Dad Problems

When I was young, my dad once burst into my sister’s room with a hysterical shriek, declaring, without any evidence whatsoever, that she was using a disproportionate amount of toilet paper and was going to have to find a way to cut down, or face serious consequences.   

It’s unknown how exactly he’d come to this oddly specific conclusion, but once my sister had come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t a fever dream, but a situation occurring in reality, she practically burst a blood vessel telling him to get the fuck out, like any sane human would.

And now, I find myself yelling at my son about the exact same thing. But it’s a little different – he’s four, still mastering the intricacies of bathroom hygiene, and using at least half a roll per poop. Sometimes, he just bundles it all up and mixes it with water, for no reason, creating a thick, impenetrable paste that perfectly blocks the sink.    

See what I’ve become? I am my father, fixated on bathroom utilities, seriously considering the prospect of toilet paper rationing. I spend my days wandering from one household disaster to another, always slightly out of my element, armed with duct tape and a wobbly Ikea screwdriver.

I give people detailed descriptions of the cruel things my children do to me on a daily basis, while they try their best to look as though they give a flying fuck. I just want to go back to worrying about non-dad problems, problems that other people actually want to hear about.

But fatherhood is tough, man. You have this incessant build-up of first-world problems, combined with scary responsible adult ones, and then you get like 3 hours sleep to process it all, until the toddler pays a visit to your bed so he can jump on your head for a bit.  

So, you start to crack. You reach the fractured psychological state that leads to dad jokes. You find yourself muttering Cat in the Hat rhymes under your breath while walking down the street, eliciting sympathetic looks from strangers, and saying, “oh sugar,” unironically, when you drop something on the floor.   

It’s a strange existence, to be sure. And annoyingly, when I complain to my wife, she unloads all of her problems, which involve considerably more stress, considerably less sleep, and to top it off, an insane amount of guilt.

That’s the really crazy thing about motherhood; most of them work their asses off, every hour of every day, and don’t sleep, ever. Somebody always needs them for love, comfort, or sandwiches. And when they finally get, like, half an hour to chill on their phone, they instantly search for a mommy article that chastises them for doing a terrible job, and then they believe it.

They become convinced that they’ve permanently destroyed their kid’s confidence because they don’t brush their hair enough, or give them back massages before bed, or teach them the alphabet before 2, or after 2. Some articles even state, with alarming confidence, that you’re damaging your children’s ability to learn by teaching them to read before the age of seven.

The average mother dips into this swirling cesspit of wildly conflicting opinions, and absorbs the ones that make her feel the shittiest, because there’s always the chance that the 17-year-old intern who wrote it knows more about parenthood than they do, because of that childcare course they took in college.

But when you’re a dad, you don’t feel much guilt. You feel satisfied by just existing. And the world validates you for simply being present, for not running away. I high-fived my kids goodbye the other day and some woman actually chased me down the street, out of breath, to tell me that I’m a great dad. What does she know? I might have beat them within an inch of their lives the same night, all she saw was a damn high-five.

But if my wife looks disheveled, or yells at the kids for being whiny little shits, every other woman in the room will notice, and they shame her with their eyes. It’s pretty intense. But I give my son a kiss on the forehead, and I practically get a standing ovation.

As an added bonus, I never read dumb parenting articles (just write them), so I don’t really feel guilty for giving my kids the wrong kind of eye contact, or whatever. So I guess fatherhood isn’t all that bad.  

But the issue I’m highlighting is an inescapable part of modern-day parenting – (mis)information overload. There are moments when you won’t be quite sure which decision will fuck up your child, so you just have to go with your gut, and sometimes, your gut is wrong.

An old woman, mother of five, once gave me great parenting advice in a bar. She told me that I was guaranteed to make mistakes, massive mistakes, so it’s foolish to strive for parental perfection. You simply have to live with whatever you did to mess up, and trust that your kid is more resilient than you think.

Then, she proudly declared that none of her children had any trouble with the police before the age of fifteen, which, apparently, was meant as a testament to her child-rearing skills. I think. But I met her a few of her kids, and they were really cool, lawbreakers or not.

Point is, parenthood is tough, so go easy on the guilt. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who makes a Facebook page for your baby.

