There is a special kind of parental suckage when it comes to your child experiencing the exact same struggles you did, isn’t there? I still remember how I hated homework when I was in elementary school, and how I chose every single increasingly problematic alternative to knuckling down and getting it done. It was miserable then, and now that I have a child who views homework much as I used to, it is miserable now.

Riley mostly got on board with my eat-your-frog approach to homework, and this year he has none outside of reading — fifth grade apparently decided to opt out, for reasons that aren’t fully clear to me. (I’m not really complaining, except that 1) it’s not consistent with other grades, and 2) it seems like middle school is going to be one holy hell of a transition.) Dylan in third grade, on the other hand, has quite a bit, and he’s a completely different kid when it comes to schoolwork. He’s bright, he’s capable … and he’s stubborn as a goddamned mule.

He has no internal motivation to get it done, he rushes the instructions then can’t figure out what he needs to do, he shuts down almost immediately and becomes surly and uncooperative. He’s also eight, so, you know, I realize things aren’t exactly dire, here. That rabbit hole of doom has such a pull to it, though.

My least favorite assignment is the daily response journal. I remember Riley slogging through this a couple years ago: the idea is to read a short chapter or two in a small provided book each day, then write your responses in a notebook. Response meaning how did you feel about the story, did you like it, what do you think is going to happen next, that sort of thing, as opposed to a summary of what happened. Dylan gets stuck on wanting to recap the basics of the plot, and when I try and help, I end up putting words in his mouth. His memory isn’t a problem, nor is is grasp of language, exactly … it’s the part of reading where the book comes alive in your imagination. That’s not happening.

This seems in line with his preference for picture books as opposed to chapter books. He’s a dreamy kid that spends a lot of time in his own head, but books aren’t his thing, at least not yet. The response journal activity is surely intended to teach him reading comprehension, but it’s an uphill battle at the moment. I hate everything about reading being a dreaded chore, where something I wish was enjoyable just feels like punishment to both of us. I hate the fact that I already went through this homework nightmare, and here I am again, seeing things in a new perspective from which — surprise! Sorry, Mom! — it turns out the whole experience is even crappier.

Most of all, I hate that the familiar terrain doesn’t give me any special superpowers to help my kids avoid the same pits I fell into. Third grade homework aside, I am thinking of larger problems they may come to face one day. There is almost nothing I fear more than my children facing addiction. I know one thing isn’t necessarily connected to the other, but it sort of feels that way, in my heart. Like a thousand landmines tied together with string, and I am afraid I don’t have the strength and wisdom to help guide them into the clear.

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.

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