I’ve heard parenting described as a vocation where the goal is to work yourself out of a job. Seems pretty accurate to me.
As a longtime stay-at-home parent, I see myself doing it all the time. In fact, as I write, the washing machine is spinning noisily and the dryer is droning away, and I didn’t start either of them. My 14-year-old twin sons are doing their laundry today, a job I did for them for years. I showed them the ropes a few months ago and now, begrudgingly and with a bit of prompting from me, they’ve been doing it on their own.
Late last week, I found one of them riding the lawn mower, finishing the last part of our long backyard. The other will do it this week. There’s a lot to learn about mowing and there is an inherent danger in it, so I had been reluctant to show them how. But this year, I figured they are both tall and strong enough to wrestle the old Cub Cadet around the yard. I’ll show them how to do the trim work with the push mower in the coming weeks.
This morning, I woke up — later than usual — to the smell of sausages and potatoes. I went into the kitchen to start my coffee but I couldn’t tell if someone had made breakfast. The counters were wiped, the dishes in the machine, even the frying pan was hanging clean and dry on the rack. I thought maybe I hadn’t smelled right or something.
I asked the boy on the Nintendo Switch in the living room if he’d had breakfast. He had, and for the first time, had cleaned everything up.
Perhaps some of you are thinking to yourself: Damn straight, ‘bout time they pulled their weight around the old homestead. Yeah, I get that, But, and I might be criticized for this, I didn’t have children to do my work for me. An acquaintance of mine called me late one night decades ago to tell me his toddler had gotten him a beer from the refrigerator. He’d, uh, trained her, I guess, to do it and he thought it was a hoot. I still know the daughter and she stopped getting his fucking beers when she turned 12 — they were never close.
There are, I’m sure, dozens of other examples just like these of me working myself out of jobs. I’m OK with it, of course, but there is another description of parenting that I’d like to share with you: Parenting is just one long damn goodbye.
Goodbye can be a good thing
I always thought of doing my boys’ laundry as something I was supposed to do for them not because of them. Did it overwhelm me at times? Yes, but not often. Mostly, it was just another chore, a part of my job, just labor. I’d set timers for when a load was done, I folded on a custom-built folding table just beside the dryer, left-handed boy’s stuff on the left, the other’s on the right. I’d stand and fold and pair and pile and … think.
I can’t begin to tell you how much you can learn about your children from doing their laundry. You learn what they favor, what pants and shirts, what socks are worn most often – that kind of thing. But, there’s a bit more. All those loads of laundry gave me a sense of how good life has been to them, to us. Jeans with holes and grass-stains, mended and scrubbed, are a reminder that they are healthy, that the yard is green and long enough to shag flies. A fruit-punch stained white shirt is from a birthday party at the laser tag place. A blood stain on the collar of a gray hoodie is from cut on the forehead from a killer tube ride at the lake. I wasn’t folding clothes; I was folding memories.
When they were really little, 2 years old maybe, I’d take them for rides on the tractor without the mower engaged. We’d laugh and curve around the yard, them marveling at the wildness of it all, me at their delight in it. As they got older, I remember them watching me mow and feeling like a mounted knight, a sweating hero for them in the blistering August sun. In fact, there’s a picture of one of them, watching me go around the yard, standing on the porch with a shoe in his hand, hoping for a ride. A few years later, the fascination with it faded, but I still remember their little faces watching me. It felt good.
Today, as I look upon backyard from the dining room table, thinking about laundry and tractors, they are making lunch for themselves. More a raiding party, really. They are heating leftovers and adding this and that, improvising as one does in the kitchen. I watch and listen and think back to a time when I made every meal for them, never really imagining a day when I didn’t have to.
One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to the closeness I felt to them, handling all those clothes, steeped in dirt and stains and memory.
One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to knowing I’m watched, appreciated, needed. To feeling like a hero, a man, a father on my gas-powered steed.
One long damn goodbye. Farewell to cooking every meal, preparing every snack, packing every lunch, buying every banana, pear and apple, roast and chop.
You may be thinking, shouldn’t I be glad to not have all that work to do. Maybe I should.
But the truth is, I never really minded.
Some of my favorite images of the boys of them walking away from us. It’s funny, I’ve heard that from many parents. It’s as though we know the goodbyes are coming, that we know they will someday walk fully out of view.
Later this summer, I’ll watch them march into high school, confident and strong. I’ll watch their strong shoulders and high heads and know they are heading in the right direction — away from me, away from childhood, into tomorrow.
And, I’ll know I’ve done my job, I am doing my job, I will still do my job.
The damn goodbyes though, they are really hard.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. He believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.
Boys walking away photo courtesy of Bill Peebles