Two hours alone with your kids
The phrase “easier said than done” applies with particular force to certain activities, things like bungee jumping, sky diving, or Formula-1 racing. Spending time at home with kids, it turns out, falls into the same category, and not all men are fully aware of this. Those who think it’s a piece of cake are simply ignorant; unless you have first-hand experience, it’s hard to know just how “challenging” this job can be.
The following, therefore, is an account of one cold January afternoon I spent with my four-year-old daughter Shilly-Shally (not, I promise, her real name). It represents a more or less typical day–well, actually about two hours. (I considered recording a whole day but then realized that might be too frightening). You may think I’ve selected for high drama, but I swear I haven’t exaggerated, cross my heart and hope to survive.
So remember, comrade: Whatever you may feel when reading this, I’m really giving you only a thin slice of the pie. To get a true taste, multiply these two hours by the ten years or so it takes to turn a kid from a restless, curious, whining, monkey-like, self-centered little consumption-machine into something approximating human character. Then come the teenage years.
1:00 p.m.– Feeling restless after a morning of housecleaning and the thrills of making lunch, I attempt to convince Shilly-Shally that we should put on our snow clothes and play in the backyard. She’s always loved to do this; in the past it’s given her hours of delight. But at the moment she’s utterly forgotten her former pleasure. I attempt to remind her. I fail.
1:05 p.m.– After refusing to go outside, Shilly-Shally lies under the dining-room table playing with the “squirrels” she made out of strips of cardboard and paper. As I continue my attempts to convince her, she states categorically that she hates to go out in the snow and will never agree to do so.
1:10 p.m.– I mention that the little boy next door may go out too. Her eyes brighten. She loves to go out and play in the snow! Will I please get her dressed in her snowsuit?
1:15 p.m.– First we argue in the kitchen about why she can’t wear a dress under snowpants. Then I go up to her room and get her some clothes. Once I convince her to stand still–which takes some doing–I dress her in her socks, her boot socks, her long underwear, her shirt and jeans, her snowpants, her boots, her coat, her mittens, her hat, and her scarf. Then she has to go to the bathroom. I take off her scarf, her hat, her mittens, her coat, her boots, her snowpants, and her jeans.
1:20 p.m.– I put back on her jeans, her snowpants, her boots, her coat, her mittens, her hat, and her scarf. Then I dress myself hurriedly to repeated choruses of “Come on, Dad! I’m hot!”
1:25 p.m.– We go outside. The little boy next door isn’t there. We discuss this. The discussion ends with one of us crying in a loud and blubbery fashion. I return to the house for kleenex.
1:30 p.m.– The little boy next door comes out. The tears dry on Shilly-Shally’s suddenly joyous cheeks. Then the little boy next door says stubbornly that he doesn’t want to play with Shilly-Shally. I go back in for more kleenex.
1:35 p.m.– Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door start to play (his memory, it seems, is a lot like hers). I’m shoveling snow to make a sled ramp for them. Shilly-Shally pretends to be the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, roaring and saying mean things to everyone. The little boy next door asks me if he can be the guy from the video game Mortal Kombat. I agree.
1:40 p.m.– They’re still playing. The little boy next door asks me four times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time. I happen to cut my hand on the snow shovel. Shilly-Shally always cries piteously when she gets little scrapes and cuts; thinking this a perfect teaching opportunity, I show her mine. “See?” I say, “It’s bleeding, but it doesn’t hurt much. Just a little cut. No big deal.” “That’s right,” she says. “Just a little cut.” “Yes!” I echo, surprised and pleased at her maturity. “Nothing to worry about.” “That’s right,” she agrees. “I’m not hurt. So nothing to worry about.”
1:45 p.m.– Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door have a fight. He’s upset because the Grinch keeps screaming in his ears. I ask the Grinch to crank it down a notch, but she refuses. I insist–which results in my having to go back into the house for more kleenex. I return to start mopping-up operations on the Grinch’s face. As I do so, the little boy next door asks
me three times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time.
1:50 p.m.– The fight is not only over, but they’ve forgotten it ever occurred. That’s because there’s a new fight now–over who gets to swing on the swing. (Even with two feet of snow on the ground this is still the Holy of Holies). I talk to them about sharing and taking turns, going so far as to sing the appropriate song from Barney. Shilly-Shally actually refrains from crying; I consider this a victory and a small step toward maturation. (Of course I made sure she got the first turn; I don’t have to fetch kleenex for the little boy next door).
