“This is the best age,” said an elderly woman at the park, smiling at my three-year-old son. I exchanged a polite smile. But what I really wanted to say is “Are you kidding me? This creature is a monster.”
When my son turned three, bad behavior escalated to a miserable level. I was caught off guard because I bought into the myth of the “terrible twos” and thought I was doing well enduring toddlerhood until BAM! my son turned three and things got real. I found myself missing my tantrum-throwing two-year-old who was mostly cute and a source of laughter. I was stuck with a threenager (now I fully understand why this term is used) and wished to thump on the forehead those who claimed two was the the worst age. They were full of it.
If you are like me, you will need help surviving this trying age. So, I’ve collected frequently-asked-questions and done my best to answer them as truthfully as possible. I hope they prove helpful. Remember, it’s not too late to consider adoption.
Q: Why are three-year-olds so awful?
A: Why is the grass green? The sky blue? I don’t know. I’m sure a children’s psychologist could offer an answer to why Mother Nature requires this developmental stage but all I can do is open your eyes to the fresh hell you are entering. Prepare yourself for chaos. A few weeks ago, I sat on my comfy couch reading the New York Times, sipping fresh coffee, engrossed in a story. In the middle of the article, a thirty-five pound force busted through the paper like a high school football player running through a banner. I jumped out of my skin. Coffee spilled on my lap. I uttered a unmentionable word. And you know what the lil’ jerk did. Laughed. He laughed at my scalded crotch. Despite my best efforts to deter this behavior, the kid does it to me every Sunday morning and laughs in my face. I don’t drink coffee while reading the newspaper anymore.
Q: What motivates the three-year-old?
A: A three-year-old has one goal: the decimation of your psychological well being. They are experts at pushing your limits until your mental health dangles by a thread and then, sensing weakness, press harder. In their gleeful eyes, you can see their calculations to undo you.
I typed on my laptop at the kitchen table. My son leaned against my shoulder trying different tactics to divert my attention. Banging on keyboard. Yelling. Sticking fingers in my mouth. When his efforts failed he dug in his nose and wiped the largest booger/snot rocket combo to come out of a little person’s nose across my computer screen. I looked at him startled. “How about that?” he said, giggling, proud of his handwork. The snot ran down the screen and forced me to stop and clean it. Did he get my attention? Yes, he did.
Q: How bad can it get?
A: The month my son turned three his ability to listen shut off and his goal to undermine my sanity rose to the top of his toddler bucket list, right above visiting LegoLand. Damn kid doesn’t hear a word coming out of my mouth unless it involves gummi worms, monster trucks, or watching Paw Patrol. Typical toddler behaviors like screaming, kicking, and throwing escalate but I believe the psychological warfare waged by three-year-olds is an act of evil.
The most effective tactic of the three-year-old is taking a simple activity/interaction and making it as difficult as possible. For instance, exiting the car so we don’t miss our doctor’s appointment turns into a ten minute negotiation/wrestling match. Here is my son’s latest trick: he will beg forever to do something like go outside or to the playground and as soon as I give in and fully prepare us for agreed upon activity he will reverse his decision, refusing to participate. It sounds benign, but when a child does it 300 hundred times a day it qualifies as torture.
Q: What to do if you snap?
A: Throw them in the woods.
Q: Is it possible to survive them?
A: Yes. It is possible but you will need to learn coping skills. Here are a few of mine: king size Kit-Kats, Cokes, Cajun Filet Chicken Biscuits, and potato wedges from the grocery deli.
This age sucks. But I’m trying to keep in mind it is a phase like all other phases of a child’s development. It shall pass. Maybe not as soon as I would like but it will pass. It always does. A veteran parent once told me, “if he is still acting like this when he is sixteen let me know and we’ll take him to a psychologist, otherwise just let it be.”
So, my only advice is laugh when you get the chance. Take breaks. Laugh at the absurdity of it all. Take more breaks. Laugh so you don’t toss your child in the woods.
