Parenthood: The Job You Can’t Quit

“I stink at being a parent, and I don’t want to do it anymore. All my kids are going to end up in therapy, and I’d just rather go hiking really.”

(via pictures

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been here. You’ve had those days when you were just so discouraged that you couldn’t see a way through the tangled morass of hope, fear, joy, worry, doubt, and dread that is parenthood. It’s a colossal task, raising kids, and most of us are woefully unprepared for it.

There’s no magic rule book, no fool-proof training. The only models we had are our own parents. But they raised different kids in a different time when children actually played outside occasionally and didn’t carry smart phones in their pockets. The old tricks don’t always apply. And just when you do manage to become an expert on your particular kid, he/she will change. Kids do that. They grow, they develop, they enter puberty, and then all bets are off.

So here I am trying to make decisions on a daily basis that are going to affect the development and future potential happiness of our children, and I’m guessing. Most of the time they are educated guesses, sure, based on past observations of said child, the experience of other parents, and often, extensive reading.  But when it comes down to it, every decision is a judgment call, an educated guess at best, and one that is very often swayed by how much or little patience I’ve got left for the day. And lately, I’ve got to say, the reservoir is pretty darn low. I’m thinking about rationing, but I can’t figure out how to get my family to go along.

And that’s where I run into my other little problem – raising a child in the context of a family. Everybody has needs, and they don’t always spread them out so that you can deal with them one-by-one when you are well-rested-and-emotionally-prepared. That’s not the way life happens. No, life likes to descend on you like a shit-storm of need, nausea and broken appliances. It’s failing grades and juggling bills and used Kleenex and muddy paw prints on the spread you just washed. Life happens in your face, when you least expect it, or when you honestly think the very next thing will be the last straw. You know what happens when you have that thought? Something awful, usually.

Life is like someone calling your name over and over, but they never come to you. You must seek out the caller and carry out their commands. Can you get me a towel? I don’t understand my chemistry homework. Will you get those dogs to stop barking? I’m stressed, I’m nauseous, listen to my problems, fix it, fix it, fix it! It’s like being a genie with a house full of frantic wishers. And just when you think you have a handle on it all, when you have put your house in order, walked the dogs, and anticipated and prepared for every child’s (and your partner’s) every need – life will surprise you. It will wait until you have done your very best, until you are sweaty and dirty and proud of yourself, and then it will walk up, wag its tail, look you right in the eye – and then hike its leg and pee on your shoes.

So this is where I would probably be expected to add a paragraph about how it’s all worth it in the end and how the joys by far outweigh the stresses. And yes, that’s true, though I’m not feeling it so much at this particular moment. Because we all know, you have to work for that attitude. So this is my first step – writing it down. It’s therapeutic. Then I’m going to go have a cleaning frenzy all over my house, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed and don’t know what to do next. (I already had a cleaning frenzy on our yard last evening and may have been a bit too vigorous with the weed-eater and gardening shears. I’m a little afraid to look.)

So after I’ve obsessively put our house (and yard) in order for a few hours, I will be sweaty, tired, satisfied in a way only a career house-not-wife can be after a day spent cleaning, and happy to see my partner and our children when they get home this evening. And we are going to have a happy and fun Friday evening together with lots of hugs and positive affirmations. But until then, I’m going to go bleach something.

Because Life is Sticky: A Countdown of My Top Five Favorite Onerous Household Chores

via and Erma Bombeck

Disclaimer: If you’re not a stay-at-home mom, house dad, homemaker, or someone else who spends a substantial amount of time cleaning up after your family, you may want to skip this fun little list as its grossness factor is high and its only real entertainment value is in commiseration.

Note:  I have omitted anything involving blood, pee, poo or vomit for being too evident. Everybody knows that no parent likes changing diapers or cleaning up after sick or injured children or pets. This list concerns a few of the disgusting chores that get less attention but may be even more onerous by virtue of their long-term (i.e. well past potty-training) and frequent occurrence.

5 – Scraping fruit stickers off the sink, counter, or furniture. Do your kids do this? Take the sticker off the apple or banana and carefully press it onto the edge of the kitchen sink or other handy surface? This is one of the many things that sometimes makes me wonder what my kids really think of me. Do they really believe I have nothing better to do than to scrape away the sticky left by a Granny Smith apple label? Look kids! Here I am, putting my college degree to use with the dull edge of a butter knife. Thank goodness for Goo Gone, the wonder product that removes all residual stickiness! (And the fact that I just wrote that sentence with genuine gratitude makes me want to stick a fork in my eye right now.)

