Somewhere about the time you hit middle age, you start listening to the aphorisms about aging. Sure you’ve heard them all your life, but just like you don’t really listen to your parents’ guidance about wearing sensible shoes (until your first bout of Plantar Fasciitis) or thorough application of sunscreen (until the second or third—the first could have been a fluke after all—removal of a Basel Cell carcinoma from your face); until you are ambushed by the irrefutable reality, you can be blasé about aging. Of course, long before this rude awakening to your own evolving decrepitude, Karma has come banging at your door (if you are lucky) with at least one child who has painstakingly followed your footsteps and has likewise not listened to the vast amount of practical guidance you have tried to pass along to the him, her or them.
When it comes to sharing my carefully considered parental insights, I don’t love having become the adult voice in the Peanuts cartoon, which never actually has a real, English, intelligible line, but only appears occasionally at the edge of the real action in the story with this valuable addition: “wha-wha wha, wha, wha.” But I’m used to this now, with nearly nineteen years of parenting experience on my lifetime resume. It’s the boundary-testing we read about in our early child-rearing books, back in the days when we still sought out the guidebooks to help us navigate the next phase ahead.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Ace Parenting
Our first cold slap of reality on the life journey came at the very first OB appointment when we learned we were pregnant for the first time. I prepared for that appointment with a handful of confirming home pregnancy test sticks and list of questions, including my practical closing inquiry, for a book on preparing for parenthood.
Yeah, I did say a handful of test sticks. Is it so wrong to marvel in one’s fascinating ability to procreate? Or, honestly, to just ensure I didn’t somehow misread the over-the-counter and under-the-toilet-seat diagnosis that would change our lives forever? So, you’ll understand why two tests weren’t definitive enough. And since the first two were the same brand, the third wasn’t really a valid tie-breaker. And four would maybe net a tie, so the really right –statistically sound sounding– number really should be five, right? One for each little finger or toe on each little hand or foot.
But I go astray; the point was really about getting great parenting counsel, from the start, for developing our perfect child.
I was so excited that my wonderful, highly experienced and very sought-out practitioner was also the mother of two small kids. Not only did I have the “in” doctor, I had a real, proven mother. This was perfect. So, imagine my shock and horror when her response to my inquiry about parenting guidelines was met with an unimaginable reply. She laughed. Out loud. “There is NO studying for this job and there are no guidelines to follow.” Whaaaaaat?
But I needed a second opinion. So I reached for books. First set of signposts to the magic that lay ahead came in the form of a best seller with a title aligned exactly to my needs: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” This handy guide promised a guided tour of the journey, with all of the amazing changes at each month of the transition to parenthood. Delighted with this find, I was anxious to prove my OB wrong. Over decaf tea that morning (my husband even gave up coffee in a sign of support) we hatched a plan to have our own little book club, and compare our “ah-ha” findings from this well researched bible for new parents-to-be.
Perhaps the first indicator that we were in for a shock was the opening page, which blew our minds. Pregnancy –yes, human pregnancy, not that of an elephant or rare mammal of the Amazon—was 10 months! Ten. Not nine (my favorite number), but a whole month longer. This was heresy. How could two intelligent adults, each certified to be somewhat brighter than a doorknob with master’s degree-level education –have been DUPED into believing human gestation was 9 months long? Who snuck in the extra 4 weeks? When?
After swallowing this harsh pill, we regrouped and with our heads bent into the winds of change, plowed forward into chapter two of our new reality. What a reality. Each amazing development of spine, brain, lungs, and pregnancy-stick-numbered fingers and toes of our sweet, miraculous baby was matched, change for change, with the weight gain, flatulence, stretch marks and varicose veins of a person my husband used to find passably attractive. Hmmm. Our little book club went from fun to frightening. To placate me, the father of my child offered, kindly, that the book was misnamed. The real title, he suggested, should be “What to Expect When You’re Neurotic.” As always in our marriage, his humor helped.
What was becoming abundantly clear: just like the first reality TV hit launched at about that time, we would have to learn how to better adapt to unknown volatility, become cunning, well-conditioned athletes of life, and form an alliance deep and strong in order to become Survivors of this little game called Parenthood.
Disclosure: though neither of us ever had to eat a live, disgusting bug in our game—if it were ever required, no doubt that my husband would have done it. Thank goodness he’s on my team.
Your Happy Place?
When dating becomes serious and you start to consider the potential of marriage and a life together, there are typical questions you want to ask to ensure the next 50 plus years of your life will avoid as many speed bumps as possible.
Your religious convictions? Your political convictions? Your fiscal responsibility? Your moral compass?
Over 6 years of dating, I asked plenty of qualifying questions. I was pretty smug in my knowledge that I had done my homework well and cleared the vast majority of potential obstacles including this personal deal breaker:
Your potential of making me a sports widow during football—or any other sports– season?
My beloved also passed an even more crucial two-question test that my best friend asked right before our wedding: Does he have a sense of humor and do you trust him? Check and check.
