“You can’t scare me, I’m a parent.”
I heard this often in my adult life from friends and acquaintances with children. Sometimes it would be in response to how difficult something would be, other times it was a reaction to current events.
I always thought it was a ridiculous statement. How could making a baby possibly warrant the same kind of language used to describe the heroism of first responders? After all, billions of people have kids. That kind of superhuman bravery couldn’t possibly be ubiquitous.
I didn’t understand. Now that I’m a dad, I get it. The statement is accurate. This is the hardest job I’ve ever had and it consumes every fiber of my being.
I heard a great explanation of what parenthood was like from an unlikely source. I was driving in Chicago in June 2019, just before my first Father’s Day, listening to sports radio. The young co-host told his gruff, chain-smoking colleague that he would soon be a father. The guy with the raspy voice responded (paraphrasing, it’s been a while)-
“Welcome to the most fulfilling and beautiful journey of your life, my friend. Everything you didn’t know you were missing will emerge from your soul every time you hold your child. Love you didn’t know you could possess will fill your heart whenever your beautiful son stares up into your eyes. You and your wife created life, and life will never be the same again.”
“Alright! Looks like Lester gets the start tonight, which means the Cubs can expect an opposing lineup filled with right-handed bats. Let’s see if he can recover from the shellacking he took last time he took the mound…”
(Rubbing tears from my eyes) “That was beautiful, Smoker Cough Sports Guy. I’m not crying; you’re crying.”
This article was originally titled, “Life, Death, and Why I’m Not Writing”. I designed it as an outlet for my emotions in describing the challenges of parenting while simultaneously coping with the death of my father. I wanted to tell my readers that I hadn’t disappeared, but was simply on a writing hiatus as I dealt with a new set of challenges.
Then Covid-19 happened.
My parenting journey entered a new level of difficulty. My hero doctor wife always had long days at the hospital. That’s why parenting was really challenging for me, because I had to shoulder the role of primary caregiver while also working full-time as a teacher and coach. I’d come home from a long day and immediately start my second, much harder job of solo dad to a demanding and smart daughter. I worked my ass off trying to keep up with her, waiting desperately for question mark o’clock when my wife would finally come home.
During the Covid Quarantine, there was no morning commute. There was no 11-hour day teaching and coaching. There was no commute home. There was no nanny for the hours I was regularly at work.
There was only my daughter. I also had to continue teaching and grading the work of all 115 of my students while trapped in a studio apartment alone with my daughter.
I don’t know how we survived.
It’s hard to describe to those who aren’t also swinging bottles in the parenting arena, but I’ll do my best. I remember seeing grim-faced mothers carrying their kids around in public, and thinking, “Damn, that lady is pissed!”
I know now that the look I thought was anger wasn’t anger at all. It was focus. Parenting is a constant barrage of low-level calculations that run through my head at all times. Where is my daughter in the cycle? Sleep. Eat. Play. Learn things. Wind-down. Nap. Bottle. Play. Learn stuff. Big eat. Bath. Wind-down. Big sleep.
How successful were each of these steps? Any C+ or worse score in any of those fields has the risk factor of making all future activities really suck, potentially leading to a full-on scream fest. Ace them all, and there will be peace. Kid will be happy. Dad will be happy. Maybe I’ll even get something done other than holding my baby. Maybe I’ll even get the chance to tidy up and make my apartment not look like a hybrid between a dysfunctional daycare and the smelly hovel of a disgusting college kid.
Is there somewhere she has to be, like an appointment? Do I have to journey with her to run errands? That’s hard enough to do in non-Covid times. Now it involves keeping us safe in a world that feels like Beetlejuice’s terrain right outside the house’s door. All while managing that cycle and trying to hold everything together.
Trying to do work while doing that? Honestly, the work of parenting itself isn’t that intellectually rigorous. It just occupies a crap ton of mental energy. It’s like a computer with all these processes running in the background. I try to load a new process like…
RUN PROGRAM: MY EFFING JOB
(Warning Message from Program)
“My Effing Job runs best on this configuration. Please close all background processes and continue.”
(RUNS PROGRAM ANYWAY)
(PROGRAM LAGS AND EVENTUALLY CRASHES)
One difference-in real life, I don’t have the option of control-alt-deleting my way out of that. I have to continue trying to run my life on that slow-ass Windows 7, jacked-up laptop with all those background processes slowing it down…
Crazy thing is, I’ve become really good at keeping her happy. Most days she does just fine. I just end them completely exhausted with a to-do list that expands exponentially with each passing day. A particularly exhausting part of it is how mechanistic the daily tasks of parenting are, while simultaneously the heart feels such a strong emotional bond with my daughter. I’ll sing through gritted teeth when my little girl is crying because I know that pulling that lever will eventually stop the waterworks and the heart-wrenching noise.