Thank you for the advice. You have obviously picked me out as a parent in need of caregiving tips. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy, demanding cashier job to offer me parenting wisdom. I know you didn’t have to do this. I expected to pass unnoticed throughout the 15 items or less line but you took the time to inquire about my parenting abilities. Thank you.
Your questioning moved beyond the surface level, beyond “how are you today” and “how old is he” to real talk. I knew from the look in your eye I was going to get more from you than I asked for. You are clearly a generous person.
“Here is my best advice for you,” you said, unprompted. Somehow you knew I was looking for a wise soul to drop parenting insights on me. My lucky day. There are so few people willing to speak to complete strangers about childrearing practices. But you stepped up to the plate. And you delivered. You payed it forward.
I was distracted trying to keep my two-year-old son from doing a nosedive from the shopping cart, while flipping through my keyring for my Kroger card, but you intuited what I needed, advice on swim lessons. “Start them early,” you said, “get them in the water now so they will not be scared later.” You proceeded to go on a lengthy lecture, including your experience in the water with children. It was TED Talk caliber. I kept waiting for a screen to drop from the ceiling and an elaborate slide presentation. You were that convincing.
Despite the fact my child already attended multiple swim lessons last summer, I did not interrupt you because you were so eloquent. Perhaps, insightful is a better word. You dug deep into your mastery and helped me to better understand the psychology of small children and swimming pools. Your analysis of the relationship between toddlers and water explained things in a way that, finally, made sense. Again, thank you.
I should note that I couldn’t help but notice the antsy customers lining up behind me as you shared your wisdom. Yet, you put them aside and focused on what really mattered: giving swimming advice to a parent who already suffered through a water gurgling nightmare at the local YMCA. Despite the people behind me fidgeting and clearing their throats, you maintained eye contact. YOU put your job on the line to help a parent. Where are all the wise elders like you in the world? The committed souls who choose to step forward and give unsolicited parenting advice in difficult circumstances. We need more people like you.
When I got home I shared our exchange with my wife at the dinner table. She too gained from your knowledge. She too realized your genius. We are now considering switching grocery stores. Once again, thank you.
I’m not that kind of guy. I’m loyal. A man committed to regular Cheerios. Sure, sometimes I try apple cinnamon and honey nut, but I always come back to my steady. My plain pulverized oats.
I rolled my cart past you, but the next week I saw you again and gazed at your burnt orange box. On your cover, the miniature pumpkin and bundled cinnamon sticks, artfully arranged next to a wooden spoon, caused my hands to tingle. I resisted but knew it was only a matter of time. I would give myself to your seasonal spices.
At home, I stalked you on-line. I read your reviews. I studied your ingredients: 6 parts ground cinnamon, 1 part nutmeg, 1 part ginger, 1/2 part allspice, and 1/2 part ground cloves.
For a few days, I forgot about you until I returned to the store. In a moment of weakness, on a sleep deprived day with my toddler son in the cart, I drifted towards your end cap. I stared at your wall of burnt orange. I noticed your sale price and, finally, I grabbed you off the shelf and held you eye-level. I flipped you to your backside and found more cinnamon sticks and pumpkins. I could no longer resist you. I gave in to my desires.
At home, I hid you in the pantry between the Go Lean Crunch and Raisin Bran because I felt guilt. The moment I treasured most with you was during my son’s naptime when I poured a bowl of you and watched you turn my milk a shade of brown. Your pumpkin puree overwhelmed my taste buds. And left me with a belly full of regret. I knew I had betrayed my plain Cheerios.
At dinner, I told my wife what I had done. I asked her to keep an open mind. I told her I was experimenting. She shook her head and silently judged me. I felt like a seasonal sucker and owned by you and fallen to an onslaught of fall marketing madness. I told myself I would not taste you again.
So, I threw you in the trash because the emotional toll became too much. But a few hours later, after my wife went to bed, I retrieved you. I did this because things are so exciting when you are around. Yet, I know I can’t keep doing this. I feel torn. It’s too much. You have to go.
You know the feeling. The numbness in your brain, the hollow look in your eyes, and the uncertainty about when you last showered. It’s the feeling you get when you reach your parenting limits. When you are done.