This prescreening served us well as a couple and in the early years as the survivingest parents on our own family island. In even the most wearying, sleep deprived moments, my husband could draw on his creative reserves formed from a career in advertising and blow me away with his trustworthy humor. Like the day I walked in the door from a tentative early day back to work after maternity leave.
Me: Head aching, guilt raging from breasts questionably restrained and leaky after too many hours away from a nursing infant, enters the house.
“Hi, how did it go today?”
Hubby: Sitting on the couch, big smile on his face, small infant balanced in a sitting position on top of his father’s head, facing the wall. Our contented 16-week-old baby’s view: a big green print of Monet’s Water Lilies.
“Great day! Look: I found his happy place!”
Who needs to prove themselves by eating large quantities of beach maggots when they can conjure this level of advanced life-preserving technique, I ask you? And even though this was just a temporary pit stop on our child’s exploration of a true happy place, for that breath-taking moment, the backwards seat atop Pop’s head was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth.
So who would blame that same wonderful man for exploring his own Happy Place? Evidently a mere mortal, unwilling to consider eating bugs even for the well-being of her family. Although this particular exploration really seemed to start with a mere flirtation, and only– over the course of a few decades– did it reveal itself as not an infatuation but an unwavering, deliberate, flagrant affair.
My husband is in love with Walt Disney.
As far as I can tell, it started innocently enough with a visit to Disneyland in Southern California with our first born when he was just two.
Two is a fascinating age for anthropologists to cover fairly. Kind of like taking a self assessment test on your sexiness in Cosmo Magazine, it is certainly against human nature—and likely the continuance of the human race—to provide a wholly honest assessment of your life with a two year old in the house. This is where the wonder of selective retention comes in handy to us survivors.
Ask my husband, who took on the gargantuan job of stay at home parent, what life was like when our first child was two. He’ll grow reliably misty-eyed, and give his endearingly crinkle- eyed smile that he only makes when talking to –or about– our two kids, and sum it up in one word: “Doofy.”
Translation: our son’s pronunciation, at age two, of the Disney canine character: “Goofy”. That one word is the most powerful antidote to the worst life could throw at my husband. It represents innocence, trust, inquisitiveness and unmitigated love. It obliterates all memory of any other type of less than perfect behavior.
Here is the source of that magic moment: a single sentence, captured on videotape of our impossibly adorable tow-headed*, doe-eyed toddler as he happily played with a .99 cent plastic figurine we’d picked up in the Disneyland Hotel lobby earlier that day. “Daddy, do you think Doofy wants some pizza?”
*Author’s note: there may be disagreement on the level of perfection of this child’s hairstyle–as if a wedge haircut were ever a questionable choice. It worked equally well for Dorothy Hamill in the 70’s as it has for a legion of child actors every year since. No matter how much my now college-aged boy shudders at the photos of that time, I am adamant that the wedge is timeless unisex styling perfection.
Anyway, that line from the mouth of this babe is the root of my husband’s affair with breath-taking animation, admittedly cool animated plastic scenery and all the costumery that comes with it. And as far as the world of guilty pleasures goes, I really understand. So much better that almost any clichéd alternative I can imagine. Unfortunately, there is baggage that comes with this muse as well: masses of humanity adorned in ill-fitting overpriced versions of mouse-themed costumery, all squashed into inhumanly ridiculous mazes to await, bovine-like, anywhere from 30 to 150 minutes at a pop to experience approximately 90 seconds of fun.
Many trips to Disneyland, Disneyworld, Disney on Ice, Disney Musicals and Movies and even a special ring of bovine herding purgatory—a Disney Cruise, did it take for me to realize that my beloved was not on a quest for 90 seconds of tea cup, roller coaster or riverboat fun. My man was trying to get his little family back to our holy grail. Our true north. Our setting for that sweet, innocent moment that is as current for him 16 years later, as if it were just an hour ago.
In many ways, it was just that fast that our kids have grown up.
Bless their hearts, this spring, four months before our son leaves us for college and our daughter starts high school, the kids acquiesced to their Dad’s hopeful request to go to his Happy Place one more time.
In between the crowds and the lines, there was lots of giggling. Our daughter finally lost her fear of roller coasters. We conspired on a creative way to ask someone to Senior Ball. We all screamed like girls on the Tower of Terror ride. And, of course, we listened to Dad relive the Doofy story yet again.
As our six foot tall son stood in line with us and a sea of pint-sized princesses, he didn’t grumble or complain. He simply smiled his patient, knowing grin. And there it was—a glimpse as magical as Tinkerbell’s dart across the sky—the same grin of a sweet little boy wondering about pizza for his new toy pal.
A happy place indeed. We are blessed, we are blissed, and in this moment, we feel like we might not have been so bad at this parenting thing.
We’ve spent two decades building this family nest, piece by piece. The foundation is from lots of trial and error, a healthy dose of luck and it is lined with a few pregnancy test sticks (it’s not that gross, really) and a bunch of shredded pages from a certain Neurotic Expectations book. It’s not perfect to be sure, but it is ours—we didn’t hurt anyone in the development of the nest and we’re delighted that we’ve generally maintained our sanity in the process.
Come August, however, when our nest loses one to college, all bets are off.