Today’s guest post on parenting comes from Scott Guldin. Scott has previously critiqued “Lost” for us; he is also one-half of the creative juggernaut that is the FishGuts Podcast. He does an amazing Aaron Neville impression and never once said an unkind word when Ben broke his car window. If you look up the definition “good egg” in the dictionary, you will find his picture there. Thank you, Scott!
All right, Vores. After six months of failed attempts to articulate whatever threadbare parenting wisdom I have cobbled together from 4.5 years on the job, here is what I’ve come up with:
He will make you ache.
Sometimes that pain will be like those harrowing harbingers of something seriously wrong with your body: a broken bone in your foot, say, or a ligament in your knee that is strained, fraying, pulverized. You will worry and hurt and it will eat at vital parts of your being that you couldn’t touch, much less articulate.
Sometimes it will be like the exhilarating pangs that quietly accompany the pinnacles of existence: falling in love, say, or fulfilling some long-deferred ambition. The skies will open, slightly, subtly, and your face will burn from so much silly smiling.
But make no mistake, you will hurt because of this beautiful boy you have nudged into the world with your prayers and your hubris.
A disclaimer in the form of rhetorical questions, asked in list form:
1) Might my perspective be shadowed by two of my life’s most difficult years?
2) Have the misfortunes of miscarriage, cancer, unemployment, and countless petty catastrophes besides made me more likely to dole out dour analysis of a topic so clearly vibrant and wholesome?
3) And aren’t I permanently shattered by my own history—which, to those who know me, has been rehearsed and regurgitated to the point of tedium—that my father died when I was in eighth grade and that my son bears his name (let the reader understand)?
I will violate the core conceit of rhetorical questions and answer outright: Yes, Yes, Yes. Of course. So read with caution, but also know that I have heard several parents, ostensibly better-adjusted than I, and possessed of real jobs, express roughly the same sentiments. So there’s that.
Three snapshots to assert my case.
One. David, a three-year-old in preschool, has a musical recital called the Piggy Opera, based on the Three Little Pigs. For weeks David practices two short songs over and over at home until they play on a relentless loop in our minds. On the big day, I am surprised to learn that the production is much more sophisticated than I had imagined. David’s class, instead of being a cute introduction to a larger event featuring older children, carries on its own an entire mini-musical, including about eight songs and choreography. But David doesn’t seem to know any of these, and he stands stock still through much of the show. No matter. When it comes to public performances involving toddlers, part of the charm is that one or two (or all) of them will become distracted, pick their nose, wave to grandpa, sit down. I get that. What fills me with mounting dread is how it all ends. David only begins to move when he looks at one of his friends, brow furrowed comically, points at him, and starts yelling. This brief confrontation seems to throw David off (to say nothing of the other boy), because when the next song starts (one of the two we had practiced), he doesn’t sing. He just stands there. In a moment of panicked realization, he begins to cry. The final song, the other one we know by heart, is the production’s concluding number. He cries through that, too. Curtains.
Two. On a shockingly warm day this past November, I keep David home from school so the two of us can be together, just the guys. I try to fill our day with his favorite things: we go to the zoo, eat at a restaurant where trains deliver your meal from the ceiling like mechanized manna, and slurp chocolate milkshakes. At the zoo we ride the carousel and train and marvel at a polar bear that heaves its enormous frame off of a frighteningly thin glass partition inches from our faces while swimming infinite laps in a too-narrow tank. We miss the elephants on account of the season but see most of our other trusted friends: kangaroos, meerkats, tigers, flamingos, squirrel monkeys. We are the only people there besides a few bored employees who walk in circles with brooms and stab at imaginary debris.
Three. David is only a few weeks old, and while he is nursing better, his sleep is fitful. Angela and I teeter and careen between new parent euphoria and the brand of madness borne of sleep deprivation. My sisters sojourn west from Ohio to impart their blessings, hold the baby, free us to the wild luxury of leaving the house by ourselves, and share wisdom won from rearing, between them, four boys themselves. In a rare moment when the adults can converse together (David must have been sleeping at this point, but—like so many things from that period—I don’t remember for certain), we all sit at the dining room table. Susan, the oldest, hands me a card and I can tell that she is watching me carefully as I read it. “That’s sweet,” I say with a smile. And it is. I am a father now, and all things are sweet, even if before I lacked the insight to realize it: poop, rashes, ear gunk, plaintive high-pitched shrieks, crusty stumps of umbilical cord: it is all sweet. Susan looks at me, then at Merry, my other sister. “It made me cry,” she says almost as an apology. Susan, whose oldest son is nearly six, is right. I just didn’t know it yet. It was too soon for me to tell. I hadn’t fully glimpsed the ache of parenting.
Yesterday I located the card and cried as I read it. It goes:
Someday, he’ll be a big-time movie star
Or a fifth-grade English teacher.
Someday, he’ll marry, have a few kids.
Maybe he won’t.
Someday, he’ll change the world as we know it.
Or maybe he’ll travel,
send postcards from China,
phone you from Paris.
Someday, he’s going to be a big, strong man
able to carry you in his arms.
(Inside of card)
One day, he’ll have his own hopes and dreams,
that once upon a quiet time,
you closed your eyes
and made a wish
to one day
have him in your life.
I’ve burned through over a thousand words as a sordid excuse to quote Jean Toomer: “Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may isolate them. No one should want to. Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting element to define them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean death.” What I couldn’t grasp at the dining room table four years ago became obvious when tears were shed over a song about piggies, or when the pallid November sun framed my son’s face as we rode a rickety train together. Parenting is both ugly and beautiful, disquietingly painful and a fount of embarrassingly rich joy. It occurs to me, Vores, particularly when I consider your sublime Broken Places entries, that you are better equipped to manage this reality than most. Perhaps you’ve already recognized and mastered it.
If that’s the case, then let me give you my other piece of parenting advice:
In any situation, try to figure out what Nic Cage would do, and double it.