I try very hard to do two things in my day to day life:
1. Be on time.
2. Protect my kids’ childhood by not constantly rushing them from Appointment A to Appointment B.
As you can imagine, these two goals are often in conflict. My general approach is to build in lots of extra time. I try to get to my kids’ school with enough time before gymnastics class that when Caleb wants to check out all the dandelions or Sophie wants to finish her drawing, I can say “yes”. Better still: I can stand back, smile, and just watch my children being children. I treasure those moments, and there are never enough of them.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
We were on track for an 8:20 departure this morning despite the kids deciding to have breakfast twice. They have weirdly erratic appetites, and sometimes I can’t get them to eat a single bowl of cereal in the morning. Even if it has marshmallows. Today, they had an entire bowl of cereal, said they were done, and then decided they needed oatmeal as well. They ate all the oatmeal, too, so I’m glad we had the time. (Hungry kids = unhappy, poorly behaved kids.)
Anyway, 8:30 is the real deadline if I want to be sure they get to school on time, but heading to the car at 8:20 means that I have time to calmly mediate any disputes about who gets to sit on which side of the car, that I have time for them to buckle themselves in at young-child pace, and that I don’t have to worry about getting stuck behind a school bus or something. But just before I say “Let’s get in the car,” Caleb decides he needs to go to the bathroom right now. No big deal, I think, but then it ends up being one of those #2s where he just sort of hangs out on the toilet indefinitely. Even with all the gentle cajoling I can muster while keeping a smile on my face it’s a full 10 minutes before he’s finally ready to go again.
But when we get downstairs, Sophie is nowhere to be found. “Where’s Sophie?” I ask. “I’m in the bathroom,” she responds. It’s 8:27, and she has also decided that right before we leave for school is the optimal time for a #2.
How do you plan for synchronized poo? You don’t. There is no planning for synchronized poo.
We made it to school on time, but it involved a lot of “Yes, you do have to wash your hands!” and “Wash your hands quickly!” and “Buckle up right now!” and some less-than-sedate driving. I had to apologize to Sophie for losing my patience before dropping her off.
You win some. You lose some.
I figure the important thing is to not let the setbacks get you down. You only get one shot at this whole parenting thing. Kids are so different from each other, that even when you’ve got more than one, you’ve still really only got one chance per kid, and that’s the only reasonable way to count these things.
That’s a lot of pressure. Sometimes you lay in bed at the end of the day wishing you could have a do-over. Yesterday Caleb decided that he would follow his sister into the girl’s bathroom and use that one after gymnastics. (In his defense, both of the bathrooms were clearly built as girl’s bathrooms, so it’s easy to get confused. Also, he just turned 5.) The problem is that he managed to do this while out of my line-of-sight. So I turn the corner and my daughter is gone (as expected, she’s going to the bathroom) and my son is also mysteriously absent. I spent several long minutes checking everywhere for him and fighting the irrational but visceral fear that one of my children is lost. I’m also frustrated because looking for him means not being there when Sophie gets out of the bathroom, and if she wanders off looking for me both of my children will be lost.
Finally, an eternity later, I spot Caleb at the far end of the facility, running outside and obviously looking for me. I walk briskly down the entire length of the hall. I call him occasionally but–in young child fashion–the one thing he can never hear is a parent trying to get his attention. I think peaceful thoughts and try to prepare myself to handle this. I don’t want to lose my temper, but I want him to know in his bones not to disappear when I don’t know where he’s going.
He finally sees me when I’m just a few steps away, and runs to me with a giant grin. I stoop to his level, hold him by both shoulders, look him directly in the eyes, and say very, very quietly but very, very firmly, “Never run away without telling me where you’re going first.” Then I pick him up and hold him because my son is not lost, and it’s just one of those minor, every-day, non-emergencies, but I need to feel his little body pressed to mine. To not just know but feel that he is whole and safe.
The happy light in his eyes has gone out in response to my words, though. He doesn’t understand. He just knows that he was happy and relieved to see his dad, and his dad met his smile with a frown. “You’re hurting me,” he complains, and I realize the headphones around my neck are digging into him while I squeeze. I set him down and we retrieve his sister (who confirms he had used the girl’s bathroom, so I have to add that to the list of “Don’t do that again.”)
I try to explain that I just don’t want to lose him, but as we get buckled into the car his lower lip is quivering, tears are glistening in his eyes, and he’s visibly struggling not to break down and cry. I tell him that I love him, that he’s not in trouble, and that I just want him to be safe. I didn’t yell, I didn’t raise my voice at all, but it’s still not enough.
How do you convey to a little 5-year old boy how much he means to you? How much of your heart goes everywhere with him? You don’t.
At least, I don’t know how to. I laid in bed last night, trying to figure it out, and I couldn’t come up with a better answer. I made my little boy cry yesterday, and I’d do it the same again. I just don’t know a better way.
That’s why it’s important to let these things go. Every time I drop my kids off somewhere it’s like half-time in a football game, and my team is always behind. The trick is to forget the failures and the unavoidable setbacks so that when I go to pick them back up I’ve got my game face back on. I know I’m never going to be the perfect dad, but I still want to be the best I can. I don’t want to let recriminations rob me of precious moments of getting it right, or stress me out so much that I do even worse.
There’s a lot of pressure, sure, but there’s no time to worry about that. As best I can tell, being a good parent is mostly about forgetting yourself anyway. If you do that, a lot of the excess guilt goes away and you forget the pressure. You can just focus on being in the moment with your kids.
That’s what I’m shooting for, anyway. Just trying to keep my game face on, you know?
We’re parents. We do our best.