I’ll do anything for my kids. Once, when my son was an infant, squalling and miserable with a cold, I put my mouth on his tiny nose and sucked all the mucus from his sinuses so he could breath. He got some relief, and I got his cold. If you have kids, stuff like that doesn’t even faze you. I was Papa Bear and my cub needed help. In those early days of parenthood, you don’t even think about it; you do what you can to help your baby survive.
Now both my kids are in their teens and I don’t think I’d share a straw with either one of them. I’m grumpy and clueless, more Ozzie Osborne than Ozzie Nelson. It’s been a long, hard road trying to raise a couple of quality human beings, and it hasn’t all been SpongeBob and Skittles. I know, I’m not supposed to complain. I’m supposed to spout the company line of parenthood being a blessing, a magical gift, so fulfilling, blah blah blibbity blah.
You know what? It sucks.
Not all the time, but sometimes it sucks so bad that, if given the chance to do it all over again, I would buy stock in Today sponges and take the other fork in the procreation road. These moments occur in every parent’s life, but for some reason it’s culturally un-cool to be THAT honest about life with kids. You grin and bear it, lying through your teeth about how nice it all is, all the while thinking, why didn’t anyone give me the real lowdown about this ordeal?
I’ll TELL you why: it’s because if we knew what was in store for us as parents, the species would no longer propagate. Within fifty years the world would be like those Planet of the Apes movies. Only with Kim Hunter, from the original. She was one hot primate.
So we parents lie our tired asses off. Like your sister, who has four kids she “wouldn’t trade for anything” and keeps driving her relationships off the bridge, and takes so much Xanax she keeps it in a Judy Garland Pez dispenser. You have to put a good face on it. Society says so.
Whatever their age, kids find a way to infuriate you in a hundred different ways without even trying. You can’t expect a four-year-old to possess the basic skills to engage in logical debate, but when you haven’t slept in three days or brushed your teeth in a week, you’re not exactly a paragon of reason yourself. “Do you have to be so goddamn childish?” you yell at your child. “ALL THE TIME?” Their frustrating behavior doesn’t change, it just takes different angles. The relentless repetition of the toddler becomes the petulant stubbornness of the kindergartner, which blossoms into the willful button-pushing of middle school.
Is there a rational element to raising kids? Hell no. If there were, you could download the owner’s manual from Amazon. Your only hope is to rely on instinct, and hope you have a blood relative close by to swoop in and give you a break once in a while. You know it’s time for a break when you see these news stories about people being arrested for keeping their children locked in a cage in the basement, or chained to a D ring on the floor of a closet, and you nod silently, wondering if Home Depot is still open.
Make no mistake, parenting is rewarding, but it’s also serious business with a constant onslaught of surprises and dilemmas. They don’t show any of that in the Playskool commercials, and you certainly won’t read about it between the glossy, model-filled ads in Parenting magazine, or any other “mommy” publication that runs relentlessly upbeat stories of the magical world of parenthood. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. You become disgusted with yourself because of your own behavior and your primitive reactions to adversity. You lose any interest in your own appearance and hygiene, and most of the goals you had for child-rearing go out the door in the first two years. How do you think McDonald’s stays in business?
There are no periodic recertification tests, no standardized checklists, no universal measure of progress, or any kind of quantified system to tell you if you’re making headway. All you can do is try and teach your kids right from wrong, and hope that they aren’t the ones who will one day be all over TV and the internet, mowing down a bunch of people in a mall with an AR-15.
I’m no psychologist, but I do understand what’s at the heart of the issue: kids get to be selfish and I don’t. They function as hedonists with a patron, and as a father my time is largely spent satisfying their whims and desires, frequently at the expense of my own. Papa Bear can grumble all he wants, but he knows he ain’t gonna win that tug of war.
I have a few middle-aged friends who, for whatever reason, never had kids. Sometimes I envy their lives, filled with nice furniture, expensive musical gear, adult-oriented entertainment and trips to exotic places where there isn’t a Chuck E. Cheese to be found. Their homes are tidy and spare, well-kempt and tasteful. They maintain their trim physiques, and their clothes are not stained and frayed. They have poured their passions into their lifelong obsessions, with no mouths to feed or desires to fulfill but their own.
I watch these friends and listen to them prattle on about their trips to New Zealand or the new sports car they just bought, and wish that I could have those things. I get wistful, maybe a little resentful.
But then a certain smugness creeps into my brainpan, edging the jealousy out of the way. I realize there’s a bit of an echo in their speech. A slight hollowness. You know what that is? It’s the void left by the missing puzzle piece, the ultimate human experience they’ve chosen not to have. No matter where they’ve been, what they’ve done or what cool things they own, I have something they don’t.
When you have kids, you are given the keys to the treasure chest. From the moment your baby is born, you love that baby more than you ever thought you could love anything. You are astounded at the depth and breadth and commitment of that love. It’s the kind of love that’s not only unconditional, but utterly permanent. No one ever falls out of love with their kids.
Raising children can sap your sanity, drain your bank account, and make you do things like buying poster board at Walmart at 2:00 a.m. in your bathrobe. Being a parent can erode your will and make you question your own core motivations the same way restoring a classic car can. But with kids, you can’t just throw down the rotary buffer and walk away when you’re fed up. You have no choice but to power through the hard times, because nothing counts more than this. Nothing is more important, and nothing will require you to dig as deep, try your hardest and do your best as raising children will. Oh, and it’s a job that will never end until the day you die.
So I’ll continue to smile and lie my way through the frustrating times, mostly because in spite of my occasional whining, I don’t want my kids to ever think for a moment that I would regret having them around. All you parents out there know that there are some pretty dark days on this journey, but your kids need you to be there for them. For every spit-flecked, wild-eyed meltdown we endure, there are a hundred eye-watering, heart-swelling moments of pride and love and pure joy that the childless will never know.
Maybe this gig ain’t so bad after all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go have a talk with Judy Garland.