There is zero joy in that song after verse 7.
My Avery goes over the ocean….my Avery goes over the seaaaaa
…my Avery goes over the ocean….so bring back my Avery to meeee. Bring back (pat her back twice) bring back (pat twice) bring back my Avery to me, to me…
That is a sequence I’ve repeated for hours on end. The delta between the love in my heart and the mechanistic nature of parenting actions is one of my primary sources of exhaustion.
It is an additional challenge to decide whether I want to do basic tasks with one hand, or as quickly and efficiently as possible, hoping my child doesn’t freak out, fall, or get into trouble.
Basic tasks like mixing a bottle of formula together, going to the bathroom, or pouring a cup of coffee are much more complicated with a baby. Do you enjoy the feeling of being in the TSA line at the airport? How fun is it to do basic tasks like taking shoes on and off, or putting laptops and toiletries into bins, all while under pressure to do these tasks as quickly as possible with a full line of people waiting behind you?
That’s life as a parent. You’re one-handed or you’re in a permanent TSA line. I’ll often choose the one-handed option. Even though I’ve become pretty skilled at the baby TSA line (the key is to move efficiently, minimizing movement, and not fast, because fast=mistakes).
Imagine taking a piss while holding a 25-pound squirming bowling ball. Or dropping a deuce while trying to keep a child entertained. You can always just put the kid in the crib while you do these tasks. But then you gotta do the math of whether it’s worth it to calm the kid back down when she scream cries because you’re out of sight. Is that 30-second piss worth 30 minutes of soothing and calming? Is the 3-minute deuce? I’ll be honest, I’ve sacrificed and accepted a 30-45 minute soothe session after the crib for a 5-minute coffee break. These are the choices I make minute by minute. They’re exhausting.
Another source of exhaustion is feeling utterly alone all the time, despite the fact that I never have a moment to myself. The nature of my wife’s work compounds that problem. There are days when she comes home, and it feels like that moment in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Gandalf appears on the horizon during the climatic siege, and rides in on his white horse to defeat the orcs and save the day.
However, some days my wife would get home and hold the baby around 8 or 9PM (when she left home at 530AM), and I’d finally breathe and start dinner, rejoicing because I had free hands. Within minutes, her pager goes off.
“Sorry, babe. Level one trauma. I gotta go back.”
(Internally screaming NOOOOOOOO)
It’s like Gandalf appears. He fulfilled his promise!
At dawn, on the 5th day, look to the East…
There he is! There’s Gandalf! We’re saved!
(Gandalf stops his horse right before the charge. Checks his pager. Shakes his head and rides off in the direction he came, leaving me alone with the orcs.)
What can I say. I know her job is much harder. But that doesn’t mean my job isn’t also really freaking hard. I have all the time in the world to just sit there and think about stuff. I think about all the stay-at-home moms and dads out there who are also just sitting on the couch, holding a baby, thinking about stuff. The amount of talent and intellectual depth of thought that is occurring across the nation at any given moment is mind-boggling. Just in my own circle, I know a high school valedictorian, a theologian, a brilliant lawyer, an education professor and former candidate for public office, a MENSA member, a talented chef, and a bilingual scholar of library science, among many others, who are just sitting on their couches thinking about stuff, holding babies.
Want to know why we’re always on social media? Because that’s our freaking lifeline to the world. There’s only so much kids TV I can watch before I have to scroll through something with intellectual rigor beyond shapes and colors. I’ll make the claim that there are few groups in American society who are more well-informed than stay-at-home parents.
I’ll close this treatise (that I’m writing on my phone, pardon the typos) with three sets of lists. My survival kit of things I use almost daily in solo dad life, people I respect, and people who really annoy me.
Phone. Coffee. NBC. Local News, then The Today Show. I will admit, I know the theme songs and side effects of all of those pharmaceutical ads for people who poop too much, people who can’t poop, and people who have skin problems and can finally wear tank tops again. Bottle Warmer. Pepto Bismol, because I don’t have time to cook for myself, eat like a drunk teenager, and there definitely is no time for my stomach to be jacked up. Something musical to occupy my daughter that she might play a while in her corner and give me some blessed moments alone. The Octonauts on Netflix Kids. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for when she’s asleep and Dad can watch something other than Peso the Penguin and Captain Barnacle. Her Jumper-when she was younger she would stay in that thing for over 20-30 minutes. Her Bouncer when she was a newborn. Binky clips. Rice puffs and teething biscuits to keep her occupied and happy when she gets fussy before it’s even close to nap time. Whisky for when wife finally gets home.
Folks I Respect
My Own Parents And In-Laws. Good God. They kept us all alive when we gave them years and years of this treatment. No wonder parents get crazy drunk at 10am when they get a vacation to themselves. I understand now.