1:55 p.m.– While he’s waiting to swing, the little boy next door asks me five times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. I agree each time.
2:00 p.m.– I continue to shovel snow. Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door begin to play separately. For the little boy next door, that means coming over to me and asking four times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. “YES!” I roar, then add, “Why do you keep asking me that?” His answer? He looks away for a moment and then says, “Hey, Tim–can I be the guy from Mortal Kombat?” I quietly agree.
2:05 p.m.– Shilly-Shally wants me to find her plastic football. It’s buried somewhere in the ocean-like depths of snow that cover our sizeable backyard. “Are you sure you have to have that plastic football?” I ask her. “It’s going to be really hard to find.” She looks stricken. “Dad! It’s my puppy!” This is true; she’s lavished hours of attention on her plastic football
(though the “puppy” has been pretty much on its own in the snowy wild since last summer). I let out a long sigh, which she accurately translates as “Okay–I’ll do it.” When the little boy next door begins to ask if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat, I shout “YES!” before he finishes the sentence. He looks at me for a moment. Then he laughs. I realize I’ve made a serious error; he likes this new game.
2:10 p.m.– After much snow-shoveling and a lucky guess, I fish Shilly-Shally’s plastic football up out of a snowdrift and hand it to her. Then I go back to building the sled ramp. For all of thirty seconds, Shilly-Shally pours motherly and canine affection over the plastic football. Then she drops it and says her feet are cold. I’m not stupid; I know the signs of apocalypse when I see them. So I stop shoveling and start pulling Shilly-Shally and the little boy next door around on the sled. I figure this will keep them happy and maybe even warm them up a little. Huffing like a plow horse, I drag them back and forth, swinging wide on the turns to make them giggle. They enjoy this immensely. But no passion, as Yeats said, can burn forever in so frail a lamp as man. In three minutes they’re tired of it. As Shilly-Shally loudly reminds me about her cold feet, I hear that ominous note of serious displeasure in her voice. Again, with the pride of the professional, I attempt to forestall the inevitable. I show them how to sled on the half-finished sled ramp.
2:15 p.m.– The little boy next door remembers to ask if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. Realizing now that a shout will only make him laugh, I quietly agree. He interprets this as permission to ask four more times. Then Shilly-Shally falls off the sled and does a face-plant in the snow. I go back into the house for kleenex. (In my male stupidity, it never occurs to me that I could just put a wad of kleenex in my pocket and so avoid these increasingly annoying trips back into the house). With enormous effort and a cheerful energy worthy of Richard Simmons, I manage to calm her down. But a major hissy fit may be only moments away.
2:20 p.m.– Disaster strikes. After asking me five more times if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat, the little boy next door manages to twist his foot on our three-foot-high sled ramp. He starts to cry. By the time I come back out with more kleenex (all right, I admit it—I caved), he wants to go home. This throws the already frozen-faced and icy-footed Shilly-Shally for a complete loop. She desperately wants the little boy to stay out so they can play; she also desperately wants to go in and get warm. This emotional dilemma, like the pressure of magma deep inside a volcano, must be vented somewhere.
2:25 p.m.– The little boy next door says goodbye, but not before asking if, when we play tomorrow, he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. When she realizes he really is going in, Shilly-Shally lets out a howl of anguish that practically melts the snow. “THEN I’M GOING IN TOO!” she half-shriekingly declares, and stomps up the porch steps as if mortally offended.
2:30 p.m.– Once we’re inside, I brush all the snow off her and help her take off her hat, her mittens, her coat, her boots, her snowpants, her shirt, her jeans, her long underwear, and her boot socks. She’s still upset, but at least now the kleenex is handy. Because she’s recently stopped napping and is very tired at this time of day–and because she always has a hard time when the little boy next door goes in–and because she did a face-plant in the snow–and because she generally has strong feelings about things–and for whatever other reasons–she’s feeling bad. Very bad. Her pretend-Grinch scowl has become the real McCoy. (I’d describe her as “fit to be tied” but that would reveal some of the inappropriate strategies flitting through
my mind at the moment). Even putting on a new dress (the third of five that day) fails to provide her with its usual boost. A series of demands and complaints and a deeply furrowed little forehead indicate that things are turning ugly. I note the storm warnings; I’ve seen before just how quickly a tropical low can turn into a hurricane.
