For years parenting was such a whole-bodied, consuming activity. It’s like jail, isn’t it? I’m sure it’s not okay to say that but come on, it’s kind of like jail. It’s just … all the time, man. I don’t think it’s possible to really understand it until you’re in it: wait, I can’t even go to the grocery store anymore without 1) a heated negotiation process that inevitably leaves everyone feeling bitter and fucked-over, or 2) a squalling, pooping time bomb strapped to your actual body? What the hell did I do to my life and why does everyone keep telling me to enjoy it because it’s going to go by so fast?
Look, it took a long-ass time and I don’t miss it one bit, there’s your parenting truthiness, young people. Yes those small round-cheeked squirrels of mine are adorable in the rearview and no I have no desire to hit rewind and spend another year army-crawling towards nap time because I might get a whopping 45 minutes to “relax” while every crackle of the baby monitor pumps fresh waves of epinephrine into my bloodstream.
Things are very different now that they’re older, obviously, but it’s amazing how a giant independent child who is fully capable of doing everything on his own can still run the show. We are well past the immersive, 24/7 stages and these small humans have become exactly that: small humans. Now you have roommates, and they’re not at all the sort of person you’d advertise for on Craigslist.
Searching for two males to share a 3b, 2b home. Must be skilled at defacing toilets and leaving dirty socks in every corner of every room. We like it loud, loud, LOUD! Bonus if not able to cook, ravenously hungry at all times, incredibly picky with tastes that do not overlap. Special preference given to those who can spontaneously manifest unlimited quantities of Nerf foam darts, broken pencils, and Pokémon cards.
Domestic impact aside, it’s the moods that I struggle with these days. What’s that saying, you’re only as happy as your saddest child? There’s a deep bell-ringing truth to that but I’m thinking of how the day to day ups and downs can carry you along like a leaf in the wind. The air is always alive with someone else’s emotions, crackling and hissing, like those balls where you can touch the surface and a lightning of energy anchors from the center, and here I am just sitting on the couch trying to read last month’s Marie Claire.
Like someone’s super pissed because someone messed with their thing and they said not to mess with their thing and will you look at that he totally messed with it and I’m like I can’t get invested in this bullshit guys so figure it out somewhere else or I’m just gonna start handing out chores and then everyone gets upset like I’ve been the asshole all along.
The worst is when you have something you’ve been looking forward to — a nice family walk around the neighborhood, for instance — and it gets tanked by a grumpy kid. You rally the troops because you’ve decided you’re not going to let THAT one mess up your day and now you’re trudging along, a simmering stew of group resentment, the Bataan Death March with one oblivious Labrador whose relentless joie de vivre only serves to highlight how stubborn humans can be.
I’m the fool who always thinks I can fix it, too. “Can I just—” I get half my simpering statement out before someone shuts a door in my face. FINE, I think, and march back to the living room to peck sharply at my phone, rabble scrabble frabble, and ten minutes later the kid who acted like his entire existence was rounding the last bend of the toilet bowl has reset himself Memento-style and is happily singing “Wiggle” to the cat (“You know what to do with that big fat tail …”) while I’m still in the midst of radical self care on Amazon and will have fourteen boxes of unnecessary makeup products in two days’ time to show for it.
What’s really ridiculous is how often I declare my immunity from this whole reluctant-empath business. “Whatever guys, I’m out,” I’ll say, eyebrows and palm raised to show I really mean it this time. Like I’m on the Shark Tank panel and not only is their pitch a disaster, their company valuation is way off and their food sample tastes like ass. But I’m no steely-eyed Mr. Wonderful. I’m Robert, too easily swayed by the sob story, blinking against the bright lights of all this responsibility and just really hoping someone brought a dog.
I can hear you now, by the way. Just wait until they’re teenagers. Maybe I’ll have learned a thing or two about sidestepping all the Sturm und Drang by then. I doubt it, though. I suspect this is how it works forever, at least to a certain degree. No wonder we as parents can be so quick to judge and criticize one another — it’s all just window dressing, a great fuss to make up for the fact that we lost control years ago and we can pretend like we’re in charge with dietary choices and bedtimes and whatever but the truth is someone else is in the driver’s seat and our job is to slowly, carefully, finger by finger, let go altogether. They’re the ones who get to steer. We have to learn to be good passengers, juggling the snacks and the extra water bottles, advising when it helps, and the rest of the time, shutting the hell up.
Halfway through May, I fractured my leg. I was in the midst of one of those rah-rah-challenge-yourself! military-themed obstacle course runs when I slipped at an odd angle off a wooden barricade and came down on a knee that would no longer work. Medics came, debated my status, then hauled me off the course in a jostling, too-small golf cart. I cried, then laughed, then cried again, wiping mud all over my face. God, it had been a month.
I had relapsed, more than once. Things at home weren’t good, to put it mildly. I thought I’d reached the basement floor, personal crisis-wise, but let me tell you, a painful injury can really send the elevator to brand-new unexplored subterranean levels.
Pity parties do nothing but intensify the suck, of course, but they’re impossible to avoid altogether, aren’t they? You can try your best, but inevitably you’ll wander in, crumpled name tag in hand: HI, MY NAME IS WHOMP.
Recovery was slow. For a while it took so incredibly long to do the most basic tasks, it’s hard to even remember now as I move with ease throughout my days, taking it all for granted again. Like a nightmare, and I know, could I be any more melodramatic, but that’s the best way I can describe it: a crazy inside-out version of real life where a trip to the bathroom suddenly became a grueling Ironman competition.
It felt like there were probably lessons to be learned. Time to spend being grateful for all I had and the temporary nature of my injury. Humbled by the experience of having no choice but to accept help, or even more challenging, ask for it. Prodded from my tight-lipped default thanks to my hinged robo-brace: people talked to me all the time, either out of curiosity or because they had a knee story of their own. It was living on the opposite side of the planet for a while and I cannot say I came out of it a better person but maybe my perspective opened up a bit. I understood, like marrow-deep, the grounding gift of one day at a time. One breath at a time, if need be.
I wish I could tell you that my story went like this: I spent some time in the weeds, and it made me stronger and ready to take on the world with real long-time sobriety. But I haven’t written that story yet. My story is frustrating, a book you want to throw at the wall. Jesus, get your shit together. I get sick of my story too, believe me, and I know the head-shaking disbelief that comes when the plot circles back on itself yet again.
A while back, a counselor gave me a copy of this poem. I keep it nearby, I read it at least once a week. It gives me hope, even when I feel hopeless.
My leg is mostly fine now. Not completely back to normal, but maybe a new normal. Sometimes it flares up, it’s untrustworthy, a wobbling system error and I don’t know why. Other times I feel steady, capable and balanced: I’ve got this. Maybe this is how it is now. Or maybe it just needs more time, one day after another.