Shally’s bedtime guy; she simply won’t sleep till she’s gotten two picture books, a story, and usually a lullaby out of me. If I don’t get back till ten, she’ll be up till at least eleven, and we’ll all pay for that the next day, her most of all. Besides, I’m not comfortable with the irony of supporting feminism by disrupting my little girl’s life that way.

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 it’s 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 aren’t 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 he’d earned by offering to babysit). “I’m broke. Could you guys...pay for my tickets?”

In less than five minutes, a week we’d looked forward to for some serious adult fun simply...evaporated. There’s no other word for it.

But then that’s 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 Parson’s wise words about mothers can be applied equally to committed fathers:

“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 huge difference.

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 professional.

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. She’s a neat eater unless she can get her hands on the bowl. Then it’s 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 mind—they eat more than once a day! Talk about pressure; it’s worse than a potentially game-winning free throw. Another section in the same article features a mother’s 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 parent’s point of view. Think about it: Just how do you get such a thing to happen? It’s possible, I suppose--but you need at least the patience and skill of a bonsai gardener to ever win any success.

Some examples will underscore the point. The following chart is my attempt to bring some order to Shilly-Shally’s drinking cups. (Encyclopedic knowledge like this has always been tucked away in the already overcrowded brains of hard-working mothers). And remember, there’s 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 you’ll hear about it. And if you’re callous enough to insist that “it doesn’t really matter,” your monkey may freak on you.

What—don’t tell me you thought one cup was enough!

Cup Name
Preferred Liquid
Place of Use
Straw Use

sippy cup

apple juice, water



“fishie” cup

apple juice, milk

bedtime snack always causes spills

occasionally dinner so sometimes

“walking cup”

apple juice


sometimes. Alice in banana milk bedtime snack never

Wonderland cup, tea-set cups

apple juice

tea parties

the very idea!

ordinary cup


I’m 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 couldn’t get them on and started to cry and it was suddenly all my fault.

And yet there’s one thing worse than these almost daily battles--and that’s your usually doomed attempts to actually buy new footwear. If I had my way, we’d 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 yearly basis.

But there’s really no way around the hell of buying shoes for kids; it’s 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 won’t let her wear them; she screams. She’s worn her black dress shoes twice; now they pinch her feet. She screams. We kiss that forty bucks goodbye, suppress screams.

So we go out to buy new shoes. But don’t let the simplicity of that statement fool you.

Walking into the store, we’re 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 we’re in public. Although we’re 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-Shally’s 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 daughter’s 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. There’s a federal law about it somewhere. How could I possibly object?

You may have already surmised my only request when it comes to children’s 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 wife’s reaction to this enthusiasm for Velcro is very interesting; in fact, she’s downright ambivalent, though she hates to admit that. On one hand she’ll 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.

I’ve come to understand and appreciate her perspective on this, and I’m 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 builds.

Standing there in the aisles, we’re 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 won’t 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?! It’s 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 don’t 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; couldn’t you give us a break on the plastic sandals?

It takes ten minutes to talk Shilly-Shally out of the sandals--and we have to muster all the pre-school reasoning we’re capable of. But those ten minutes take their toll. Shilly-Shally’s emotional resilience, never that strong to begin with, is wavering. She looks like she’s 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 them!

We take them home--she still loves them! That is, for twenty-four hours. The next day she decides they don’t fit and she hates them. She screams. And we have to face facts: If a kid doesn’t like the shoes she won’t wear them. So we drag ourselves back to the mall (stopping on the way to buy rum and coke for the aftermath). “I’ve learned my lesson,” my wife declares. “We just can’t buy cheap shoes. That’s why they don’t 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--I’m 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 daughter’s recently begun using, though God only knows how she defines it). “I bet you could run like the wind in those! Hey! They’re the same kind Alex has” (the little boy next door). “He got them last week, remember?! And they’ll 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 kangaroo-style.

“How much are they?” I whisper anxiously to my wife.

“I don’t care if it’s 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 over.

So I decide not to say anything when I notice how the soles of Alex’s sandals--the little boy next door, remember?--are beginning to flap apart and obviously won’t last the month.

There’s plenty to get you down in life with kids; it would be naively dangerous to think otherwise. I wish I could say I’ve never lost my temper, wallowed in self-pity, snapped at people, etc. I’ve done all this and more, have acted just as childishly as my child does. You probably will too, if you haven’t 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 we’re capable of such things. But that, as Stuart Smalley says, is all right.

In fact, it’s more than all right; such lapses are an essential and natural part of the overall process. They remind our kids that we’re 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 they’re 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 do.

All the problems I’ve mentioned so far can in fact be overcome by hard work, loving patience, a willingness to learn, and an active sense of humor.

Not everything, though, can be attacked so frontally.

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 I’ve 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 you’ve been marooned. From time to time I’ll 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 me.

For a moment then I can’t 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; I’ve turned into a goddamn housekeeper !

But even this isn’t 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 it’s 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 world.

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. I’m 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 I’ve 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 don’t 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 more important.

©2013, Tim Meyers

Tim J. Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and university lecturer and storyteller living in Santa Clara, California, where he teaches at Santa Clara University. This column is a serialization of his recent book Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood. He's been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, has published over 120 poems, has two books of poetry out, and won a national poetry contest judged by John Updike. His children’s book Basho and the River Stones is a Junior Library Guild selection, his Tanuki’s Gift got an excellent boxed review with art in the New York Times, and his Basho and the Fox, a New York Times bestseller and Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book, was also read aloud on NPR. He has ten children's books out and two on the way, won the 2012 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Fiction, and has published much other fiction and nonfiction. And he can whistle and hum at the same time, though he hasn't won any awards for that. Yet. Check him out at www.TimMyersStorySong.com

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