That familiar feeling: things are starting all over again. The wife and oldest son going off to school. Me, I’m not going anywhere, neither is 2yo G. We are going to play, read, eat snack, I’ll do a little housework, at some point go upstairs and get dressed, but then get trapped building train tracks. Finally, we’ll make it to the car and drive around until G falls asleep.
That’s how it went today and will go by and large until mid-June when the old lady’s school year ends. It’s an amazing gig–my job is to literally keep my toddler entertained all day and sometimes it’s really enjoyable. There are sweet moments like when G sits in my lap and we read his little books.
There are of course frustrating moments, like every time he throws a fit. Also frustrating is the lack of activity coupled with the knowledge that the rest of the world is busy out there, commerce is going on, holes are being dug and filled, buildings erected, lives saved and lost, books written, stocks traded, etc. I am part of none of it, barricaded in this little box with my tiny son.
These are the thoughts that run through my head, even while we play, but then G–with his blond bangs and blue eyes–will smile at me or give me and hug and the doubts and uncertainty temporarily vanish. I chose to do this largely because I couldn’t stand the idea of having a stranger raise my kid, at least not just yet. Soon enough, we’ll both be on our own, out in the world, trying not to be devoured.
Sad to say, I have not posted in over a month and so I thought I would catch everyone up. Almost five-year-old B is in a real smooth groove–there are not too many surprises with him–so most of this will concern 21mo G who is at the age where things change from week to week.
February started off rough, maybe not for him but definitely for me and Mama. Out of nowhere, he started calling us “poophead,” then that gravitated to “doodoohead,” and then crested with “butthead.” All the names were funny at first, but then it grew tiresome being called “doodoohead daddy,” and admittedly it stung at times. There was real intent behind it.
Whenever he got mad at anyone for anything he would turn to me and say, “butthead daddy”! Most of the time, I shook it off, but then there were moments when I was stressed out or in a bad mood and he would like me right in the eyes with tears or rage in his and sling one of these feces-related epithets at me. “Why am I a butthead?” I’d usually respond, but occasionally I could not help myself and responded accordingly. “No, you’re a butthead.” Not one of my best moments, but…
Fortunately, he seemed to tire of the name-calling, and as February rolled into March, I thought we were out of the woods. Would March bring us a kinder, gentler G? Yesterday shattered that notion. Last night, as his mother pulled him out of the bathtub, I sat at the doorway to the bathroom. She wrapped him in a towel and began to dry him off when he looked at Mama and then me and uttered the words “terrible daddy.”
It was like a gut punch. Not merely a dirty name, this was really descriptive. I laughed but in disbelief and repeated it to myself all night. Even writing about it now pricks a bit. “Terrible daddy.” Really? I’m scared to think about what’s coming next.
Yesterday started off with a screaming fit from Baby G around 5am. I didn’t see it as a harbinger of things to come but simply rolled over as Mama took him and the now awake B downstairs. An hour later I stumbled downstairs, messed around with the two little cretins while their mother went for a run, and eventually readied myself for Yoga at 8am. When I walked back into the house around 10 I was in great spirits, full of fresh breath and devoid of toxins, at peace with the world.
The feeling was short-lived. “Where’s everybody at?” I asked once inside the door and was met by a cross look from Mama. The baby was asleep upstairs. I tiptoed into the TV room where B sat on the couch with tears in his eyes. Then a cry from G upstairs. Within fifteen minutes I had yelled at B to quit trying to close the back door in his brother’s face. Things just snowballed from there.
At some point, B and I got into the shower to wash off for the movie–Spider-Man–we were going to see. While washing my hair, I felt an odd trickle on my leg and looked down to see my four-year-old son peeing on me with a smile on his face. All I did was sigh.
I don’t know what I was thinking taking B to Spider-Man. He’s obviously too young and when he said he wanted to go during a fight scene between Spidey and the Lizard I happily agreed. For the last hour-and-a-half he had talked my ear off, asking me questions like “Is that Peter Parker?” “Where is his dad?” “Is that the Lizard?” On and on and on. It was exhausting.
Back home the turmoil continued, fits and fighting. Then at the dinner table, B turned to me and spoke, “Daddy, you are annoying.” I just dropped my head. It hurt.
Finally, upstairs to the kids room where I sat on the floor just biding time until they went to bed. Locked in a bout of self-pity, all I could think about was what a disaster the day had been. Then baby G stood up on his own, and wavering back and forth took a step, then another and fell to his butt. It was thrilling. His mom had just told me he’d taken a couple of steps earlier but these were the first I’d ever seen him take. Then he stood again and took another wobbly step, then another, and another until he’d moved all the way over to his mother. Ten steps in all. Back down on his butt then back up again. He’d take two or three then pivot and take a couple more before landing on his tush again. This went on for another fifteen minutes, with us all laughing and cheering G on. Meanwhile, he smiled, ecstatic and obsessed with his new ability.
When they finally went to bed, my mood had changed and the day had been cast in a new light. That’s always how it is with kids. Hour after hour can be trying as hell but redemption is always around the corner. Of course, it can work the other way as well. It’s just all part of the visceral experience of parenting.