4 – Cleaning in and around trash cans. Nothing more fun to me than picking up used Kleenex or dental floss off the bathroom floor because our sons just missed the trash can. (Not the only thing they miss, but I promised not to mention that.) The kitchen trash can is even worse.  Ours has a lid because otherwise our dogs would help themselves. How does a kid manage to lift the lid, deposit the item, close the lid, and then manage to spill food on top of the lid (and wall and floor)?

3 – Cleaning out the bottom of the refrigerator after discovering that somebody has spilled something liquid and sugary in the not-so-recent past (giving plenty of time for maximal microbial and fungal growth before I discover the bulk of the spill hidden by the bottom drawer). Last time I think it was a mixture the juice from a can of black olives and some kind of red soda.

2 – Reaching into the spaghetti pot soaking in the sink to remove whatever my family has thrown into the water. Do your loved ones do this? Why do they do this? I need to know. I fill the pot with hot soapy water to soak so I can scrub it clean in the near future. But if I leave it in the sink and do not get back to it quickly enough, my family, rather than rinsing their post-dinner dishes and putting them in the dishwasher or other side of the sink, will simply dump every utensil or plate or glass they use into the pot. So now I have to reach into cold, greasy, rehydrated tomato-sauce-water (which now contains a rich, varied mixture of other organic debris) to retrieve a glass that originally just held someone’s after-dinner iced tea but is now coated in a viscous residue from the dirty orange dishwater soup. Ugh.

1 – Reaching into the garbage disposal to retrieve whatever is making the horrible noise. So far I have found spoons, forks, broken glass, bottle caps, lemon or lime rinds, a marble, a handful of pennies, a Lego Guy, and just today, a white jelly-like sack of something that looked like a breast implant with a tough pulpy core that I can’t identify and sincerely wish I had never handled.

Some days, I love my job less than others.

So your turn. What’s your favorite housework to hate? What chores make you feel like an underappreciated, domestic grunt with dishpan hands?

What My Dad Did

One of those Florida trips, circa 1978.

My dad, who has freckled, Irish skin that burns at just the thought of a summer sun, didn’t love the beach. He usually spent our time at the sandy edge of the continent in the shadow of a colorful umbrella in a shirt, hat, and dark glasses, squinting in the glare of the subtropical sun trying to read a paperback without sweating too much on the pages. He never complained and always seemed content to wait for my mother, my brothers and me to tire of the ocean for the day and to help carry all our sandy detritus back to the car, but he never looked terribly comfortable to me. Yet every year he took us back to the sunshine state to spend his vacation time with my grandparents (his in-laws) on the rim of the Atlantic.

I remember those vacations like a personal, idyllic mythology of big family breakfasts and packing picnic lunches in wicker baskets to take to the beach and coming home hours later to their little bungalow near the sea all damp and sandy and sunburned. It was a week permeated with the smell of Coppertone, the tang of icy lemonade, the rustle of palms trees and scuttle of chameleons in the courtyard, the bright towels perpetually drying on a line in the sun, and always the scratch and heat of sun-scorched skin that my dad was always smart enough to avoid.

It was on the way back from one of those visits, my family packed into our 1972 Mercury land yacht, the air conditioner on high, when I, already heavily dosed with Dramamine, informed my father, who had endured hours at the wheel on the interminable Florida turnpike, that if he lit another cigarette, I was going to vomit on him. Daddy took one look at my pale face and carefully tapped the unlit cigarette in his hand back into the pack. He would smoke when we stopped, he said. And for the rest of the trip, that’s what he did. Later he told me he would no longer smoke in the car on future trips. I was exceedingly grateful, and would have left it at that.

But my mother saw an opportunity. When we arrived home, she took me aside. I’ve been trying to get him to quit for years, she said. But he won’t listen to me. But you’re his little girl. If you ask, he’ll do it.

Every year at school, they showed us a film about the dangers of smoking. In it, a father was sitting on the couch watching TV at night after his family had gone to bed, when he nodded off for a moment and accidentally dropped his cigarette behind the couch. Then he goes to bed, the smoldering cigarette ignites a fire, and the house burns down while the family sleeps and the dog barks frantically from the garage. I don’t remember if they survive. It was really quite a horrifying little film.

Oh that’s good! my mother said when I told her about it. Tell him about that!  I was a little startled by how delighted she seemed at my account of the disturbing film, but I did what she told me and gave Daddy a week to taper down. Then he had to promise me not to touch another cigarette.  He gained 30 pounds over the next couple of years, but he never smoked again.

