At 8:45 P.M. on July 4th, when the sun was just starting to sink below the trees and the first cordite-scented pops of backyard fireworks began to fill the neighborhood, I sat in our living room rocking chair and wrestled a tantruming baby.
It was bedtime, you see, and bedtime is when my 3 month-old son likes to let us know who the hell is in charge around here.
He’s nothing if not consistent, starting to melt just around the time my wife Melinda and I sit down to dinner, ensuring our meals are not enjoyed together, but in a staggered, tag-team manner.
Back in May, when I couldn’t even enjoy a sip of my margarita, it was aggravating. “Doesn’t this kid know it’s goddamn Cinco De Mayo?” I yelled to no one. But two months later, I knew better.
At least not since my dad’s friend Terry stopped mailing us fireworks from Indiana. Terry would send the good shit: black cats, Roman candles, strings of firecrackers, even a couple M-80s. But that was long enough ago that it didn’t seem insane to send a box of illegal explosives Priority Express. My celebrations since then have been pretty tame in comparison.
I did once go see the fireworks on the National Mall, goaded by my girlfriend at the time to brave the sardine crowds and metal detectors to watch a display worthy of its own PBS broadcast. The line for the Metro was so long afterwards, we ended up walking the 40 blocks home, and, like the time she dragged me to an Ethiopian restaurant, it’s an experience I’m fine not ever repeating.
The reason I was so annoyed sitting in the rocking chair, waiting for Robert to stop raking his talon-like fingernails across my chest, was not because I had somewhere to go, but because I knew that even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to.
I know that’s a duh statement to people with kids. Add it to the growing list of stuff I didn’t believe about fatherhood until it happened to me.
The worst revelation, though, is that being a parent even prevents me from doing the shit I didn’t know I wanted to do until I couldn’t. Like, I never thought I’d miss mowing the lawn, but when your entire day revolves around being within arms’ reach of a tiny human, it turns out all you want to do is drive in circles on a machine capable of amputating limbs.
From the moment he wakes until the time he’s writhing in my arms fighting sleep, my day is sliced into 15 minute windows of opportunity where I can try to get shit done.
Actually, it would be nice if the windows were a clear-cut 15 minutes, because at least then I could plan accordingly. It’s more like the windows are an average of 15 minutes, because sometimes they’re 5 minutes and sometimes they’re two hours. But guess what? You’ll NEVER know which window you’re going to get.
The one where you’d try to fit all the yellow shapes into their slots before the timer ran out and they all exploded into your face?
That’s caring for an infant. Every task is a race against an hourglass you can’t see.
Sometimes I feel like he does it on purpose, that he’s got some sixth sense about when I need to do anything other than stare at him. He can be asleep next to me for an hour, but as soon as I start answering a text message, he’s screaming bloody murder.
And you can forget about going to the bathroom, basically ever again. He knows when that’s going to happen before you do.
The other day I rocked him to sleep and put him down so I could make lunch. I got as far as retrieving a plate before he woke up screaming. “You don’t own me!” I yelled.
My desire to resist can at times cause me to make what I’d describe as non-traditional parenting decisions. For example, last week, I convinced Melinda to bring him out on our boat for the day. She’d been dead-set against it from the beginning. Infants don’t belong on boats, she said, but after some significant negotiation, she relented.
All in all, the trip wasn’t terrible, but not what I’d categorize as enjoyable either. I was so hyper-focused on making sure the baby was happy and proving to Melinda it wasn’t a big deal to bring a 3month-old on a boat that I spent the whole trip an anxious mess.
We got ashore unscathed, and once in the comfort of the car’s air conditioning, Melinda turned to me.
“Well, was that worth all the fighting and the trouble?” she said. I said nothing, but I didn’t need to. She’d made her point.
But here’s the problem.
My life has become Groundhog’s Day, each one stretching into the next, an endless cycle of bottles and diapers and burps. Each morning, Melinda and I sit on the couch with our coffee, making small talk and avoiding the elephant in the room. Eventually, one of us gathers the courage to speak up.
“So,” I’ll say, clearing my throat. “What do you want to do today?”
There’s never an answer. We sit there staring into our mugs, searching for an unattainable solution: what can we do that’s productive and rewarding and baby-friendly?
After we chewed on that issue for a couple of days with no joy, I thought maybe answering a different, easier question first could get the ball rolling, like you do with a tricky crossword.
So yesterday, the what do you want to do today? question still hanging thick in the air, I tried a different approach.
“Well, what do you want to do for dinner?” I asked.
Melinda glared at me. “How dare you?” she said. “We just HAD dinner.”
I said yes, that was true, we did have dinner. Last night.
“And you want to eat it again?” she replied.
“That’s the general premise of daily meals, yes,” I said.
Melinda sighed. “It’s not even 11 o’clock. How could I possibly answer that question now?”
My attempt at clearing the creative logjam a failure, we did what any couple in their mid-30s do when we need help on an unanswerable question: We Googled it.
I said that sounded perfect, and she began to read.
“Number one: do a puzzle.” She frowned. “Fuck you, list.”
The suggestions didn’t get much better after that.
Included in the top 10 was start a blog— “I already do that,” I moaned—write poetry, and look at pictures of puppies.
The list really cut to the bone when it suggested I finally get around to reading Infinite Jest. “That’s just hurtful,” I said.
By 9 o’clock, Robert was fading, his innocent face showing no signs of the scratching and tantruming that’d just taken place.
I look forward to the day when my son doesn’t rule every moment of my life, when I can cut the grass in peace. I know it’s coming, but I also know my current challenges will just be replaced with new ones.
But you know, the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m looking at this phase all wrong. My life isn’t on pause until bedtime or until Robert can entertain himself; in fact, some of the most significant moments are the ones happening right now between naps.
When Robert was first born, my friend Alycia told me I’ll spend the first half of his childhood wishing for him to be at the next stage of growth and the second half wishing he was at the previous one. “Just enjoy what you’ve got now,” she said.
I’m not much for parenting advice; it seems like as soon as I had a kid, everyone around me turned into Dr. Spock, but Alycia’s hit home for me.
So I listened. I stopped watching the clock and started to watch him, his arms falling to his sides, his eyelids tiny slits, too heavy to hold open. The corner of his mouth turned into a half smile and he gave a contented sigh, and with that, he was asleep.
Then Melinda and I took some beers to the driveway and watched a few bottle rockets flicker in the neighborhood sky. I told her about my dad’s friend Terry, dead now some 20 years from cancer, and how his illegal packages made my childhood Independence Days worth remembering.
I told her I was excited about forging those memories with our own family in the coming years. But I also said I knew we’d never again have this particular moment, in the driveway with the haze of fireworks smoke floating in the street lamps, while our infant sleeps peacefully in his crib. It was his first Fourth, and one I don’t want to forget, no matter how boring it was.