In a recent issue of Time magazine, author James Poniewozik reviews a number of shows that tackle the topic of men taking care of babies. “Much dad humor today is based on the premise that it’s unnatural for men to be good at caring for kids,” he writes, and as one example, he looks at a forthcoming show called Baby Daddy wherein a new father changes his first diaper using goggles, duct tape, rubber gloves, and tongs. Along with the writer, I scoffed at this trivialization of me and my kind.
Then a few nights ago, I was left alone with baby G and had an experience where I could have used all that apparatus and more. It was after dinner and I was going to take G for a walk in the jogging stroller when I detected an unsavory whiff and peered down the back of his diaper to see a loose stool. I took him back in, laid him on the floor, took off his diaper, and cleaned off his butt. That part was simple enough. I’ve done it hundreds of times, and although it’s never an enjoyable practice it’s old hat by now.
As usual, I let him crawl around for a few minutes sans diaper when I noticed him strain for a moment. “G, what are you doing?” I asked, and he smiled at me and crawled to his right. That’s when I noticed a small mocha-colored puddle next to him. Then he strained again and I raced to grab him but when I reached down somehow some of the poop was on his shoulder. I tried to get his shirt off him as deftly as possible but when I pulled it off he now had a wet patch on the side of his head. The poop was everywhere.
My upper stomach grew tight but I fought back the impulse to wretch as I wiped off his butt and legs and then picked him up to take him upstairs to bathe. But as I walked across the carpet I stepped in something wet, a brown dollop I’d missed. With G in one arm I took a baby wipe and scrubbed off the bottom of my foot, then the rug, and finally upstairs and in the bath.
The crisis was finally over but when I was in the thick of it there was no time to grab tongs or goggles, I just had to roll with it. That’s where pop culture depictions of dads get it wrong. Rather than dress us up in a homemade hospital scrubs, just present us as we are, neck-deep in baby poop and other situations that are absurd enough without duct tape or goggles. Reality is poignant and funny by itself.
A little more than two weeks ago, Baby G turned one-year-old. Now that he’s been around this long, I’ve been able to reflect on the past year and have come away with a couple of observations:
1) They don’t tell you how hard having the second baby is going to be. When we were expecting our first child, everyone warned us how many sleepless nights there would be, about the crying, etc. No one said anything when we decided to have a second one and now that we do I understand why: Schadenfreude. They all had more than one kid and wanted us to experience the pain, too. Having a second child is not just twice the work but cubed. You’ve got to have one eye on the four-year-old and one on the baby. Stop paying attention for one second and the little one will turn over the bowl of cat food and start to eat it, or maybe he’ll mount the long, treacherous staircase. There is no down time.
2) Yet, it’s amazing how much you love the second one. It’s a little different from the first because there aren’t as many surprises but it’s still fresh in most ways, getting to know the new baby, and seeing what kind of person he–in our case–is and is going to be. To be honest, I didn’t want another kid. We liked the first one so much I thought we should be content with the son we already had but Mama prevailed. Now, I can’t imagine life without our little butterball baby, his white hair, appetite for all kinds of food, and ever-present laugh.
That said, this past year has been one of the toughest stretches of time I’ve endured. Having a second child is definitely worth it, but it’s a bit like being hazed every day for months on end. Consider yourself warned.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between my newly four-year-old B and my almost one-year-old G. For instance, G has more of a sense of humor than B did at that age, but B also seemed more independent at that age. When you spend as much time with your kids as I do it becomes almost an anthropological thing.
Regardless, it hadn’t occurred to me until a few days ago how I might be different, too, how I might have changed as a father. Perhaps that difference is even bigger than the one between G and B as babies.
When I was put in charge of B almost four years ago I had absolutely no idea what to do with him. I knew where to stick the bottle, and how to change a diaper, but that was about it. And I really hadn’t been around a baby in decades, but like countless parents I just found what worked for the both of us, and I have to give credit to B. I threw a lot of stuff his way that a lesser person might have wilted under, but he’s a tough little cuss, maybe because he had to be.
This time around, I kind of have a “eff it” attitude. All the stuff that you have to deal with a baby just isn’t phasing me that much anymore (although, admittedly, every thing with the four-year-old is). In fact, I find myself often just telling the baby to calm down. “It’s not that big of a deal, man,” I say as he loses it at every little thing. Four years ago, I was like him. I might have had a near stroke as I tried to get B to stop fussing.
How will that affect G differently? I think kids really feed off their parents’ energy. As little beings trying to figure out their way in the world, they are trying to not only survive but also thrive and as a result condition themselves around the major influences in their lives, in my kids’ cases, some big man with too much anxiety and hair on his face, and a smaller, kinder woman. A more calmer me might mean a more balanced child.
At the same time, I don’t want to overstate my place in my kids’ lives. Heredity plays a big part, too, and perhaps that’s one reason G has stressed me out a lot less. I think B might have too much of me in him, and maybe that’s why we’ve always butted heads. Lord knows one of me is enough.