2:35 p.m.– Full-blown flip-out occurs. She’s screaming, weeping, refusing to do anything I ask, shouting terrible things like “I DON’T LOVE YOU!! I’M NEVER PLAYING IN THE SNOW AGAIN!! YOU’RE NOT A VERY GOOD FATHER!! I HATE BARNEY!!” (a child’s equivalent of taking the Lord’s name in vain). I offer to play blocks with her, read her a picture book, color, whatever she wants. “I HATE ALL THOSE THINGS!” she bellows. After many attempts to pacify her, I find myself thinking about Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. So I tell her firmly that if she can’t stop screaming and crying, she’ll have to go to her room. She continues; I say “Go to your room.” She finally complies, at approximately 50 mph and 90 decibels, but only after I approach her with the intent of picking her up and carrying her there. The slam of her bedroom door echoes through the house like a sonic boom. In the suddenly quiet kitchen I wonder: Is the little boy next door even now asking his mom if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat?
2:40 p.m.– I start feeling bad for Shilly-Shally. After all, she’s had a rough twenty minutes–and she hasn’t eaten for over an hour! Deciding to be Super-Parent, I make “tea” to take up to her room. A PB & J cut into squares becomes petit-fours; I fill her pink plastic tea kettle with apple juice. (A truly loving father, of course, would have gone out and bought her
one of those kid-sized, actually-motorized Malibu Barbie Fun Jeeps). Then I carry the whole thing upstairs on a tea tray, with napkins, pink plastic cutlery, apple slices, the works. She’s going to love this! I’ve also made myself a cup of hot chocolate and suddenly realize, rather wistfully, that it’s the first thing I’ve done for myself since I brushed my teeth in the early a.m.
2:45 p.m.– Shilly-Shally’s delighted. As we picnic on the floor of her room, her passionate sorrow melts into ecstasy. She wants to play the Three Little Pigs. She’ll be Penny, the oldest, smartest pig. I’m Paulie, one of her less intelligent younger brothers come to live in the wolf-proof house she built. This, of course, makes her “the boss.” “Can I really be the boss, Dad?” she asks, wanting to be very clear about this. The question has a dangerous ring to it. I hesitate, knowing what such a political precedent can mean. But we’re still too close to the recent crying fit to risk a re-engagement over what’s really only a negative possibility. “Yes,” I say, “You can be boss–if I can be the guy from Mortal Kombat.” She laughs.
2:50 p.m.– For the next five minutes we know sheer, undiluted happiness. For five minutes we live just like the parents and kids on TV commercials. I savor it like an elixir.
2:55 p.m.– The phone rings. Before I go downstairs to answer it, I caution Shilly-Shally not to carry her little teacup full of apple juice anywhere. With a parent’s eternal vigilance against messy spills, I’ve noticed she’s a little shaky handling the cup, so I insist she stay seated if she’s going to drink from it. I answer the phone. Luckily, it’s only one of those annoying
telemarketers–not someone asking if he can be the guy from Mortal Kombat. But my relief is shattered when I hear a cry from upstairs.
3:00 p.m.–On reaching Shilly-Shally’s room I learn that she’s not only “moved” her little teacup, she’s spilled it–and the entire plastic tea kettle full of apple juice. Simian restlessness of youth! Tears well up–but I suppress them. Of course Shilly-Shally’s crying too. When I gently remind her that she did exactly what I asked her not to, the floodgates of the deep are opened. I look around; naturally, the kleenex box in her room is empty. But that’s no problem; I’m on my way downstairs to
get rags and carpet cleaner anyway. The spills shouldn’t be all that tough to deal with, since she’s only soaked about 50% of the carpet surface. Besides, my housemaid’s knee has been pretty calm lately. I’ll have all this cleaned up in, say, twenty minutes or so. But first I’ve got an impromptu lesson about “not crying over spilt milk” to give, and a troubled angel to soothe–whose happiness is, after all, one of the main reasons for my existence on this planet.
By Timothy Myers
Tim J. Myers, an excerpt from his new ebook “Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood” (Familius)