If you are on the verge of a childcare meltdown, I’ve got a solution for you that involves laughter and a night spent with people who get your pain. You need The Pump and Dump. It’s a raw and honest show about parenting that will make you laugh so hard you’ll snort. This stay-at-home dad experienced the show last time it visited Nashville and cracked-up until his side hurt. (I wrote about it on Scary Mommy.)
So, if laughter and time away from your kids are not of interest to you, that is fine. But for the other 99.9% of parents, I suggest you purchase a ticket to The Pump and Dump. Here are five reasons (and five clips) to persuade you.
5. “Everybody needs a little me time for themselves.” Yep, you deserve a break. I’m talking about dropping your parenting duties and getting outside the four walls of your home. Let’s be honest. If you don’t get away from little people, you are gonna lose it. I think this clip will speak to your need to escape.
4. You need to laugh at your craziness. Parenting makes all of us a little bit nuts. It’s natural. When you are put in charge of a small human being it is easy to lose perspective. This song is about the bond (sometimes a bit crazy) that we form with our kids.
3. You need time with people who get the mind numbing work of parenting. Changing diapers. Filling bottles. Cleaning up playroom disasters. And, don’t forget, there is always that one thing you hate doing. The thing that kills your soul. Here is a clip about the pain of tedious parenting responsibilities.
2. You need to poke fun at your spouse. Are you not tired of their crap? If my wife emails me another parenting article about toddler discipline, I’m gonna lose my mind. Besides, it’s healthy to vent. The Pump and Dump takes a few jabs at dads, which I’m cool with because we can take it. To be fair, we really do need to quit acting like a baby wrap makes us a novelty. Although, I like the attention. I’m not gonna lie.
1. YOU need a little bit of affirmation. Seriously, parenting is hard work. It’s time to recognize the fact you are doin’ just fine. You are an awesome parent. Check out this song. It will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Just do it.
The Pump and Dump will be in Nashville this week (October 19th and 20th) and other cities across the country in the following weeks. If you need a laugh and a night away from the kids, ORDER TICKETS here. Don’t worry. The show lasts an hour and a half so you can be in bed by ten. See you there!
When I resigned from my job to care for our infant son, I fancied myself the perfect progressive father. One year later, I’m an isolated, energy-sapped, diaper-dodging mess, wondering if I’ll ever be able to make this work.
I bounce Henry on my shoulder at two o’clock in the morning. He moans and raises his head to survey the dark living room. He stares over my shoulder, eyes wide open, examining the shadows. Breast milk soaks my t-shirt, along with drool created by tiny, jagged teeth piercing his gums. I push his head back down with my palm, but he resists and releases a defiant scream. I bounce. I bargain with myself. I would donate a kidney for a full night’s rest. I would empty my checking account for a nap. I would never eat again at Five Guys Burgers for a few moments to shut my eyes.Outside, the red line train hums at its stop near our fifth-floor apartment. My foggy brain registers the conductor’s muffled voice echoing from the speaker. Chicago stills during the early morning hours, but our living room remains active; a street light glimmers between the blinds. I bounce. Henry’s hot breath rushes from his lungs. The train departs, humming northbound into the night.
I lower us to a multicolored foam play mat and lie flat on my back. Henry leans on my chest like a professional wrestler pinning his opponent. I close my eyes. The toilet flushes in the apartment next door, my neighbor ridding herself of another cigarette butt. While Henry listens to the rushing water, I consider my options: toss him out the window or ask my wife for help. However, neither of these options are included in the deal. I am on the clock, so I must remain conscious, battling an opponent with a delicious scalp and wonderfully chubby legs. Wandering through my hazy mind, I attempt to remember why I signed up for this job.
While staring at the ceiling, my mind focuses on choices made after Henry’s birth. I embraced visions of myself as a hip, progressive father — a modern dad unburdened by rigid, traditional views of fatherhood, a man not forced to divide the roles of provider and protector from nurturer and caregiver. At the end of spring, I resigned from a soul-sucking job to care for Henry, four months old, while Cara returned to work at a non-profit in the heart of the city. We desired to leave behind suburban life and a lengthy commute, well suited for many families, but stressful and impossible in our particular situation. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the north side of Chicago, near Lake Michigan, a promising place to stroll along the shore.
