8.02.2009

Let Sleeping Babies Lie

Sometimes I feel like being a dad is more than I can handle. Taking care of the children? That, I can handle. If that were all there was to parenting, my job would be a breeze. But the hard part of parenting is that other half.

Kids aren't just pets needing food, water, a chew toy, and a warm place to sleep. They are little people -- little people that are going to grow up to be big people. And they don't know how to be big people. It is up to Angie and I to teach them that part. The onus of that role can be overwhelming for many reasons.

For starters, sometimes I don't think I know how to be a big person. I stumble my way through my own life wishing I had clear answers to all of life's questions, clear goals with a clear path to attain them... I rarely have any of those things.

Nonetheless, I do my best to teach my girls what I can, inventing the material (and often the teaching methods) as I go. That seemed to work well for the first three or four years. After all, for those years I was The Daddy (TM), the source of all that is fun, good, and happy. But things have gotten much harder now that Anna and Claire have gotten older. They have (dare I say it?) caught onto the fact that I'm not always 100% sure, 100% right, and 100% consistent. They're like the veliciraptors in Jurassic Park (I can't believe I'm making this reference) testing the fences systematically, looking for any weakness that can be exploited. And when they find those weaknesses, they take full advantage.

But that's what kids are good at, right? Learning? I mean, come on, in their first two years, they learn a foreign language starting from zero while they are simultaneously going through the most rigorous "physical therapy" sessions they will ever encounter: learning to use their entire bodies at once.

So by that count, I certainly can't blame them for the learning thing. But there's the rub. I try to teach them. I try very hard. I try to be consistent and loving and stable and accurate and all of that. And I think I am doing a fairly good job at those things. They still fight with each other, though. They are disrespectful to each other, and even to Angie and I. They say "hate". They stick out tongues. They scream, kick, and pout. (Yes, I know I do those things, too, sometimes... but not in front of the kids.)

What makes it hard, what makes me hate (oops... just said it) being a parent sometimes, isn't per se that they do those things. It's that I view those actions as marks of my own failure. It's that I already poured myself into the task of trying to teach them not to do those things, but I apparently didn't get it right. I run out of ideas. I can't think of another way of saying, "hitting your sister or anybody else is not the correct response when your gum falls out of your mouth." At times, I just run dry.

Lately I've felt like I was going through an extended period of dad burn-out. I still smile with them. I hug them, give them kisses, go to their shows, help them pick out dresses and all the usual daddy stuff. But if I'm honest, way down deep, I don't feel it. I don't enjoy being a parent. That's been the sum of it for the last few weeks. All of that has left me feeling frustrated and powerless. Oh, and grouchy.

And now comes the part about how an hour at Starbucks changed that. No, it doesn't have anything to do with coffee (come on... like caffeinating wasn't the first thing I tried...).

We went shopping after lunch today. For shoes. Yay, my 11th favorite kind of shopping. The girls all needed new shoes, and Angie happened to notice after lunch that we were near her all-time-favoritest-shoe-store-in-the-whole-entire-world (No, I'm not going to tell you the name). I grudgingly acquiesced to her pleas, on behalf of the children of course, and we headed to the store.

Of course, sometime between when our left turn signal turned on and when we actually turned into the parking lot, Katherine (nickname: "I-don't-sleep-in-the-car-EVER") fell into that deep, impermeable reserved-for-toddlers-and-rest-home-patients slumber. She was out like a light.

Shoe shopping potentially interrupted by sleeping toddler, from the mother's perspective: CATASTROPHE.

Shoe shopping potentially interrupted by sleeping toddler, from the father's perspective: OPPORTUNITY.

I eased the sleeping child from her seat, and issued the grand gesture of a father greatly appreciating the chance to escape the shoe store: I nodded toward the adjacent Starbucks. "I'll be in there," I mouthed.

Okay, I admit it. I probably could have shouted "HONEY, I'M A-GOIN' TO STARBUCKS TO GET ME SOME LATTE!," and Katherine wouldn't have so much as snorted. The motioning and mouthing -- those were theatrics. They were to explain to Angie that My first concern is, of course, the well-being of our child who so obviously needs to stay conked out while Daddy gets his coffee fix and lounges in big overstuffed eggplant-colored chair.

I headed off the the shop, bought a drink, and sat down. Katherine fidgeted a bit during the whole checkout experience, but as soon as I sat down, she went completely limp. She was fast asleep, drooling (as I learned later) all over me. She was spread-eagled across my chest and lap, with her head on my shoulder and her nose pressed into my neck. In short, the moment she went limp, I was immobilized.

So I sat.

I sat for a long time.

I sat immobilized for a long time.

I sweated a lot, too, because a limp sleeping toddler emits more heat per hour than the entire Sahara dessert emits in a year. (Some day I will prove that.)

But, as any father will attest, holding a sleeping child when there's just nothing else you can do about it is an existential experience. I found myself thinking about life, about fatherhood, about Anna and Claire when each of them was Katherine's age. A few times, I caught myself thinking, "I'll do better with this one. I'll be more effective." But I knew I had nothing new to offer Katherine over what I'd offered Anna and Claire. Some day, I thought, I'd be telling Katherine, "Don't hit your sister! Don't sass your mom!" Yes, this precious, innocent, pretty-much-perfect-in-every-way girl would some day be a velociraptor detecting every parental inconsistency in my regime.

The convergence of "Anna and Claire the velociraptors" with "Katherine the Innocent" took an odd turn in my mind. I remembered Claire bringing crying Katherine her blanky. I remembered Anna pushing Katherine in the stroller. She wore an expression of pride that rivaled my own. This is my baby sister, and I take good care of her. As I thought, I realized that for the most part, all three of the girls were happy, polite, and loving. I could, without any trouble whatsoever, imagine each of them growing up to lead successful lives with happy, meaningful relationships. Yes, my parenting wasn't (and never will be) perfect. Yes, they will learn how to take advantage of my lapses and omissions. But if I keep working hard to model positive behavior for them, they were going to learn that, too.

Oddly enough, that realization led to one more: I do, in fact, actually enjoy being a parent. Why else would I be sitting at a Starbucks with a giant stream of drool running down my shoulder for all the world to see while remaining basically immobile under a 24 pound squishy space heater? And why would I look forward, on every evening commute home, to opening the front door? Why would I get up early to take a walk with Anna? Or spend a few minutes playing with dolls with Claire?

Sometimes parenting sucks. Sometimes I hate it. But those are just moments. The plain old vanilla fact of the matter, though, is that I am absolutely 100% in love with three little girls and their mom. A few bad moments? Meh. It's a small price to pay.

By the way, can you pass me that latte there? I'd get it myself, but I've got this kid sleeping on my shoulder....

1 comment:

Angie said...

I love it when Matt writes here - he embraces me and our life together with words.

What a beautiful expression of your emotion.

I love you.

Happy Anniversary. This part of our lives is such a small part of our lifetime together.