Thursday, January 19, 2012

The total collapse of my standards: March 14, 2010

There's a narrow, twisty road between the place you start out as a parent and the place you end up. Along the way, you do, say, buy and permit all kinds of things you never thought you would. I have quite a few friends who haven't had kids, and who talk a lot about how they'll raise them, if they decide to have them.

Y'all, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we're all terrific parents -- until the babies show up.

The journey from soy milk to plastic pistols

    My oldest son will be 10 in a couple of months so, in honor of this milestone, here is a one-sentence summary of everything I have learned about parenting over the course of a decade: The process of becoming an experienced parent is the slow erosion of all your fancy ideas and na├»ve dreams, until you are transformed from a soy-milk-drinking, public-television-watching pacifist to a person who lets her 9-year-old drink Cokes and argues over which episode of The Three Stooges we’re going to watch once this wrestling show is over.

    OK, it’s possible that I am exaggerating. I don’t really let my kid drink Cokes. But if you are a parent, or if you know any parents, you probably know what I’m getting at. We bring that first, impossibly fragile newborn home from the hospital with the purest of intentions, into the most baby-proofed nest you can imagine, our heads full of child-raising expertise gleaned from the 467 baby books we pored over during the world’s most obsessively documented pregnancy. There would be no mindless TV, no junk food, no raised voices, no dairy, no dyes, no cotton that was not organic, no music that did not get synapses firing, no toys that did not expand that amazing, limitless baby brain.

Someday I will cure cancer. Because of this baby play gym.
    It’s cute, how we start out like that. And, at least in the case of my husband and me, we had a couple of years of pretty rigid adherence to most of our principles. TV was educational, toys were constructive, food was rich in all kinds of necessary nutrients. But we had just the one kid, you know. It was pretty simple. And he was a really sweet, compliant kid, with a genuine attraction to gentle play and civilized toys and quiet pastimes. Like I said, it was all very cute.

    But a couple of things happened kind of all at once: our son developed friendships with other kids – kids who had access to all sorts of exciting, never-before-seen wonders (TOY GUNS!) and we had another kid, another boy, and this one did not come equipped with his older brother’s gentle nature. This one is a human pinball with an air horn for a voice and an astonishing ability to break, within 18 seconds, absolutely anything you hand him.  

    So our oldest son discovered that the following things can be fashioned into toy guns: sticks, shampoo bottles, Tinker Toys, toy trucks, toy trumpets, K’Nex, recorders, kazoos, Legos, the cat, candlesticks, binoculars, boots, lamps and loaves of French bread.

    And at the same time, our youngest son began the process of driving us to the brink of collapse, leaving us little energy for the kind of idealized parenting we engaged in with our oldest. Really, it became a survival game: If we were all still alive at the end of the day, my husband and I won a night of shallow, intermittent sleep.

Merry Christmas, my little sniper.
    The boys got bigger, and things got a little easier, but they were never the same as in those early, dream-like days of one kid, public TV and soy milk. Now there is wrestling in the living room, and Cheetos, and throwing things in the house, and yelling and probably not enough baths.

    I knew we had crossed some kind of line around Christmas 2008, when I bought each of the kids their own toy space gun, complete with laser noises and spinning lights in each plastic barrel. The boys were elated, and they whirled through the house all day shrieking at each other along the lines of ‘Bang bang I got you no you didn’t yes I did I got you no you missed me no I got you bang bang.’

    My husband and I just shrugged and laughed, figuring we had both played with toy guns as kids, and we both became adults with no interest whatsoever in guns or violence (unless you count The Three Stooges).

    So, 10 years after the grand experiment that is our family began, we may not be living the life we imagined when we started out, but we sure are having a good time.

You talkin' to me?

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