* * *
On a balmy summer morning, a week later, I walk the streets of Chicago carrying Henry in a long, green band of cloth wrapped around my torso. He flails his arms and kicks his legs against my waist, studying passersby. We absorb the light reflecting off Lake Michigan’s choppy surface while walking Jolene, our thirty-pound sheltie mix.
“Did you tie the wrap?” women ask.
“Yes, I watched the YouTube instructional video a thousand times,” I respond.
The soft wrap becomes a projection screen on which others display their parenting views. Women offer warm smiles, sometimes clapping. Men stare, dressed in their sleek suits, with furrowed brows. A teenage boy, arms hooked with his girlfriend, whispers loud enough for me to overhear, “Now, that’s the image of a man.” Another scruffy, bearded man in his twenties, standing on a busy street corner, points and roars. The neighborhood policeman leaning against the wall of the 7-11 informs me, “The first time I saw you wearing this thing, I thought you were Middle Eastern.” It is an odd thing to hear said to a pale, blue-eyed male with a Southern accent.
The wrap and I become one. I wear Henry to prepare dinner. I wear him on the subway. I wear him to the DMV. In line, a young woman with fashionable short hair approaches me to discuss the wrap. For ten minutes, she tells me about her experience with the wrap and how she proudly avoided a stroller. She speaks like we are members of a special baby-wearing club. Before moving on, she nods as if we are part of a movement. I nod back.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, six months old and wrapped against my chest, Henry studies the museum visitors nearby, resting fingers on their chins. Contemplating Picasso’s Mother and Child, I absorb the rich grey, brown and flesh tones, amplified by the neutral white wall. I recognize the mother’s gaze. I saw it on my own face in a photograph taken on the day my son was born. The mother tilts her head downward and stares into the eyes of the infant anchored in her lap. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person. Her large, rounded features provide a haven; her tender eyes underpin the playful baby, holding his foot. The mother’s gaze shines a light into the recesses of my heart, into a part of myself I was conditioned to hide. Her tethered soul sends blood rushing through my chest.
I learn that Picasso, in the early stages of the painting, included a father next to the mother and child — a father who stood over the boy, dangling a fish; a father who disappeared; a father covered with layers of paint as if he never existed. The warmth in my chest fades.
I cannot offer a precise definition of a father, because there are as many types of fathers as creatures in Lake Michigan. I consider that many children equate fathers with absence. Fathers absent by choice or from circumstances beyond their control. Fathers not known and children reaching for their ghosts.
* * *
“How was the day?” Cara asks.
“We survived,” I mumble.
Henry drops his bottle and lunges from my lap to crawl toward his mother. Cara sets her work bag on the table and embraces him, their faces gleaming. I sit down on the gray IKEA couch to regroup and brainstorm dinner plans. The odor from a diaper explosion lingers in the trashcan and our one-bedroom apartment appears to have been ransacked by thieves. The floor is a minefield of Cheerios, wooden blocks, and teether toys.
During the bedtime routine, I retreat to the bathroom, a closet-sized, windowless space. While the fiberglass tub slowly fills with hot water, I shut the door and turn off the lights. Pipes whistle in the walls, guiding water to rooms throughout the building. Stale cigarette smoke creeps through the vents courtesy of my chain-smoking neighbor. As I lie down, ripples splash against the tub and back against the sides of my body in the pitch-black room. For a few minutes, I close my eyes as the water stills.
When motivation arrives, I reach outside the tub for the iPad planted on the floor nearby, and rest it securely on my chest. The screen flashes large, red block letters on an inky background. An endless menu appears, offering an escape. My scrolling index finger struggles to decide what to select. I should watch an award-winning foreign film. I should watch a documentary. I should watch a TED talk. I must not waste this opportunity. What I really want is to watch 1990s television. Don’t do it. You know you want to.