Then you should feel bad.

Milestones

Not long ago, the youngest successfully took his first steps. Around the same time, the eldest attended his first day of school.

Overnight, the baby and the boy evaporated, replaced by a toddler and a schoolboy. Time flies when you’re having fun and raising children (one of these things is not like the other), and the second you’ve got things figured out, the rules suddenly change, and the game grows in complexity.  

Now that the eldest has started school, a massive part of his upbringing and influence is outside our control, forever. Initially, that was a strange, sad concept; it almost felt cruel to send him off into the school system, a world of drudgery and apathetic adults.

When I was little, I hated school. But then again, I was a strange child, prone to drifting off into elaborate fantasies, particularly when being given detailed instructions.

My pleasant daydreams would inevitably be shattered by the panicked realization that the other children were confidently striding out of the classroom, toward an unknown destination, brandishing wire cutters or something. I’d run after them, unsure where to find wire cutters, quietly praying that the teacher would repeat herself.

But I was pretty good at concealing my ignorance; I didn’t memorize the order of the alphabet until I was ten, and somehow, nobody noticed. But I carried an intense paranoia of one day being stopped by the police and being forced to say the alphabet backward, or even forward, as they did to people on tv.

My childhood years were spent fretting about unspoken anxieties like that, and I was concerned that the eldest might have a similar experience. Well, not quite the same as mine because he’s not an introverted oddball – far from it, in fact.

But Kate started to get paranoid that the eldest wasn’t quite ready, and one day, out of the blue, proposed that we just not send him to school that year.

“Umm … is that legal?” I asked.

“Literally everybody does it now. Think about it – he’s going to be one of the youngest kids in his class. And I just read a poorly researched, hastily written article that said that, in kindergarten, the kids born later in the year are practically guaranteed to crumble from the pressures of the education system and become, like, losers when they get older.”

“And this is a thing people do?”

It absolutely is. “Redshirting,” the practice of waiting another year to enroll your child in school, so that they are more likely to be one of the oldest, tallest, and presumably, the most dominant, is relatively common. Pretty much every mother we asked had at least considered it, if not done it.

I’m not joking about the dominance thing – the mothers we talked to about this first-world phenomenon seemed convinced that human society is binary, divided into “leaders” and “followers,” and were determined to forge their four-year-old into a leader.

I’m not sure what “leader” in this context means. A CEO? Football captain? Assertive extrovert? An asshole?

I think they mean an asshole. But we went ahead and tossed the eldest in the education system regardless, and instantly, all of our fears were confirmed, especially when he had to be physically torn from Kate, finger by finger, sobbing like he was being thrown into Victorian-era foster care.

The stressful scene momentarily made me question whether I’d been too hasty in my dismissal of redshirting. What if he really was too young, and the pressure morphed him into one of those dreaded “followers?”

The next few days were intense. Kate fed her ever-growing guilt by reading more redshirting articles to assure herself that she’d done the wrong thing, while I anxiously asserted that he’d probably be fine and that we should just ignore the problem until it goes away. Incidentally, this pretty much sums up my approach to life.

Thankfully, my approach paid off; he chilled out after a week, made tons of friends, and nowadays when I drop him off he doesn’t even turn his head to say goodbye. I know he’s fine because when I ask him how his day went he says “fine,” and that he did “nothing.” Maybe these are early indications of leadership qualities, I don’t know.

The eldest has changed though; his vocabulary dramatically improved, his maturity level shot up, and he already knows the order of the alphabet. Now, when I pretend to be impressed with something unimpressive, he feels patronized rather than validated, which is oddly intimidating.

So, I pretty much just talk to him like an adult, and if he doesn’t understand my misinterpretation of today’s geopolitical landscape, well, that sucks for him.

Meanwhile, the youngest is slowly building a vocabulary, meaning that his adorable baby babble is doomed to disappear, sooner rather than later. Once walking and talking is mastered, you only have about a year of true innocence left.

Innocence is indescribably precious, not just because it is fleeting, but because of the golden smile that accompanies it. That expression of raw, unfiltered joy you see on the face of a beaming toddler just doesn’t exist in the adult world. Except, perhaps, when dangerously intoxicated.

But it isn’t quite the same.

