The self-centered parent
Whining, obnoxious, overly tired, constantly hungry, distracted, self-centered snots. And those are the parents.
Before I had kids of my own, a friend came over and trashed my house with her red-headed demon child. As she watched with bemused detachment, her 5-year-old tossed each and every one of my alphabetized CDs on the floor, then slammed wooden blocks onto my glass coffee table until I stopped the madness with a firm hand. Clearly, Mommy's Valium-induced stupor had relaxed the hell out of her (and her mommy manners), and it's the reason I didn't feel bad leading them to the door five minutes after their arrival, and toward their next Ground Zero destination. Incoming!
Though not of the mind that children should be seen and not heard (it's simply not practical), I do understand that they're not the center of the universe, or the company of choice for many adults who don't have to be (or want to be) around them. I never had an interest in spending a majority of my time around youngins either -- they're loud, expensive and exhausting -- but happen to fall in love with a woman who has twins. Now, I'm figuring out how to enjoy the little buggers -- and protect the rest of the world from being crushed by them.
The biggest fights Vanessa and I have involve being with Rachel and Riley when we go to other people's homes, especially when we're guests in a non-kid zone. If it's a sleep-over situation or family play date, and ours can raise hell with other children, let the War of the Worlds begin: We can group-parent and blame their kids for the bulk of the damage. But when we're somewhere that involves attempting to have adult time while simultaneously parenting, then we're headed for trouble -- and time on the shrink's couch.
We were recently invited to my aunt's house to visit her new puppy. Things were going well, until they weren't -- which happens a lot with the twin dynamic. While my aunt took Vanessa aside to try on a vintage outfit she thought might look fabulous in (it did), the kids got into a tug-of-war with the pooch while trying to dress the little guy in the baseball uniform my aunt had bought for him. The puppy yelped, my aunt came running, the twins engaged in fight mode, and I just wanted to go home.
Leaving the crime scene, I lectured Vanessa about leaving her kids unattended (ignoring my presence and rules on positive communication), griped about how much of a burden it was to solo parent (as if she didn't know this), and became angry that simple visits could turn so violent.
"Well, then we just won't go anywhere!" my wife yelled, feeling that she'd been blamed for bad mothering (an accusation akin in her mind to murder or molestation). And I explained -- again -- that when we're at someone else's house, she needs to be particularly alert to what the kids happen to be doing. So immersing herself in conversation -- no matter how fascinating -- or participating in fashion shows is not allowed. If I'm going to be distracted and anxious at a party, she's going to be anxious and distracted with me. Good times. Much of the problem comes from being too sensitive to the situation -- I'm overly aware that the kids are being watched like bulls in a china shop, and that I'm being observed in terms of parenting skills, stress level and the odd, jittery twitches I've acquired since the wedding. I can't fix or control everything (or so my wife tells me). Just as my father is going to have to learn to say "no" when his new grandkids ask for shoulder-rides, to fill the hot tub with Jell-O or drive 'em to ice cream, I need to make the best of each situation and know (most) adults can fend for themselves. All the same, I feel a certain responsibility to protect everyone from what we brought with us -- lovely, energetic, attention-requiring youngsters (and usually a nice bottle of wine to ease the pain).
Latch-key, Schmatz-key: Vanessa takes the twins everywhere; they've been attached to her hip (and other body parts) for a decade now, and she doesn't know any better (or have the resources to hire a nanny or purchase a secure enclosure with electric fencing). It's like bringing along your seeing-eye dog, rain jacket or American Express card -- ya don't leave home without them. I'm the opposite, having spent 20-plus years departing the house without accessories or living creatures of any kind -- no checking for snacks, warm clothes, wet naps or iPods -- just flying out to meet friends for coffee and whatever comes up next. Rachel and Riley really are quite polite and well-behaved, considering. Better than most, and in no way malicious, they're simply not maintenance-free. I can't fully relax, drink heavily, swear like a sailor, drive golf balls into the neighbor's yard or pass out in a spare bedroom when we're on watch. (Not a pretty picture, I know, but old habits are hard to break.)
Life has changed, and often for the better with the hug-fests, giggles, grand smiles and the fresh, innocent outlook that kids bring to my world; nonetheless, it's important to keep a non-parental perspective when dragging the youngsters to new environments. What we parents need to realize is that, sometimes, it's better without them.
The Accidental Parent is a column about a lifelong bachelor, Michael Stusser, who recently married Vanessa, the mother of 10-year-old twins -- Rachel and Riley.
Originally published in the January, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.