Parents with more than one kid. I’m having all of these problems on rookie mode. You guys are on expert. Bless you.
Single moms/dads- I get few breaks, but they do happen. You guys …bless you.
Parents of children with special needs- Love and hugs to you. If multiple kids or single parenting are expert modes, you all are on superhero mode. I salute you and tell you, you’re doing great.
Folks coping with infant loss, miscarriages, and infertility. I cannot even comprehend your sacrifice and pain. I understand my daughter is a blessing. I pray for you all regularly. I want you to experience, as that sports broadcaster noted, all of the love, fulfillment, and challenges associated with this amazing journey.
My Nanny- We’re moving away. I’ll miss her. She’s incredible. I don’t know how she spent 12 hours alone with my daughter and kept the place clean…all with a joyful smile. Nannies out there, you’re an essential part of the parenting equation. Lots of love and respect.
Folks Who Annoy Me
The “You Asked for This” Schadenfreude Jerks- You enjoy watching us struggle? You happy that you don’t have a kid? Or do you also have a kid and are enjoying being miserable with friends?
You don’t have to go out of your way to express that to us when we’re on the struggle bus. “This is what you signed up for!” is not a helpful statement. You feel that way? Fine. Keep your Schadenfreude to yourself. If you go out of the way to post that comment or make that contribution to the conversation, I might either ignore you or nod politely. Internally, I’m thinking about how much you suck right now.
The Judgy McJudgersons- I understand this one a little more than the Gleeful Schadenfreuders. It’s hard not to judge when a kid on level-18 funkout enters your orbit. Like, damn, why is that kid here? You brought your kid on a plane/to a restaurant/to the store/etc.
I was ignorant. I’ve done all those things. There’s no choice in many of these cases, especially the plane ride. 2.5 hours of awful definitely beats an 11-hour drive and diaper rash. As for the bar/grill (at least in Pre-Covid times) that was necessary for sanity. It was also a place my daughter really enjoyed. She loves looking at all the different TVs and people.
You don’t like my kid there? Sorry. If you’re childless I understand. You’re ignorant about this reality. I was once you. Maybe some day you’ll get it. Maybe not.
If you’re a parent and you’re in this category, you’re even worse. You’re not ignorant; you’re a Pharisee. You do understand how it is, but you’ve either forgotten or consider yourself to be superior. “Oh, I praise you, God, that I’m not like that parent over there. MY child is a little angel. MY parenting techniques would never allow this travesty of misbehavior to occur. Those parents are such sinners”.
Stuff it. All y’all can judge somewhere else. Show some grace, please. Or at the very least, silence.
The Unsolicited Advice Givers- Lots of time that we parents are complaining, we’re just venting. We need a place to just release some tension. If I’m venting to you, I consider you a friend. I trust you.
Don’t ruin that moment with random advice. I get the impulse. But I’m not looking for that. If I want advice, I’ll straight up ask for it. If I’m telling you about how much things suck right now, the right response is simply, “Wow, man. That sucks. Sorry, bud.”
Take this scenario-
“Dammit, my kid just won’t sit still during diaper changes. It’s like, don’t touch down there, girl! I only have 6 wipes left in this box!”
“Oh, that’s on you, bro. If you sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the key of E-major and rub her feet softly, she’ll be still and compliant. Everyone knows this.”
“Thanks, guess I’ll try that.” (Internal voice: What a pompous ass).
Oh, and if you’re a non-parent who feels compelled to give this advice? Like Walter says in The Big Lebowski, “Donnie, you’re out of your element!”
If you’re a parent, I know you want to jump in with your secret remedy here. I love talking parenting strategies as well. But if you do that, you’re not making us feel better in this moment. You’re changing the conversation from “It be like that sometimes” to “You are failing as a parent and this is your fault”.
The former is a much better conversation.
The “My Pet Equals Your Kid” Crowd
No. Just no. Don’t even start with that noise. I don’t want to hear about how Whiskers missed the litter box that one time. You and I are not the same.
I know how blessed we are. Our child is healthy and happy. We have a roof over our heads and jobs to pay the bills.We have two parents and a nanny. In all possible quantitative parameters, we are incredibly privileged.
That doesn’t mean that this isn’t really, really hard.
“You can’t scare me; I’m a parent” is a true statement. No matter how hard it gets, we’ve seen some things and we are all emotionally and physically exhausted.
Heroism is indeed more ubiquitous than I thought. Everyone sacrificing a part of themselves to make the world a safe place for the next generation is a hero.
There are billions of heroes existing every day alongside one another.
Let’s do our best to show each other some grace and a modicum of respect. In this contentious age, we have more in common than we realize.