Give Me A Break

I recently spent almost a week at home alone. Just hours after returning to our house from a full family trip to North Carolina, Amy packed up all four kids and took off for another family trip, sans me, in Maine. My new job does not allow for nearly as much vacation as the old one.

While at work on the day that they were to return home, I made mention to someone that I had been a bachelor for some time and that my family was due back later. After some small talk about where they had been, there came this exchange:

“It’s been quiet around the house, that’s for sure.” I said.

“But sad, right? So sad,” she asked.

“Oh……well……I guess there have been some lonely moments,” I said with a smile, “But it’s been an okay break too.”

The look she gave me seemed to be some combination of pity and disgust.

“Oh. Well, I think it’s sad,” she said as she walked away, clearly thinking less of me.

While this particular conversation was a more crystallized version on the theme, it is a similar one to those I have had before.

The evolution of the New American Parent is continuing at an ever-rapid pace. Mothers and fathers are both expected to do more, be involved more, and, I guess, love more.

Every day we leave the house as a family, all in one van, and people get dropped off along the way. At the end of the day, the process repeats itself in reverse. We get home and watch some television or play games or read books. We eat dinner, kind of, together (the adults are there but we don’t really get our food until after all the kids are in bed.)

By the time the weekend rolls around there are swim lessons, soccer games, trips to the mall, park, or just hanging out in the living room.

We do all these things together. Frankly, the amount of time that we’re not at work and not with at least one child is amazingly small.

I think in the eight plus years since Maggie was born, Amy and I have gone on fewer than four dates a year. We’ve actually had two vacations without kids (even one cruise!) but if you add up all those days together, it comes to about a week. Since the twins were born, I think, we’ve seen maybe three movies in the theater that aren’t rated G.

We used to make a habit out of spending those Monday-type holidays together. The kids’ daycare would still be open and we’d have the day off from work. We’d drop them off, get some lunch (preferably at some place without a kid’s menu), and maybe take in a matinee. Since Maggie moved into regular school, she has had those Mondays off too.

While I would certainly like more opportunities for that rare combination of candlelit dinners and “Matt Damon kicks ass” movies, I’ve understood that giving that up was part of the deal of becoming a parent.

I am happy to be able to do all of these things with my kids. I enter into them happily and willingly. I coach them, watch movies with them, play video games with them, read books with them, play ball with them, and build lego trains, planes, and automobiles with them. I zerbert their cheeks whether they like it or not. I pretend to be asleep until someone jumps on me. This will one day surely result in a broken rib. I bench press them and make them flap their “wings.”

No one chooses to have even one child, much less four, without knowing what the trade off is.

All of that said, why is it bad to enjoy time without them as well as the time with them? When did “enjoying the break” become something that elicits a look typically reserved for criminals and/or politicians?

I think part of it could be fear. It is a fear that if you ever, even for a moment, admit that every single second of parenthood isn’t somehow a symphony of rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns dancing on an ocean of sweet-flavored ambrosia that You Are Bad!

From theoatmeal.com – my inspiration for everything unicorn

This fear, I believe, now begins even before the child is born.

We all like to post all those clever little things about how it was different when we were kids. (Okay, fine, I don’t like to post any of those things, but you get the point.)

Yes, I travelled all the way from New Jersey to Florida, completely unrestrained in the back of a mint green 1971 Ford Ranch Wagon and I did it more than once. That doesn’t mean that every one of my kids isn’t completely buckled-up before I even put the car into drive.

Yes, my mother smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol through five pregnancies and we all turned out fine. That doesn’t mean I don’t look askance at a pregnant woman smoking a butt.

Yes, as kids, my brothers and I used to sometimes leave the house in the morning and go wandering off into the woods for hours on end without a parent in sight. That doesn’t mean I’m not sitting on the deck when my kids are playing in the front yard.

But these are changes that have taken place over the more than thirty years since I was a kid. It may be trite to say, but it’s a different world out there now. And even so, I still logically know that I could go inside when my kids are out front and nothing bad would likely befall them. Maggie has already asked when she will be allowed to walk the six blocks to school and I don’t have an answer.

We’re an undeniably protective society nowadays and almost certainly overly so.

Pregnant women can’t do anything. I mean that almost literally. I just now Googled a list of things they can neither eat nor drink. Here is the partial list:

“Seafood, rare beef, poultry, deli meat, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, canned chunk light tuna, fish used in sushi, smoked seafood, jerky (unless used in a casserole), bluefish, striped bass, salmon, pike, trout, walleye, oysters, clams, mussels, Caesar dressings, mayonnaise, homemade ice cream, custards, hollandaise sauces, brie, camembert or Roquefort cheeses, feta cheese, gorgonzola, either queso fresco or queso blanco, refrigerated pate, meat spreads, caffeine, alcohol, and even some vegetables”

So there’s a lot of fish and cheese in there. I’m not sure I’m all that interested in any of “jerky casserole”, meat spreads, or tilefish. But since when were vegetables and ice cream off limits?

