“No,” I say. “He’s not ready.”
At the bus stop, my wife shakes her head and sighs. She is disagreeing with me and showing her exasperation. She’s a great multitasker. My fifth grader, Wyatt, and my youngest son, Oliver, adjust their backpacks.
“It’s my call,” I say.
“He’s ready,” she counters.
“I’m Dad. I’ve been here since the beginning. I was the one that quit my job to stay home with the kids. It’s my call.”
That should count for something. That should give me the absolute final decision about whether my son is ready for kindergarten or not. I say he’s not.
My wife doesn’t answer this time. Instead, she bends down and straightens my youngest son’s shirt and makes sure his fly is zipped. She reminds the children not to pay attention to the raving lunatic having a meltdown. I smile at my 10-year-old son who is usually on my side about things. Not today, apparently.
“Get over it,” he says. “We won’t be gone that long!”
The bus stop is only a block from our house. Oliver has watched his older siblings get on this bus every morning for years. He would sit in my lap when he was a newborn. Then time kept coming, and he kept growing. Last year, he and I would play Barbies in the yard while we waited for his older brother and sister to get home.
“You do this every time, you know,” my wife says. She’s both crying and smiling. More multitasking.
“What?” I say.
“Pick a fight. You don’t even care who you pick it with. It’s what you do.”
“I do not! I’m offended. We should go to therapy right now to discuss this new conflict!”
She doesn’t laugh at my joke.
First child, first battle
“You did when Vivi went to school for the first time,” she says. Vivi’s in middle school as of an hour ago. I didn’t pick a fight when she went to kindergarten. I righted a wrong! The bus missed our house two days in a row. My call to the transportation department was righteous! And it wasn’t a fight so much as a heroic journey by a man who made a promise 10 years ago. I would stay home with the kids until they all went to school. I think Bruce Willis should play me in the movie.
“You do pick fights. What did you do when Wyatt went to school?” she says.
“Called the principal.”
“Because … reasons.”
“To pick a fight. About nothing.”
“I’m not picking a fight this time!” Ha, ha! I have won this argument. I’m Mr. Rosy Get-A-Long. Everyone can stop reading and go home.
“Did you or did you not send an email to the school board last month?”
That was totally different. The website to register my son for kindergarten was terrible, and it wouldn’t recognize the documents I was uploading. It was a mess. So I … picked a fight.
I can hear a deep rumble and a high-pitched screech. Time sounds like the brakes on a yellow school bus.
“I’m not ready,” I say.
“‘I’m’ not ready?” my wife says.
“I mean Oliver’s not ready,” I say.
“Dad,” Wyatt says. “He’s 5 years old!”
Great. My older son is giving me Dr. Phil advice. I’m going to forget to put his sandwich in his lunch tomorrow, and he gets broccoli instead of grapes.
“Uh-huh. You ran away all summer. You didn’t want to talk about it. This is something you actively avoided,” my wife adds.
“I didn’t run. I went extreme adventuring,” I say.
My wife points out the obvious when it should always remain hidden. It’s kinda her thing. She paid the bills while I kept the promise. A promise that maybe I want to keep forever now.
“You were practically manic!” she says.
I wasn’t manic. I was finally aware of time. When I became an at-home parent, it felt like I had a million dollars in the bank. So I spent it freely. I cashed it in for memories, over and over again. And then this summer, when I started really feeling that my time account was getting low, I started running on credit. Family memories don’t make themselves so: road trip! The World’s Largest Overalls weren’t going to see themselves, after all. We didn’t have anything even remotely like a lazy summer. It was more of a roadside attraction bender.
It may have been a little manic. But those are my memories. I gave up everything for them. There is a 10-year gap on my resume. I just wanted to be there for our kids; to raise them myself rather than farm off the job.
Sad to no longer be SAHD
The bus crests the hill, and I can smell its fumes. Oliver starts jumping up and down, and his freshly cut hair flutters. Wyatt actually gives me a hug, but I’m still giving him broccoli tomorrow.
None of this is going the way I thought it was supposed to go. Where is my stoicism? Isn’t that the way dads are supposed to handle these things? At the least, there should be a sad harmonica playing in the background while I give a steely eyed glare toward the future. Miss Kitty should be on my arm and telling me what a fine job I did. Then time freezes, and we can all watch it again in reruns.
“It’s OK to be sad, Shannon,” my wife says. “You’ve kept your promise. Three times.”
“Sad” is not the right word. Whatever Wile E. Coyote feels when he accidentally runs off a cliff then looks down just before he falls, that’s what I feel now. Terrified? Maybe. And probably sad. I’m not really sure. Feelings are complicated and make me pick fights. I totally get Braveheart.
I stoop down and pick up both my boys. I’m a big guy, and my sons are still tiny, too tiny to go to school. I’m going to take them back to the house. Now I’m panicking as the school bus brakes sound the alarm. I’m not ready.
There, I said it. I am not ready. I don’t know how stay-at-home moms do this. I don’t know many of them, and I wasn’t allowed to join their social groups; it was always “thanks but no thanks.” Not that I blame them. I had to find room for myself in a world that wasn’t built for me. I had to create things that didn’t exist. And I don’t know if I can do it again. I’m not some damn caterpillar in a cocoon that can just come out as a butterfly. I’ve done that.
The bus comes to a rest in front of us, the doors open, and time stops.
My wife puts her hand on my shoulder. I’m face to face with the end of time, and I’m not sure what to do. Oliver speaks up, “Let go, Daddy! It’s time for school!”
Ugh, right in the feels.
I know he is right. My boy is ready. My family is ready. I still don’t know if I am. I put my sons down and they laugh, thinking that dad is just being silly. I was, but at the same time, I was holding onto something that was mine, that would be mine forever.
They get on board, and time ticks along once again. Each step up though that folding yellow door is the second hand of the clock and it’s going faster. I feel proud of them, of my wife, and of myself. I’m not stoic, there is no Clint Eastwood stare. I cry. My boys look back at me and see it. Screw it, let them see. I love my sons; there’s no shame in that.
The doors close and time accelerates along with the bus. My promise drives away.
I’ll become something else. Whatever is next, I’ll be that. Time is a conniving roadrunner that tricks you off a cliff and sometimes, like Wile E. Coyote, you don’t realize how deep that canyon is. But maybe there’s more down there waiting for me than just a puff of dust and a cartoon “KABLAM!” I very stoically hope so.