Daddy and me.

And that’s how I discovered, at ten years old, that my dad would do anything for me. He braved the sweltering heat and swarming mosquitos of June evenings, perched on rickety bleachers, surrounded by other parents who shouted and cussed the coaches or umpire by turns, all because his daughter was playing short stop. When I started jogging and Mom didn’t want me to run at night alone, he ran with me, though for the first few months, it was apparent, he would much rather be home sitting in his chair reading a Robert Ludlum novel. He suffered through beginner band concerts and refereed my soccer games and took me to play tennis even though I had the temper of John McEnroe but none of his talent.

Dad when we were stationed in Key West not long after I was born in 1966.

He had already spent years proving himself a dedicated father before I was old enough to notice. In 1971, when my big brothers and I had all reached school age, my dad gave up his career as an officer in the U.S. Navy and he stepped into civilian life to give us a hometown and a house to grow up in. Then, there were years of working late and on weekends and night school to get his MBA.

Dad, circa 1980.

Since I grew up and moved away, he’s traveled thousands of miles to come visit me where ever I’ve lived and spent half of each visit fixing things. He’s funded house repairs and dental work and dog surgery and many other things my partner and I couldn’t afford. He sent me cards every time he went on a business trip until he retired. And though he’s not a fan of sun and sand, he took us to the beach every year because he knew my mom and brothers and I loved it (and did it again just last year so we could all celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together).

Dad, the day after he retired in 2009.

I’ve left a lot of stuff out for brevity’s sake but I remember it all, Daddy. Just wanted you to know. Happy Father’s Day. Love, #1 daughter

A Beachcomber Going Home

The end of a vacation is always the hardest part. I’m already thinking about everything I have to do when we get home. But I have something like a gazillion photos to play with later in Photoshop and a pile of shells to add to our collection (which is entirely too big already, but what can I do? I have to bring home shells. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule.)

So, of course, I took a picture before I packed them up.

And then I thought, people are going to want to see some of these close up. That’s our one piece of beach glass there in the middle plus the claw of an anonymous crustacean, a whelk egg case, and a vetebral bone from I-don’t-know-what because beachcombing isn’t just recreation for me, it’s a fairly serious compulsion.

And here’s our man-made stuff (i.e. artifacts, because I am convinced at least one of these items came from a shipwreck and not just from a tourist’s pocket). My partner found the quarter (obviously modern). Her sister found the crucifix and I found the coin I’m not going to identify for you. Your guess.

Time to pack the car and go turn in the keys.

What’s in a Weed?

My neighbor’s lawn (taken surreptitiously while I pretended to check the mail).

My neighbor’s lawn is a pristine expanse of deepest emerald, trimmed with geometric precision and fertilized, debugged, aerated and over-seeded into hyper-fertility. No weed dares to intrude among the slender blades. No mole cricket burrows underneath. In the dead of winter, when all the yards have gone sere, his verdant plot defies the season. It’s the kind of lawn that practically begs you to strip off your shoes and socks and walk joyfully barefoot among the blades, digging your toes into its genetically-modified plushness. Except my neighbor would have a cow. Because he is a lawn-freak.

His is a trophy lawn. It does not exist for children or dogs to roll and play on. He is retired and I’ve never glimpsed a grandchild. They have a tiny dog, but she walks politely down the concrete walk to the driveway and then to the street every day when his wife takes her for her daily constitutional. No, his lawn exists only to show up the rest of us, to tell his neighbors, look at this. This is how you grow grass. Look upon its magnificence and weep. He is a lawn tyrant and like all tyrants, leaves all the grunt-work to his subjects. Or in this case, his one and only subject, the yard guy.

I hate the yard guy. Not in a he-annoys-the-crap-outta-me kind of way. I usually pass that point before he is halfway through his lawn care ritual. No, by the time he straps his gas-powered, fume-belching, roaring-monster leaf blower to his back and continues to shatter my peace and quiet for another 20 minutes, I am gleefully fantasizing about bloody murder.

In the summer, I try to understand. If my freaky neighbor wants his grass manicured within an inch of its life every Wednesday morning of the growing season, so be it. I’ll grin and bear it (though the grin may closely resemble a rictus of pain. Or rage. One of those.) But yard guy does not simply mow the lawn. He drives a riding mower big enough to carry my entire family around a yard maybe twice the size of a postage stamp for roughly an hour, in case a blade somewhere got missed in the first five passes. The he takes a gas-powered monstrosity of a weed eater and edges the entire yard until the borders appear as if they were cut with a knife and a ruler. Then he gets out the aforementioned leaf blower. And this is when I really have to stop myself from going berserk on the guy.