The Scary Man

 

 

Christmas is approaching, and my 3-year-old son can’t stop thinking about Halloween.  

Back in October, when the macabre decorations invaded the serene mundanity of my neighborhood, my son was instantly intrigued. The once-immaculate lawns and flowerbeds were now littered with plastic corpses, the dull, suburban houses suddenly wreathed in spiderwebs, and bulbous orange vegetables grinned at him from every corner.

The arrival of the twisted oddities frightened and fascinated him equally, as the most interesting things in life tend to. But there was one decoration in particular which really captured his attention, and terrified him beyond reason, known as the “Scary Man.”

The Scary Man was technically a woman, a witch, to be precise. It had a ghoulish face lined with sharp teeth, and sported a wide-brimmed hat which I could slowly lift to reveal “his” hideous features. My son took this particular decoration very seriously indeed, and would refuse to touch it, lest it bite his fingers or something.

But he was also completely obsessed with it, and always demanded that we walk the route that passed it by. At completely random intervals, he would express a strong desire to see it, usually when we were several miles away, at the other end of the city.  

Eventually, he began seeing it in our house. Children seem to develop a fear of the dark as soon as they have the capacity to imagine what horrors might lurk within, and he’d just been provided with a genuinely unsettling visual. Suddenly, he didn’t want to be left alone anywhere, not even for a moment. Our shadow-filled hallway was the official territory of the Scary Man, and required adult supervision to cross.

I felt kind of bad that he’d conjured a personal boogeyman at such a young age, so I attempted to lighten him up by making fun of the Scary Man, or explaining that he wasn’t “real.” But real is a difficult concept to explain to a toddler, so I made a foolish comparison to his toys, in an attempt to prove that the Scary Man had no life of his own.

That wasn’t a good idea, seeing as his favourite movie at the time was Toy Story, and the concept of sentient plastic figurines who move only when adults leave the room didn’t seem far-fetched in the slightest.

Finally, I had the idea of shooting a video of the Scary Man, with a Snapchat filter superimposed over his face, in an effort to soften his image. I chose the animated dancing turd, and shot a few seconds of it prancing over his robes. The video greatly amused my son, but the threat of the Scary Man remained untarnished.

Eventually, Halloween passed, and the decorations started to disappear. I explained brightly to my son that the Scary Man would most likely be gone forever, and was startled to see his eyes fill with tears. He was absolutely inconsolable until I reassured him that the Scary Man would return, one day. I’m still confused to how he felt about the thing.

Once the last trace of Halloween had disappeared, we went on our last pilgrimage to visit the Scary Man, in a bid to prove that he was really gone, and hopefully, erode the fear. My son stood in front of the house, staring at the empty wall with a mixture of relief and disappointment.

He still insisted on checking up on it once in awhile, just in case. Sometimes he would randomly bring the Scary Man back into conversation, speculating that our next-door neighbors had thrown him in the garbage, though I’m not entirely sure why he decided to blame them.

Eventually, the warm glow of Christmas filled our neighborhood, the soft, ethereal lights intriguing him almost as much as the zombies. I figured now was the time to explain the concept of Santa Claus, before he developed any critical-thinking skills.

At the mention of presents, he was excited, and I offered to show him a picture of the rosy-cheeked deity of capitalism. He enthusiastically agreed, and I took a moment to consider what his first impression of Santa Claus should be. Being a modern-day parent with the infinite landscape of the internet before me, I had the luxury of being able to choose any depiction of Santa I could imagine.

I decided that, as stupid as it sounds, the Coca-Cola commercials, with their hand-painted, propaganda poster Santa was actually my favorite depiction of St. Nick, and the one I felt most accurately summarized his role in society.

“This is Santa,” I said proudly, holding the phone out.

He beheld the twinkly-eyed, morbidly obese stranger in utter terror, and I suddenly realized what was going through his mind. He’d just spent a month walking through neighborhoods filled with twisted, demonic creatures, and now, I’d just told him that this grinning, bearded man was about to break into our property and deposit wrapped parcels, for reasons he couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Stuttering, I tried to explain again about the presents, but he held up a tiny hand to silence me.

“Daddy,” he said, firmly. “I don’t want that man in our house.”