As for caffeine, there is no study anywhere that has determined that caffeine is damaging to mother or fetus. It’s all theory that caffeine, as a stimulant, could decrease blood flow and constrict blood vessels, which in turn, could harm the unborn. But even those professionals who are hard line on caffeine preach only a limit on intake, not a stoppage. The guideline is equivalent to about four cans of soda or four cups of coffee a day.

So what do the pregnant woman of today do? Drink none of it. Not a drop.

I have two friends, both very well educated and informed women, one who is pregnant now and one who has a six-month-old. Both, in separate conversations, told me that they eliminated caffeine all together and both used the exact same phrase: “I’m (am/was) following the rules.”

Who is making these rules?

Anyone who wants to is. A bar in New Orleans has apparently taken it on its own to not serve pregnant women alcohol. We’re not talking about hard liquor or drunken women, either. If a completely sober and responsible woman sits down in that establishment and wants a glass of wine – not going to happen.

These aren’t medical professionals, either. Because if we listened to them, we would hear this:

“It is no longer valid to argue that we don’t know enough about low-dose drinking during pregnancy or that the known effects of binge drinking may penetrate to low-dose drinkers somehow. There is no detectable risk associated with light or moderate drinking during pregnancy.”

That’s not saying that if you want to eliminate alcohol, that’s a problem for me. It isn’t. That would be your choice. You can also eliminate caffeine, ice cream, Spam, carrots, pop tarts, Cheetos, and Mint Milanos if you so choose. All of that is entirely up to you.

The problem is not with what you want to do with yourself; it is what we all do to each other. If no professional says you need to eliminate caffeine completely when pregnant, how did that become the rule to do so?

Group pressure is how. We’re so afraid to look like bad parents before we’re even actually parents at all, that we’ll avoid even an appearance or chance that we’re doing something bad. And once that kid is born, it never stops.

I have posited that the first three months after birth are the hardest and least enjoyable of parenthood. Your child needs so much, all the time. It is a constant cycle of eating, sleeping, pooping, and crying. It is a cycle that cares not for the clock and how tired or hungry or needy you are. There is no emotion from the child; there is no recognition of you as their parent. There isn’t that little smile or that little giggle or that little anything that is your reward for being there. That all comes later.

I remember quite vividly the first time that Amy left me with infant Maggie. She was about two months old and we had a plan that would theoretically have her sleeping for the bulk of the time that Amy was going to do a quick shift at work. That plan didn’t work out well.

I was determined, though, that I could do this. After a few attempts at calming my crying infant daughter failed, I loaded her into the car because that, well, that is the trick that everyone tries. All this meant was that I was now locked in a close space with a baby whose cries were becoming more desperate with each passing minute. She did, at one point, quiet for a bit, but one pothole undid that.

By the time I gave in and drove over to where Amy was working, I was as emotionally raw as I had ever been. As she fed our daughter, I walked shakily down the sidewalk, literally near tears. I entered parenthood not only willingly but also eagerly. But it’s hard no matter how much you want it.

Yet try to find anyone who will be honest about it. Anyone, you know, other than me. It’s not hard, they’ll tell you. It’s whatever I said before about sunshine and unicorns and lollipops. It’s a glorious dream within a dream and to suggest otherwise is to somehow insult everything we as a society know about children and families and life. It is a crime against humanity. Shame on me.

So fast forward eight years and add three more children and I am clearly not allowed to suggest that a moment spent outside to company of my offspring is anything other than a desperate and lonely time devoid of even a hint of anything other than despair. We’re allowed breaks in everything else we do. We have jobs but take time off. We live in houses but go away on vacation. We have our own parents and family, but no one looks at you with anything other than empathy when you suggest that the end of the family reunion weekend didn’t come a moment too soon.

The non-nuanced read of this all may seem to indicate that I’m advocating for pregnant women to drink themselves blind while I plan on sending my kids to boarding school. This couldn’t be further from the truth. All I’m saying is that a woman with child shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having a glass of wine on a Friday night. Parents shouldn’t feel as though they have to apologize for going away, without the kids, for a long weekend. If you don’t want to indulge or leave your child for even a single overnight — that is entirely up to you. You go! I will support your choice. All I ask is the same in return.

In the end, parenting seems to have become the new blood sport. Sure, there are still people with better houses, better cars, and better jobs. But the real winners are those that can somehow show how they’re better parents. With each passing day, the societal definition of what that means becomes harder and harder for anyone to live up to. It becomes impossible. We all lose.

So coming full circle back to my co-worker who took such pity or felt such disgust at my being comfortable with being alone? Maybe she really feels that being without her children for a couple days is “sad, so sad.” If she does, more power to her. Whatever works for her, I guess, works for her. I will guarantee you this though: she doesn’t love her children more than I love mine. Nor is the reverse true. She simply runs her life differently than I. I also suspect there will come a time, perhaps as those children of hers get older, that she may want a break. When that time comes, I make her and you all the simple promise that I won’t make her feel guilty for admitting as much. I can only hope the rest of you do the same.

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