I think leaf blowers are a sign of Armageddon (and I can’t believe I’m the only one who does). Think about it. The yard guy is using a gas-powered monster that is pouring pollution into our air and emitting a deafening growl that surely violates the city’s noise ordinance and what’s the payoff? In this case, yard guy gets to blow grass clippings off the lawn, where they would eventually decay and add their nutrients to the soil, and into the street. I particularly enjoy this senseless ritual in the spring and fall, when I get to savor the sweet smell of gasoline wafting through my screened windows and the lullaby of the engine’s roar unmuffled by closed windows.

But what really gets me, is when the guy shows up in December, long after the grass has stopped growing, after the leaves have all fallen and long since been mulched or cleaned up, and does the whole routine only more slowly than he would in July. The only thing he manages to blow into the street is a little dirt, but he takes his time doing it. And that’s when I start having graphic fantasies about hog-tying him and locking him in the cab of his own truck with his leaf blower, gassed up and running, in his lap.

All this, because American culture has dictated that every house should have a neatly-trimmed homogenous gathering of grasses in front of it. I was a victim of this arbitrary standard myself for several years. Though I was never so extreme in maintenance habits as my lawn-freak neighbor and his paid minion, I did sacrifice more than a few hours (and dollars) each spring in futile attempts to eradicate “weeds.”

Some of my best clover.

I finally realized, though, that life is short and money is shorter and I have no particular problems with “weeds.” I’m kind of partial to clover really. It’s pleasing on the eyes and bare feet and fun to look through for mutants with an extra leaf. And dandelions are cool-looking when they go to seed. This year, there’s this lovely purple spiky thing blooming all over our “lawn.” I think I won’t mow it until it’s done. It’s pretty. And it’s going to drive my neighbor bat-shit crazy. At least I hope so.

The Bottom Layer of the Middle Class Cake

We’re a lucky family. We own our own house. We have enough to eat. We have cars and computers and pets. And we’re in debt up to our ears. I think that’s pretty much the definition of the American middle class, right?

Here’s why we’re the bottom layer: Our house has a second mortgage and a needs-to-be-repaired list as long as my leg. One of our two cars is into double digits in age and 6 digits in total mileage, but sadly, a single digit is all it takes to describe its gas mileage. Our boys recently hit their teens and became eating-growing machines, effectively doubling our budget for feeding and clothing them pretty much overnight. We buy generic everything at the grocery store, buy in bulk at Costco, and get our clothes (and most everything else) at Wal-Mart or Target on sale, but most months we still end up spending more than we’re taking in.

So, we often have to make tough budgeting decisions. Like, does the dog go to the vet this month to get his shots or does Link get new jeans that aren’t showing his ankles? (It’s a health issue so the call goes to the dog.) Here’s another: do we call a plumber to fix the leaky kitchen sink or do we call a handyman to replace the rotten siding? Trick question. The answer, of course, is neither. I will attempt to repair those things myself. I love home repairs (sarcasm) and I’m really good at them (bald-faced lie). And I always end up with funny stories to tell our friends (depends heavily on your definition of funny).

Basically, the budgeting hierarchy goes like this: children, adults, pets usually in that order except in cases of medical emergency. This list is integrated carefully with a second list including the cars, the house and everything else we own. Priority of the first list over the second list is determined by its category (is it a health expense, an essential need, or just a wants-really-bad?) versus the immediacy of the second list issue which is determined by a series of simple questions, like: Are both cars dead or just one? or Does the home repair issue involve water that is, at this moment, flooding some part of the house? Is that water incoming or outgoing? (Either one is bad but the second is a lot grosser. Especially if it’s filling your basement.) Depending on the answers to the questions, the car/house/possessions issue can then be assigned a metaphorical weight that may or may not give it precedence over the needs of the people and pets in the household.

Sound complicated? It is! The average middle class adult has to endure a deluge of potentially portentous decisions every day. And if that adult happens to be baked into the bottom layer of the middle-class, then the whole decision-making process can be about as fun as juggling fire batons in a high wind. While riding a camel. And being swarmed by angry bees. So, of course, all this stress affects our moods, emotional welfare and physical health which often leads to higher medical bills thus helping to perpetuate the whole process. It’s an infinite, and inevitable, loop.