At the tap of my finger, the glass screen flickers, revealing an explosion, lifting flames high in the remote Wisconsin woods. Minutes later a deputy sheriff, first to arrive in the dense forest, approaches the fiery scene. He encounters a strange, invisible creature that scorches him to death. In rapid succession, the events hook me before the haunting theme song of “The X-Files” and its monster-of-the-week storytelling transports me into hazy nostalgia. I swallow it like a pill.
* * *
On a breezy fall afternoon a few months later, during a visit to Whole Foods, we strike the samples. I navigate the aisles with Henry wrapped to my chest, maximizing our sampling potential. The organic apples, tomatoes and squash sparkle in the florescent light. A blender buzzes in the corner. I pick up a black cherry, bite it in half, and lower it to his mouth like a mother bird. This moment ignites a genial surge in my heart, a memory I pledge to preserve, a memory I would not have expected a year ago. We share pineapple, fancy cheese, tortilla chips, bite-size pizza, and hummus. Despite knowing Whole Foods does not align with our budget, we eat a shameful amount. At any moment, I am certain a manager will ask us to leave. If so, it will be worth it.
As fall turns to winter and light fades to dark early in the evening, mysterious bites appear on our legs and arms. The exterminator examines the Ziploc bag containing the reddish-brown, oval parasites that crawled underneath a shared wall. He instructs us to vacate the apartment for several hours.
After returning home, Cara bounces Henry to sleep in the bedroom. The gas heat fails to keep up with single-digit temperatures. The Chicago winter, winds whipping and snow accumulating, shoves life indoors. Slowly, our one-bedroom apartment transforms into a cell, difficult to leave after dusk. I withdraw to the bathtub.
My iPad provides enough light to turn on the tub faucet and raise the water temperature. A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and rolls down the side of my face into the bathwater, while Fox Mulder, eccentric FBI agent and unexplained phenomena expert, enters the moonlit woods, racing to gather evidence from a crash site. While a strange, invisible creature lurks in the remote woods, escaping government officials, Mulder finds himself captured in a makeshift military jail. Dana Scully, Mulder’s straight-laced and skeptical partner, arrives to free him. She scoffs at his far-fetched explanation; he is frustrated with her naivety, but due to his confiscated camera there is no evidence to present her. Once again, the truth brushes against Mulder like a strange creature in the water before slipping away.
Here is my truth: I am scared. I do not know how I am going to make it through the winter. I feel isolated. Beyond caring for my son, I have no energy or presence to offer the world. I want to write, but a numb brain struggles to shift into gear. I want to enjoy the winter wonderland, but only see tundra.
* * *
In the depths of winter, I sit on a frigid toilet at three o’clock in the morning, one eye open, too tired to stand. Unable to sleep, I grab the flashlight to inspect my son’s crib for bedbugs. I scan the light over his tiny, perfect feet. No bugs. Next, I turn to our bed where my wife lightly snores. I wave the light over the mattress. No bugs. I inspect the box springs and frame. A reddish-brown speck is wedged in a corner crease. I spread the crease. The speck crawls. I grab it with a tissue and drop it in a sandwich-size bag.
I lie on the couch, resigned to the reality of bedbugs. Resigned to my isolated existence. Thoughts of failure spin in my mind. I am failing to keep bugs from biting my wife and son in the night. I am failing to provide for my family. I am failing to keep them from breathing secondhand smoke in our bedroom. The old tapes, ingrained in my brain from a hyper-masculine upbringing, play over and over in my mind.
At six o’clock in the morning, the State of the Union address delivered on the previous night plays on my iPhone. President Obama’s words fill the kitchen. I disassemble the coffee grinder, remove the stale grounds, and wipe it clean with a small brush. Steam raises the lid off the silver kettle on the stovetop; water spews from the narrow, s-shaped spout. Henry, on my hip, waves at the hissing kettle. I remove it from the stove eye. I tare the scale. I grind the beans until they are reduced to a sand-like texture. I pull the tray from the grinder and breathe the freshly ground beans. Henry leans his face over the tray and pretends to take a deep breath. His blue eyes widen. A burst of applause comes through the iPhone speaker.
