Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Hard Part

"The trouble with learning to parent on the job is that your child is the teacher." - Robert Brault

On a normal Wednesday evening, I'll cook a nice dinner for my family. But one particular Wednesday, I had to stay in the city later than normal. So we ordered pizza. As I stood there in the pizza parlor awaiting my pie to come out of the oven, I witnessed an all-too-familiar scene unfold. There was a little blond-haired boy, throwing what can only be described as a tantrum of epic proportions. A tantrum to end all tantrums. The tantrum that defines the word.

I'm not exaggerating here. Trust me. It was so massive and historic, I had to call my mother while it was happening and tell her about it. I had to replay the events to my wife once I had finally arrived home with dinner.

This kid was a year or two older than my daughter. He was kneeling, laying, sprawling himself on the dusty, dingy, dirty pizza parlor floor. His mother, to her credit, kept her composure through the whole thing. She kept her voice even-keeled. Her demeanor was calm. She even ackowledged the humor in the situation.

Why, you ask, was this little boy freaking out inside Mr. Dino's Pizzeria? He wanted a bag of potato chips. And apparently, the answer was no.

The potato chip display is located right by the entrance to the restrooms. So he was causing quite a commotion for all interested parties during the very busy dinner rush at a popular local eatery. I do recall an elderly man who was in quite a rush, and had to wait for the boy's mother to drag him out of the way. "You're blocking the bathroom," she informed him. "No I'm not," he protested.

I was not able to witness the resolution to this tantrum. My pizza was finally ready, so my attention was diverted. During the whole scene I stood there with my arms folded and a slight smile on my face. I must admit I took some joy in watching. The kid, after all, was funny. And the mother, impressive. It comforted me to see someone else go through it, and handle it well. It comforted me to see him stand his ground, and irrationally refuse to budge, like my daughter does.

This story reminds me of what is the one simple, inarguable truth about parenthood. The one thing on which all parents can agree.

It's a given, really: Parenthood is hard.

Even on the good days. Even on the days where there are no tantrums (rare), no tears (rarer), no trials or tribulations (the rarest). It's hard. Even the happy days are hard.
I've worked the overnight shift, the late shift,  the morning shift. I've dug pools. I've waited tables. I've produced an Emmy-winning newscast. It's true. But being a dad is the hardest job I've had, the hardest job I'll ever have. It's 24/7, always on call. Anything can happen, nothing is impossible.

And you never really know if you're doing it well. Because you could be making all the right decisions and your child could still be sprawled out on the floor of a pizza parlor freaking out over a bag of potato chips.

But it's the best job I've ever had and I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Even when the hours are filled with laughter and love and hugs, and they flow swimmingly, effortlessly into one another. When the day almost seems to pass by too quickly. Your child wakes up cheerful and ready to go. In return, you can't wait to start the day. Breakfast is so uneventful that fruit is even consumed without resistance. Playtime is memorable. Jokes are made and taken well. They're so funny they're even repeated until you're tired of them. The snacks are healthy. The nap is welcomed. Undivided attention is paid to all books. You couldn't script a better day.

Those days are gratifying, but still physically exhausting.

You sit on the couch and look at your spouse at the end of days like those and wonder out loud what determined her mood. How did she decide to be so wonderful and cooperative? How can you repeat it?

Hell, if you could, you'd patent it, bottle it, and mass market it.

The great days amuse you and yet confuse you.

Then there are the round-peg-in-a-square-hole days, where you know from the moment you wake up things aren't going to be easy. These are the days when you remember the time before you had a child, and wished you could just sleep in. When the word "no" seems to be the only one being spoken. She's whining. You're worrying. How are you going to get through this unscathed, without someone getting emotionally scarred? Because she only wants to eat what you don't have. She refuses to play nicely. She won't let you brush her hair, change her clothes. She won't even let you comfort her.

"It's going to be ok, sweetheart," you try to reassure her. "No it's not," she protests. "Don't say that to me!" When her world is crumbling and the tears are falling, and you try to wipe them off, she acually gets more angry. She then proceeds to lick her index finger in anger, and aggressively and dramatically replace the tear with a fake one by wiping her finger under her eye. She's actually spitting tears. "I just want to make you feel better, honey." Then she hits you with this heartbreaker: "No one can make me feel better." Ouch.

You're left constantly wondering if you're doing the right thing. Was I too hard on her? Was I not hard enough on her? Should I make a big deal out of this? Am I making too big a deal out of this? Who's really the irrational one in this relationship? Me or her?
Then there are the things beyond your control that even the most relaxed parents worry about. The things that aren't even issues but what if they become issues? The health issues. The money issues. The social issues. The school issues.

What about the things you can control? The sleep thing. The eating healthy thing. The patience thing. The setting a good example thing. Am I following up on these enough? Am I following up too much?

It's hard not to worry. And I'm not even a worrier.
You can't help but think about dozens if not hundreds of things that will never happen. But maybe, you just never know, something might happen.
And that's what makes it so hard. You just want her to be ok. But then you peek in her room after she falls asleep and see her laying there in her little bed with her pink sheets and her Lammie, with her thumb in her mouth and a little drool on her pillowcase with the puppies and kitty-cats on it... and you realize... she's fine. What the hell is my problem? You go downstairs, pour youself a glass of wine, and realize you're fine too. For now.

But it's still hard. That's all I'm saying.

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