So I’ve thought about it, and I’m pretty sure that by assigning proportionate numerical values to each of the decisions the head(s) of such a household has to make in the course of an average day that are directly related to money (or the lack of), that I could prove, mathematically speaking, that, for an otherwise mentally healthy person, money does indeed lead to happiness. Or, at the very least, it is a prerequisite. And we’d live longer too. And probably have more fun doing it.

English: Giant Wood Spider Nephila pilipes at ...

Lying in wait for unsuspecting homeowner.

One more example to push my point: My partner and I recently shared a unique bonding experience in the crawlspace under our home while attempting to correct dryer venting issues. It consisted mostly of me stuffing myself through the door under our back deck and firmly directing my spider-phobic partner to immediately exit the web-infested space before she fainted, because I was by no means certain of my ability to drag her unconscious body away from the monster arachnids that were certainly lying in wait just outside the reach of the flashlight beam. (That last part got her moving.)

And all this happened because of money, of the lack of it. My partner’s stress about our account balance in conjunction with the inoperational state of our dryer (a serious problem in a family containing a child with fairly severe OCD) actually overrode her extreme anxiety (i.e. blinding fear) of spiders long enough for her to get herself under the house. She couldn’t even wait for me to make myself available (I was writing), so she was actually alone under the house and very close to a full-blown panic attack before I realized what she was doing. She’s a very stubborn woman. I’m proud to say, though, that we actually managed to resolve the dryer venting issues and that relatively few spiders were unintentionally harmed in the process.

So there you have it. I could go on for another thousand words about all the things my partner and I have done to save money, but I think I’ve made my point. Proof of what we in the lower layer have always known to be true: Money may not make happiness inevitable, but it certainly does make the road to get there smoother, shorter, sweeter, and very probably spider-free.

Evolution of a House-not-wife

Possible things have endings – you know, that time that comes and tells you that you have done it, that you have accomplished something. It doesn’t happen when you are trying to maintain a livable home. Housework is not a possible thing because it is never done, not for long enough to count anyway. After twelve years of keeping a home for my family, I’m still not really okay with that. These people (my partner and kids) just keep messing up my house.

But for sanity’s sake, my attitude about housework has evolved over the years:

12 years ago:  It’s my job to create a safe, fun environment for the kids to play and live in. I’m smart and resourceful.  It’s just a matter of getting organized and using my time efficiently. How hard can it be?

11 ½ years:  God must hate me. I don’t think I’ve slept since April. The kids don’t even give me time to go to the bathroom. I have Play Doh in my hair and I’ve been wearing the same sweats for three days. I’m a failure.

11 years ago:  I did it! Look, I did it! The house is clean. The clothes are clean, folded with socks all matched and put away. The pantry is well stocked and I remembered everything at the grocery store. The children are clean and happy, the toys are put away, and supper is on the stove. My Partner will come home from work to a happy, peaceful home. I’m a little nauseous and that 9th cup of coffee on an empty stomach was probably a mistake, but my house is clean!

What was that noise?

10 ½ years ago:   This is hopeless. It doesn’t matter what I do because 20 minutes later or tomorrow, I’m going to have to do it again.  And just when I almost have everything done for the day, somebody spills something. Or vomits. Or breaks something or dumps out all the Legos on the stairs or climbs a baby gate and ransacks the kitchen while I was picking up Legos. If I have to get up and do it all again tomorrow, I think I’ll shoot myself.

10 years ago:  The degree of order and cleanliness in our house is NOT a reflection of my competence as a parent or a measure of my self-worth as a human being. At least that’s what my Partner says.

She also says it’s okay to let some things go. A home with children is, by nature, chaotic. And chaos is okay. I can learn to live with chaos.

So today, I’m letting go of the housework. Look, this is me, letting go of the housework. It will keep. The boys are going to remember when I sat down and played with them not how clean the house was. I want them to remember me playing Legos with them and making sock puppets, not mopping the floor. That sounds good.

But who is actually going to mop the floor?

5 years ago:  The most intellectually challenging thing I did today was try to figure out how to remove a red Kool-Aid stain from car upholstery. I have dishpan hands. I smell bleach in my sleep. I haven’t read a grown-up book in months. I’m pretty sure I can hear neural pathways shutting down in my brain. I’m going to be a vegetable by the time the little boys get to middle school. I really need a hobby.


Middle Boy:  “I think the cat vomited in the living room.”

Me:  “Oh. Just put a paper towel over it. I’ll get it later.”

Middle:  “That’s what you told me yesterday. It’s still there.”

Me:  “Then it’s not going anywhere, is it?”

Middle:  “But…”

Me:  “I’m trying to write here, sweetie.”

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