I pour steaming water over grounds, which rest in a red, ceramic funnel on top of a glass pot. I pour enough to saturate them, causing the water and grounds to dance together, creating a mushroom-shaped bubble that collapses after thirty seconds, the signal for more water. I pour four hundred grams of water in a slow, circular motion; rich, brown liquid drips into the pot. My ears tune to the President’s words.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”
I recall a meeting before Henry’s birth. Responding to my request for paternity leave, my employer slides a thin piece of paper across the table, full of language resembling a legal contract. While reading the mechanical response, I shake my head at the decision to deny my request for two weeks of paid family leave. After three years, it is clear they do not value me, much less my pregnant wife; nor do they want to offer support when we need it most — hundreds of miles from our family and support network.
The coffee finishes dripping. I pour a steaming cup into a porcelain mug. Henry fidgets as the steam rises.
In the living room, while I sip my java, Henry rolls on the foam mat. Sharing five hundred square feet with a nearly one-year-old cellmate is like living inside a pinball machine. Henry bounces off the changing table, couch, kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, and television stand. In the afternoon, we shift to the hallway; he crawls and knocks on random doors, while our thick-haired Sheltie dutifully follows. Together, we inspect doormats and plug-in deodorizers; we ride the elevator.
To escape, in the middle of winter with several feet of snow piling on the ground, we scurry to Super Foods, a corner grocery below our apartment. A gust of wind burns my cheeks, forcing Henry to tuck his head in my chest. He whimpers. Upon entering the store, Henry emerges with two brown ears and limbs swallowed by the fleece bear outfit my mother mailed from Tennessee. He trades smiles with the cashiers and the owner, an elderly Eastern European man who mesmerizes Henry with his accent.
Henry and I squeeze past a line of customers wrapped in long winter coats and waiting to purchase lottery tickets. We plod across the cereal aisle examining box covers, spending several minutes admiring Toucan Sam and Lucky the Leprechaun. We land in the produce section. I quiz Henry. I hold potatoes, grapes, pineapples, broccoli and bananas in front of his face. “Ba-na-nas.” The corners on his face rise. “Ba-na-nas.” His lips open revealing his jagged teeth. “Ba-na-nas.” He giggles.
At the cash register, I purchase a bunch of bananas to justify the trip. The elderly Eastern European man amuses Henry with facial expressions. After their exchange, I hustle back to our fifth-floor cell, leaning into the face-numbing wind, holding a bear and bananas.
In the apartment, I sit Henry on the kitchen floor, place the bananas in the fruit basket, and remove our heavy clothing. I open the refrigerator door, grab the water pitcher and pour a glass. Henry crawls to the colorful containers resting on the wire shelving, while I slide to the floor and lean against the faux-wood kitchen cabinets and extend my legs into a V shape. The tile deadens the muscles in my ass. My sweatpants reveal stains ranging from coffee to breast milk to blueberry yogurt. Artificial light beams from the refrigerator, while the brutal wind whips against the windows of our apartment. Henry’s rounded legs squat to lower clanking salad dressing bottles to the floor. My neighbor’s door slams, echoing in the hallway.
I doubt you will find refrigerator entertainment as a technique in a legitimate parenting manual, but it’s the only trick left in my bag. Henry hands me a head of broccoli and wobbles back toward the manufactured light. Leftovers from breakfast burritos fill my nostrils. In a bottom drawer, he discovers a bag of grapes, removes one, and turns toward me, grinning; he holds the grape at eye level as if turning a precious stone in the light. I force the tired muscles in my face into a half-smile.
I glance at my iPhone’s display. My wife will not arrive home for another three hours. I am a shell of myself, beat down by a blue-eyed creature barely weighing twenty pounds. I do not know how to raise myself from the tile floor. I have the physical strength, but emotionally I am unable. I sit. Henry explores the refrigerator. I question my fitness to care for him. I don’t know why I thought I could do this by myself. Naivety. Delusion. Immaturity. I don’t know, nor do I understand how I got lowered to this tile floor.
