Back in June, before the school day begins, my daughter is writing in her diary. I take a peek because I’m curious and often she keeps it pretty secret. It’s got a little lock and everything. Usually it has things in it like a portrait of herself with her name under it and on the top of the page the musing, “I love me.” Or one whole page covered corner to corner by the lone exclamation, “My brother is CRAZY!”
I take a lot of peeks. She leaves the key around. Something about unlocking that little pink diary to read it feels oh-so-right and so wrong simultaneously. I blame the NSA.
On this particular day in question, she has drawn a picture of a flower, dated it June 11, and written a caption above the picture that says “It is winter.”
I say, “Hey honey that’s pretty intriguing, writing it is winter over a picture like that. Very creative.”
She says, “No, but it’s not that.”
I say, “OK, honey, I just think it’s cool is all.”
“No, it’s not what that says though,” she replies.
“OK, well, even if you didn’t mean it, I still think it’s neat. Sometimes mistakes turn out to be really –“
She collapses to her knees like a pocket James Brown and screeches, “Noooooo! It’s not THAT!” And then buries her face in her hands. Hardest-working tantrum thrower in show business. Godfather of soul devouring outrage.
It’s early so I get mad. I slam what ever it is I’m holding (hair brush? lunch box? Monkey’s Paw?) down on the dining room table, spill some water and bark, “No! Why are you yelling at me! Stop it!” I pick her up and put her down on her feet and send her to her room. She comes down and we talk about communication. She says sorry, I say sorry, and we go to school. I never find out what happened and we don’t really talk about it again.
At home later that afternoon, she writes this and hands it to me:
It reads, “Dear daddy, I love you. I Love You! Happy Father’s Day. I hope it’s fun. Me and Pumpkin Man did the best we could at listening. Thank You.
I immediately scoop her up in my arms and squeeze her and cover her face in kisses and babble about how wonderful she and her brother are (you like how she threw him in there for good measure?) and how much I love them. Emotionally eviscerated, my head swims from lack of blood and I have to sit down and put it between my knees where I’ve cleverly hidden a bourbon.
Some bourbon. A liter of bourbon.
Even-tempered vs. the evil-minded
When you’re with them every day, all day, you see the best of them and the worst. The thing is, they see the same of you. You can’t help it.
A lot of parenting advice boils down to being even tempered. Don’t get too high or too low. Don’t yell or freak out or get too excited. Be calm and cool at all times. Walk away, take a timeout, breathe deep and consult your higher power (mine’s a chicken burrito. With guac!).
You know, just don’t react with any sort of emotional extreme to actions taken by the people you are biologically programmed to love more than life itself. Easy Peasy. When you’re kid wins the race, fucks up at school, performs an act of kindness, lathes the cat, poops in the potty for the first time, etc., don’t over emote. Just stay on an even keel.
That parenting philosophy, with the notable exception of gender roles, hasn’t really changed all that much from the 1950s archetype. Just knock the bowl of your Father Knows Best pipe with the heel of your hand, and tousle their hair/give them a stern talking to, and go back to your Twitter feed.
The truth is, we don’t do that. Not every time.
The truth is, even the most even-tempered of us have called our toddlers fucking assholes when they’re acting like fucking assholes or squealed like Bieberites at the Bieber Ice Cream Smorgasbord Jamboree and Hair Combing Expo when they nail the landing in gymnastics. It’s natural. We feel passion for these little genius/assholes.
The truth is, to remain the even-tempered parent we’re supposed to be all the time, that pipe bowl has to be loaded with sociopathic tendencies and opium.
The thing is, they bubble with potential, our kids. That means the potential to be almost anything. Anything doesn’t just mean astronaut or president. It means junkie or murderer or lobbyist. They are human, they are imperfect. Their potential is near limitless. And as parents, we are the same. Imperfect. More so, maybe. We’ve had longer to work on our imperfections.
And when you spend countless hours with tiny beings who are just learning the world, those imperfections come to bare. Yours rub against theirs and it results in days of too much yelling, too many tears, too much guilt, too much pride. It happens. What’re you gonna do? We love them on a cellular level. That kind of passion is sure to lead to some amount of ill. I mean, have you seen humans?
I strive for even-tempered. I really do. But I’m a man of loud voice and large opinion. So my kids know when I’m angry. They also know when I’m happy or proud or content or silly or gassy. Especially gassy. They know it all. In return so do I. It’s not so bad, knowing when they’re sad and when they’re happy. Knowing for sure. Makes things a little less complicated. Sometimes. Other times it makes getting ready for school in the morning sound like the Red Wedding.
And they test the even-tempered. They probe it with whines placed just so or negative responses to reasonable requests. They tap, tap, tap on the wall of my pleasant detachment with psychological ball-peen hammers until the wall cracks and I can feel my blood pressure behind my eyes and I’m pretty sure my nose and left ear are bleeding freely. Then there are the times when my better nature wins out and no matter how they probe and poke and tap and claw, I hold firm. I’m usually pretty proud of myself when that happens. Glassy eyed and exhausted, but proud.
What I hope (what else can I do?) is that in the tumult of a household full of passion and opinion (and gas) that they find themselves unafraid of their emotions. That as they get older they can feel and express themselves openly with just enough restraint to not get arrested.
Let me add, just for posterity, that they really do listen well. Most times.