The lost boys

You may recall that Rob, our donor-dad extraordinaire, took care of the kids for us for a week in May while we lived it up in Denmark. Here, in what I think is my first guest post ever, are his reflections on that time. (Note: I was not the mother with the Word document.) (Oh, also: today is your last day to enter to win a copy of Jenny Lawson's — a.k.a. The Bloggess’s — memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened. Brought to you by my ineptitude and Amazon's sneakiness. Also also: the deal has become even sweeter: Mary, Jenny's assistant (who signs off her e-mails with "Hugs!" and how sweet is that?) has very kindly offered to send along a signed (by Jenny, just in case that wasn't clear) bookplate for the winning book. For a chance to win, leave a comment here and/or become a Facebook friend/liker of this blog. Good luck!) (Done with parenthetical comments, for now.)

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I read somewhere that we are more likely to agree to a thing if it’s far in the future, when the details have not yet been sketched in, when the thing in question is at its most abstract. So, when the mothers asked me eight months ago if I could take care of the boys while they went to Denmark to celebrate Susan’s 40th birthday, I agreed. It made me feel warm inside, like a good guy, when I said yes, absolutely. Besides, who even goes to Denmark? They’re probably joking, I thought to myself.

But then eight months passed. And here I am, sitting at their kitchen counter as one mother explains lunches and idiosyncratic eating habits with the same gravity she might use in a training video to explain how to defuse a bomb. I learned from the last time they went away that it’s important that I should nod, mirror her grave expression with my own. I also learned last time not to repeat back the instructions the way a logical training session might demand, because the slightest error or discrepancy in repeating the instructions will make her shoulders and face drop with a “you just blew up the children” admonishment.

The good feeling inside me is not there now. In its place is a growing Word document with detailed instructions for each day and a thin (but growing thicker) feeling of foreboding.

Day 1

The sun’s not yet up. The children are sleeping. The mothers scuttle around the house preparing for their departure. I’m about to be a single parent for a week. Praying for that village they’re always talking about. Or mastery of the Vulcan nerve pinch. And thinking with gratitude of my mom who was solo for five years. So glad she’s not on Facebook to revel in this.

The moms had suggested that small child might need a night light so as to more easily adjust to sleeping in his own bed, in his own room, while they are gone. Last week, in a fit of optimism, I agreed to help sleep train him.

What hangs as prophecy over tonight is the wailing I heard from upstairs last night; the thin, drawn faces of the mothers’ fatigue this morning as they shuffle luggage to the cab. If it was that bad for them, these first steps of sleep training, how awful will it be for me?

Nightlight becomes another word for hope. Tonight the child is getting a Led Zeppelin–style light show. Shock and awe, child. Shock and awe.


Day 2

Discover mothers have been raising sons wrong. Someone taught the small one that 5:30 am is morning.

There was something resembling sleep. The way butchered lamb chops resemble fluffy sheep.

At a low moment tried to convince the four-year-old to count the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling. Few things less depressing at 1:00 am than a four-year-old glowering at you like you’re a dumbass. Think I even said “That’s all I got,” before backing out of the room apologetically.

Feel I have it marginally more together than the dad in sad pajama bottoms and leather coat at the school drop off. But did find myself yelling “Don’t put your toothbrush in the bird poo!” this morning as we played soccer and brushed our teeth in the backyard (I forgot about teeth brushing until we were already out the door).

After they are at school, I go to the gym. I discover that being the small one’s dad means showering and discovering a mysterious bump on your lat muscle, only to find a purple gem sequin stuck there. I am a little fancier for being his father. And this is how the week seems to be going: sleeplessness punctuated by panic and small shiny moments.


Day 3

Small one is collecting bugs in the backyard, big one is reading by himself upstairs, and I am making roast chicken with Greek salad and corn on the cob. All seems calm and normal. This is how horror films begin.


Day 4

Saturday morning. Vaguely recollecting my mother sticking us in front of cartoons for three hours with sugary cereal. Tempted. But take the boys to the playground to play instead. Also, they don’t have cable.