* * *
On a Saturday morning a few days later, I walk Jolene along the shore. The edges of the dim, grey horizon blend with sheets of ice on Lake Michigan. Crisp air blows off the ice, drying my eyes. Layers extend from the shore beginning with several feet of snow resting on solid ice, which alters to floating ice chunks packed together, bumping into thin sheets expanding to the skyline. My butt rests on an ice block posing as a bench near the sidewalk that wraps around the water. I have not smelled anything since the exhaust I inhaled crossing Lakeshore Drive. My dog’s breath steams out of her nose.
I imagine the creatures beneath the coated lake, the freezing water driving them to the depths. Their movement limited. Their existence pressed downward. Down to the muddy bottom.
I do not remember the last time happiness surfaced and shattered the expanding sheets over my heart. My emotions do not move; they dive to the recesses of my heart. I want someone to launch a large, jagged rock on to the frozen surface. I want someone to shatter the layers, create a hole large enough for my feelings to rise. A gaping hole, so big, the person I once knew emerges from the dim waters. I will hand a rock to anyone willing to hurl it. I cannot do it myself.
* * *
Cara and I sit on the grey IKEA couch. I stare at tropical images shuffling on the flat-screen television. Henry sleeps in the bedroom. The red line train hums northward, while a man digging in a dumpster sings in the alley. Cara’s large green eyes scan our family budget on the laptop. Her shoulders sag and brow furrows.
“Here are three options,” I say. “First, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a full-time job and Henry will go to childcare. Second, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a flexible part-time job, continue caring for Henry, and we will squeak by financially. Third, we move to Tennessee and get closer to family and our support network.”
Cara studies the grim budget. She tends to be decisive. I debate, waver, and second-guess.
“We need to move to Tennessee,” she responds.
“We can stay here but we will need to…”
“No, we need to move. Life in Chicago with a child is not sustainable,” she says.
We sit on the couch. The decision made itself and provides relief despite being laced with failure. We will return seeking balance after our world was turned upside down, seeking to recover from the shock of parenthood. The grueling routine of childcare will remain, but we hope a wider circle of support will ease the burden. We will move forward not on our terms, but on Henry’s.
At the end of spring, we pack boxes and a handful of friends load our belongings on a rental truck. We abandon our couch and bed in the alley to avoid transporting bedbugs. On a Sunday morning, Cara and Henry board a flight to Nashville, while I stack the final boxes in the truck, pressing them inward with my shoulder as I pull the door down and secure the latch. I step into the cab, start the engine, and roll away from our apartment building. Our time in Chicago fades as life shoves us forward.
I merge on to Lake Shore Drive. The road winds southward along the shore to exit the city. People walk the beach and bounce volleyballs and toss Frisbees. I imagine the creatures below the surface, no longer coated with ice, and wonder what life stirs. For the next seven hours, I will sit alone in the truck wondering what life stirs within myself. Wondering if my soul will thaw. Wondering if my true self will return.
I’m excited to share two parenting websites that published my blog posts. Scary Mommy, a humor site, and Modern Parent Messy Kids, a creative resource site, featured my writing. I enjoy reading their articles and encourage you to do the same. Click on the links below. Hopefully, I will post new material over the weekend. I’m running behind because momma’s been traveling for work. I need to catch my breath and regain my sanity. I hope you are able to regain your sanity this weekend too. I’ll write soon!
P.S. If you are looking for a good read over the weekend, check out Momastery’s latest post. It’s full of beautiful, honest words for your soul.
I feel like a cat tangled in Christmas lights, and judging by the raised corners of my wife’s mouth, I need more practice.
Despite my messy effort to tie the Moby wrap, Cara lifts Henry, our newborn son, and slips one of his legs through the band of cloth hanging from my left shoulder, and does the same with my other shoulder. Strapped to my chest in the soft band of orange cloth, Henry fusses and nuzzles his nose into my breastbone. I kiss him on his delicious scalp.
“I’m either the coolest or weirdest dad on the planet,” I say.
