It’s a story of involuntarily learning The Cat in the Hat by heart; of teaching my 3-year-old son, Nico, to play Go Fish; of watching our newest baby, Gabriel, learn to smile; and it’s the story of the heart-stopping fearlessness of Elisa, my 2-year-old daughter. It’s a story that feels to me like parenting at its worst but is undoubtedly parenting simply as it is — full of hope and ugly near-misses.
I took a six-week paternity leave this winter, three months after our third child was born. My wife, Dorothy, a woman of Herculean mental strength and tenacity, was heading back to work and back to her graduate program.
She was almost giddy about the role reversal, excited to be the working spouse and to see what kind of househusband I’d become.
The first week gave her much joy — my days-long adrenaline rush kept the house fairly clean and the kids well fed. But by Friday night, I was a wreck. She rescued me. I collapsed on the couch. Her enjoyment of that episode hasn’t really waned.
By then, I’d realized my job is so much easier than being at home. Even in work like mine, a daily, live radio gig on WCPN, the amount of foresight and planning pales in comparison to the requirements of skilled parenting.
One day early on, my mother-in-law, the three kids and I are at the Botanical Garden. We’re wrapping up lunch. Nico finishes first and is inspecting the inside of a potato chip bag. His sister is methodically scraping every last bit of yogurt from her bowl — an activity that, given precedent, will probably occupy her for the next 20 minutes.
Grandma takes the baby to the restroom to change him. I ask Nico to throw out the chip bag before he messes up his “nice” shirt. He complies, asks where his grandmother went, grins at me with a twinkle in his eye — and takes off running. Oblivious to this, Elisa is still happily scraping yogurt. I’ve seen this before; she will not want to give up that bowl.
So I make the first of several mistakes: I yell for Nico to come back, drawing attention to myself and probably doing exactly what Nico wants me to do. That gets me nowhere, so I make mistake No. 2: I attempt to ignore Nico, believing he’s bluffing and that he’ll come back from wherever he disappeared to. He doesn’t.
Third mistake (because at this point, bad decisions seem to be the only kind I’m capable of making): I tell Elisa that lunch is over and we have to chase down Nico. I tell her this while ripping the yogurt bowl and spoon out of her hands. She freaks. She becomes the very definition of “kicking and screaming,” and I am dragging her. Well, not exactly. I just throw her upside-down into the infant stroller as if it’s normal, and start pushing.
It is decidedly not a moment I’d care to be associated with in any way, and I deeply hope nobody recognizes me. Elisa does not stop screaming when we run into Nico just outside the cafe, happily asking where we’re going in such a rush. No, her screaming jag continues for a solid 20 minutes, from the lobby to the garage and until we are halfway home.
There is a lesson here, one I suspect every self-respecting mother already knows in her bones. I should have come prepared with something that would have prevented the whole scenario — a toy or a coloring book or a game of I Spy to engage them. Like seers and oracles, moms foresee potential catastrophe five steps ahead and put in place whatever will avoid it. And they do it without thinking. Or at least, if they’re like my wife, they seem to.
Me? It takes 100 percent of my mental and emotional capacity. After a morning of it, I’m completely exhausted.
Planning to avoid catastrophe is one of the lasting lessons of my adventure in parenting, one my wife tells me she’s pleased I’m learning. Here’s another thing she couldn’t be happier about.
I stopped seeing our home as just the place I come home to (and by “come home to,” I mean, “come home to relax in, make a mess with my kids in and do the occasional load of laundry”).
Six months ago, a toy on the floor was something to gingerly step over, perhaps kick aside. Now it triggers a complex mental calculus: Where does that toy belong? Do I have the energy to use this as a teachable moment and ask the kids to put it away? Or should I pick it up myself? Am I on the way to where the toy belongs? No? OK, I’ll pick it up on the way back to the family room.
Now I see the house as a living, breathing entity, tending toward entropy and producing a constant stream of needs. There’s the tablecloth to clean, the dishes to collect and wash, the crayon-and-marker project to gather and then display or put on the counter until it gets thrown away, or not. There’s the endless stream of laundry, the books on the floor, the blankets to fold, the forts to dismantle and furniture to reassemble. It’s like the ocean: There’s high tide and low tide, but the waves never stop.
Eventually, I brought the kids back to the Botanical Garden. After that first disaster, you might be asking why. It’s a worthwhile question, one I didn’t ask myself before setting out with the youngest two and my father.
Visitors to the garden’s glasshouse are familiar with all the beauty of the rain forest: birds, butterflies, orchids, tropical plants — and the waterfall.
You know the waterfall: The one you walk under and think, Wow, it’s so nice they designed it sort of natural-looking and without a barrier to keep people away from the edge. It’s not as if people need to be told to keep themselves or their children away from a slippery surface near a pool of water.
Apparently, I do.
Elisa looks so cute standing there, stretching her arms, trying to reach the water. When she falls — of course, it happens in slow-motion — I am helpless, 20 feet away, video camera in hand and Gabriel strapped to my front in one of those BabyBjörn things that look ridiculous until you become a parent.
My father, despite his bad back, and a stranger I forgot to thank reach down and pull her out (Thank you, stranger!). Elisa is very wet and very surprised and, thank goodness, uninjured. Someone procures a towel; we dry her off, comfort her, put her wet clothes in a plastic bag, wrap her in her winter coat and head back home.
I am told this happens at the garden once in a while. I am almost as exhausted and embarrassed thinking about it now as when it happened.
My six weeks at home were ostensibly to care for the baby, but Gabriel was the easiest thing about the leave. He ate when I expected him to, slept when I needed him to and was much kinder to me in the diaper department than either of his siblings at that age.
While Nico and Elisa occupied most of my time and energy, they repaid me by revealing their burgeoning personalities. I now know that Elisa craves time and space to do things herself, but she also wants me close enough to catch her if she falls.
My son, on the other hand, often seeks a deeper closeness to Dorothy and me. When he’s not napping, it’s because he wants to hang out. That’s when he looks up at me, like he is at this moment, and asks, “What do you want to do with me now, Daddy?”