Afternoon. I yell at the big one for first time ever. I want to defend this, explain that he had been tantrum crying for 45 minutes, demanding I submit to his will in a loop that logic could not undo, both Dr. Spocks failing me at once. Every meditation class I ever took failed me. And I yelled. And I hate to admit it, but for a moment, the smallest moment it felt good, like rubbing sore eyes or scratching at poison ivy: a small relief already tinged with the regret to come.

At bedtime the small one presents me with the two books he wants to read before bed and one of them happens to be titled Sometimes I Get Angry. I apologize to him, both amused and irritated with his superior parenting ability.

I then apologize to the big one as I wash his hair in the tub, explaining how I didn’t know what to do with my frustration, but that yelling was not the answer.

When I am done my apology, big child looks up at me with his big eyes from where he is half submerged in the water: “What?” His ears have been under water the whole time. And he hasn’t heard a word. For a brief moment I wonder if I should repeat the apology. My Irish Italian upbringing tells me if you can apologize without being caught in an apology you have had a glorious win. But I inhale and repeat the apology. Because I want to be a good father. Whatever that means.


Day 5

Sunday. Small one wakes me at 5:30 a.m. again. I sort of lie and tell him it’s not morning yet and tell him to go back to bed. He does. I do not revel in this as I know this won’t last.

Am going to dry hump Monday’s leg.

In other news, it turns out it’s way more fun to make them pee their pants laughing when you don’t actually have to do the rank, sodden laundry.

And as for laundry, I know I should look in the pockets of this moist, miserable pile of clothes, but I can’t bring myself to. I wash the pile, secret contents and all. I feel both relief and foreboding. See a pattern?


Day 6

Monday. Both dropped at school. Relief. Followed by, you guessed it, foreboding. Slow dawning realization that the mothers might never return. Remember thinking that they took an awful lot of luggage. Imagine they will travel the world now like that gnome in the film Amelie, sending postcards:

“Wish you were here?”

“How about here?”

In the news, Maurice Sendak died. Even he has abandoned me.


Day 7

Beware the cuddles. This is how they will get you. Tantrums about tortellini, who said what to whom, the unfairness of the world that, it turns out, is not all about them … all falls away in a headlock of love at bedtime, a snuggle squirm. Drats, foiled again.


Day 8

Overwhelmed with the urge to say, “Every time you pee on the toilet seat, god kills a Pokemon.” I don’t believe in god but feel like I need to resort to the wrath of someone more convincing than me. “Just you wait until your mothers get home” also has a ring to it, but keeping that one in my back pocket for a real emergency. Consider this an advance apology. But not for the random deaths of Pokemon because they are so asking for it.


Day 8.5

A mother comes home tomorrow. Plan to pick her up and carry her out of airport a la Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. Strangers might think it’s romantic. It’s just my way of making sure she gets to the house and takes over parenting a.s.a.p.


Day 9

Not sure but think the mothers in the schoolyard have been watching me in a Gorillas in the Mist kind of way. With amused scrutiny. Not sure if they have been rooting for my success or failure. Or what this means for the future of menchildren everywhere.


Day 9.5

No more solo. Oh thank gods for moms.

On the plane to fly east and then west to see my own mother, I find myself looking back over the lost boy time we had. Somewhere in there I had the insane idea I could be at least pretend to be as good at it as the moms are. Somewhere in there I thought I could avoid making mistakes like my father(s) made. I couldn’t. I didn’t. But I did learn that I could keep the children alive. And when I stumbled I learned that I could apologize and explain what I did wrong.

And, yes, I will admit that the encyclopedia the one mother prepared saved my life. But the boys, when I would stop worrying and pay attention to the giggling joy of the monsters before me, ensured it wasn’t just an apocalyptic survival exercise.

Inevitably, I think this brought me and the boys closer. But I can’t honestly say it evolved me in the parenting department. Except that maybe next time I might panic less. Maybe next time I’ll trade it in for a glazed sort of nonchalance, a little like leather-coat-pajama dad.

Next time. I can say that because it’s probably a year away. And saying it gives me a warm feeling inside.