Without Cara around the house in the daytime, I rely on YouTube for guidance. I enter “Moby wrap” into the search box. I hit play. A young woman appears on screen with a beaming smile, and skillfully wraps the long band of cloth around her torso while giving instructions. When she finishes, the wrap rests on her body like a fine piece of art. I hit play again. I follow her lead this time, but the end result is not promising. My wrap does not look fit to carry a frozen turkey, much less an infant. I hit play again.
Through his first year, Henry spends a good portion of the day in the wrap. I wear him to prepare dinner. I wear him on the subway. I wear him to the doctor’s office. I wear him to walk the dog. I wear him to the grocery store. I wear him to the DMV. I wear him to the art museum. We nap together with him on my chest.
When Henry learns to eat solid food we visit the brand-new Whole Foods in our neighborhood. The floors, walls, and fixtures sparkle in the florescent light. We walk by perfectly arranged organic fruit, fancy cheese displays, and an elaborate smoothie bar. The blender buzzes behind the counter. Freshly baked bread fills the air.
We know samples are plentiful in the afternoons, so we strike. The wrap allows us to navigate quickly through the store, maximizing our sampling potential. I pick up a sample, bite it in-half, and feed it to him in the wrap. We share black cherries, pineapple, fine cheese, tortilla chips, bite-size pizza, and hummus. Henry demands more cherries. We eat a shameful amount. At any moment, I’m certain a manager will ask us to leave. If so, it will be worth it.
Walking down the sidewalks of Chicago with Henry strapped to my chest, I receive facial expressions ranging from joy to disgust. I didn’t expect the wrap to become a projection screen for other’s parenting views. Men mostly stare with bewildered faces. “Now, that’s the image of a man,” one teenage boy whispers to the girl by his side. Another scruffy bearded man in his twenties, possibly deranged, standing on a busy street corner, points and roars. The neighborhood policeman who leans against the wall of the 7-11 stops me to inquire. “The first time I saw you wearing ‘this thing’ I thought you were Middle-Eastern.” An odd thing to hear for a pale, blue-eyed male with a Southern accent.
Women are mostly impressed with the wrap. “Did you tie it yourself,” they ask? “Yes, I watched the Youtube video 1,000 times,” I respond. Waiting in line at O’Hare Airport, a young woman with a fashionable short hair style approaches me to discuss the wrap. For ten minutes, she tells me about her experience with the wrap and how she proudly avoided a stroller with her children. She speaks like we are members of a special “babywearing” club. Before moving on, she nods as if we are part of a movement. I nod back.
I do not wear the wrap to make a statement. However, my inner rebel chooses to embrace it as a countercultural symbol. In my own way, it is my resistance to the macho culture that permeates our society. It is my stand against the narrow masculinity that equates maleness solely with toughness, self-reliance, and aggressive behavior. It is my rejection of the posturing required “to be a man.” I am already a man.
Yet, I must also admit my progressive approach to parenting is tested by the baby wrap. No matter how liberated I consider myself, I still worry about how others will perceive my masculinity. For someone who values equality in parenting roles, this might sound silly, but going against the grain of a hyper-masculine culture, such as ours, is not easy. Old messages are deeply imbedded in all of us.
The old messages say to me: You look like a girl. You look weak. You look like a pansy. You deserve your man card revoked. I try to ignore them, but they never go away, only fade into the background.
It’s hard to say at what point I became one with the wrap, but it did not take long to transform into a daily habit. I can adjust it based on his weight and the demands of the day, which, in my mind, means I have reached a Jedi Knight level in the “baby wearing” world. I’m considering making my own YouTube video.
Now at 17 months old, I dread the day he no longer fits in the wrap. I will miss his body pressed against mine, arms pulling and tugging on my face, and feet kicking against my sides. It will feel like the beginning of the slow independence he will undoubtedly claim day by day.
This past week, I placed him in the wrap for a long walk through the park. Half-way through our walk my shoulders started aching because the thin, cotton wrap no longer bears the weight load well. The days of the wrap are coming to a close. A growing boy needs more room to operate, so I will treasure the moments left. I will wear him until I must stop.