I’ve been doing it for almost 8 years now. Day in, day out, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for nearly 3,000 days. I’m actually going on my third time now, as if I didn’t learn my lesson the first two times. Like a hangover. Lol. I’ve seen my parents do it – five times. I’ve seen my siblings do it over the last 15 years. Over a dozen times in total. And despite all of this, every day, I still go to bed telling myself I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. I mean, how the heck can I be a parent? I’m still a kid myself!
Ok, I’m exaggerating when I say I don’t know what I’m doing. I kind of know what I’m doing. After all, some of the tricks to being a “responsible” parent are black-and-white – no ifs, buts, or coconuts. Brush their teeth. Take them to school. No horror movies before bed (and, to save some heartache, “Anchorman” is surprisingly inappropriate for a seven-year old!). So I’ve got that. But generally, that’s not where the internal conflict lies. The doubt. The insecurity. That question that churns around and around in my head, endlessly… “What the heck am I doing?”
When I say I’m still a kid myself, I’m not being tongue-in-cheek. I’m still a kid. A kid trapped in an old man’s body. Whenever I see a pumpkin, I still want to smash it. I still want to go skinny-dipping at midnight. In December. I want to jump off things. Break stuff. Run wild. Make poo jokes. But my back hurts. I have grey hair. I have a mortgage. And I’m perpetually worried about dying prematurely and leaving my wife and kids to fend for themselves in this often cruel and heartless world.
I still feel young, yet I see myself getting older. I hear myself sounding like my parents, and I don’t really like it. “What did you just say”? “One more noise like that and there’s no dessert for you!” “That’s it, if you’re only going to eat the chocolate, I’m not making pancakes for you again!”. Ok, my parents never said that last one. They never make pancakes for me for breakfast…
It’s a peculiar crossroads I’m living through. I know what it’s like to be a kid. But I feel what it’s like to be a parent. A tired, irritable parent. Walking that fine line of what it means to be a responsible parent and having no idea as to whether or not I’m doing it right. Perpetually tired, at record-high irritability levels, and finding myself yelling and disciplining more often than I’d like.
And therein lies the internal conflict.
I don’t like shouting. I don’t like disciplining. I don’t feel good about doing it. But my willingness to engage in child-diplomacy has its limits. Ever shortening limits. I don’t like hearing myself sound like a dictator, resorting to the “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” after offering every reasonable explanation a human can offer. But sometimes a kid just won’t understand why they can’t have more than two vita-gummies in any given day.
But the conflict of being a kid in a parent’s body comes not from the black-and-white stuff. It comes from what I call the “grey-zone” – the stuff about which there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer. At what point should I get mad? How mad should I get? How long should I pretend to be mad for? How many playdates in a week is too many? As of which season of the Simpsons does it become inappropriate for a kid?
Too much discipline, and you’re an overbearing dictator. Not enough and you become a pushover, a pariah whose kids become a bad influence for friends and neighbours.
I remember someone saying “if you don’t like the way you sound, stop sounding like that. If you don’t like the way you’re acting, stop acting like that”. And it’s so easy to tell myself when watching other people parent. It’s so easy to look at other parents dealing with their kids and tell yourself how you would handle it. I regularly look at parents who are on both ends of the grey-zone spectrum. Some impose perpetual discipline to the point where there is no fun for kids or family. Others resign themselves to a total absence of discipline to the point where it is not fun for anyone else. I like to think I’m in the middle, erring on the side of discipline. But it’s all grey water. I still hate the way I sound sometimes. I still hate making my kids cry. And I still don’t know, with any degree of certainty, if I’m doing it right.
At the end of the day, what I’m realizing is that to the extent that you remain in the grey-zone, you can’t really do much more. Someone will always criticize you as being too lax, too overbearing, too involved, or too uninvolved. Someone will look at you and say you are being too authoritarian. Someone will say that you’re being to honest. Too proactive. Too late. Too soon. They’ll will say you should wait until they’re older before explaining why the World Trade Towers are no longer there. Some will tell you that any television is too much. Some will tell you that television is the answer to all of life’s woes.
When it comes to the grey-zone area, everyone has an opinion, and everyone is quick to offer it, even if only through a glancing stare. You just have to take your best guess, go with it, and not be distracted by the nay-sayers.
I suspect every parent will, at times, hate the way they sound. I’ve come to appreciate that every parent must dispise sending their kids to their room, making their kids cry, denying them a playdate. A dessert. A fifth bedtime story. I suspect every parent will have trouble explaining, if only to themselves, why they have seemingly arbitrarily decided that “enough is enough”.
Being a kid and an adult in the same body, I appreciate that the frustration of being is a kid is having wants and desires that a kid doesn’t have the capacity or authority to satisfy for him/herself. Being a kid also means being totally unaware that some of the wants and desires they have may be totally destructive. And an unavoidable part of being a parent is trying to bridge that impasse, and hating the way you sound when doing it. Being a parent is forcing yourself to impose discipline. At times succumbing to fatigue. At times becoming something you’re not, and something you don’t want to be. It’s being human, in all its imperfection. Being tired, being stressed, and sometimes not being as patient as you want to be when you’re forced to do what you don’t want to do.
New Years is fast approaching. For some reason, everyone needs a meaningful starting date for a resolution of change, and New Years seems to be the most popular one. So I’ll make it mine. I will resolve to be as patient as possible while remaining within the grey-zone of responsible parenting. I will resolve to try and love the responsibility that family life imposes on me, even if I hate the way it makes me sound at times.
I will probably continue to err on the side of discipline, only because I think that is the way to go. But it’s still grey-zone material. And there is still a world of fun to have within that grey-zone spectrum. And here is a moment that embodies what it means to be a parent.