Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Evolution of a Dad

Sanity is not a recommended personal quality for the job of parenting. Squeamishness is not, nor is long and deliberate decision-making. Much of parenting, far more than I'd expected, has to do with quick and dirty do-it-now reactiveness, all the while being gentle and loving to the child in front of you. These qualities aren't issued at the hospital with the baby blanket and diaper bag, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly when they emerge.

I knew Eric for many years before he was a parent. He courted his wife, my good friend Cara, when I was expecting my first child, and my bridesmaid dress for their wedding had to be custom-fit to accomodate my barely post-baby figure. He got to see parenting up close and personal long before he applied for the job himself. He was a great guy, but babies made him nervous, as they do many young men. The only way he would consent to hold Mary as a newborn was to arrange himself on our couch, his body plastered against the back of the seat, arm and shoulder carefully braced against the arm of the couch, with Mary carefully laid across his lap. Even then, he was visibly afraid that she would suddenly gain the power of motion and leap out of his protecting arms onto the floor. After a few minutes his nerves would overpower his politeness and he would hand her back, shaking his head at the courage required to carry a baby all over the house, sometimes in only one arm.

Time passed, and he and Cara decided to start a family of their own. But they, as so many couples do, found that there was quite a long journey between deciding to start a family and actually getting the heartstopping double pink line on the pregnancy test. In those long years, fluctuating between frustration and hard-earned patience, Eric became more comfortable around my children. Mary adored him, and started crawling into his lap almost as soon as she could walk, and her wide grin won out over his natural caution. It helped that she, like many toddlers, was apparently indestructible.

When Peter was born and Eric and Cara were still waiting, his reticence had faded even farther. He would hold Peter, and he didn't even have to sit down to do it! I loved surreptitiously watching him, the 3-year-old Mary climbing up his leg in her inimitable way, as he grinned at her and laughed as he scooped her up into a scratchy-bearded hug. Looking at Cara's wistful expression, the same thought always came to mind: "He's going to make a GREAT dad."

And he did. Mariah made her long-awaited entrance into Eric and Cara's life a little over a year ago, and it was astounding to watch how naturally he fell into the Proud Daddy pose -- baby held across his chest, grin nearly splitting his face in two, and neck cocked at that sweetly awkward angle that says, "I'm looking at you right now, but as soon as you break eye contact I'm going to look back at my daughter."

We saw less of them for a while as their lives were overtaken by the inevitable hurricane of diapers, bottles, and sleepless nights followed by crashingly tired days. But then Mariah got a little older, and the more we saw of them, the more evident it became that we were right -- Eric was a great dad.

I didn't realize quite how thoroughly he had made the transition, though, until Mariah's first birthday party. Our whole family attended, and Peter (as he so often is) was excited beyond his little body's endurance. The whirling carousel, the giggling children, the bobbing balloons, the noise of the calliope, and the endless bowls of pastel M&M's all combined for sensory overload. He ate too big a bite of cake, gagged, and his dad sprang to move Peter's chair back from the other diners. In less time than it takes to tell it, I upended my fruit plate onto the tablecloth, threw myself bodily across the table, and shoved the plate under Peter's chin to catch the mess.

The woman at the next table watched this drama, eyes wide, and I realized that to a non-parent my actions would have looked, in that first split second, like the flailings of a madwoman. Strawberries bouncing across the decorations, grapes rolling under the table, my body flopped gracelessly horizontal like an outfielder going for the game-saving catch. What startled me more than anything was that I hadn't even thought about it. He barfed. I leapt. It was that simple.

We cleaned him up and sent him outside for a breath of fresh air. He seemed to be feeling a little more steady, and he came back in asking for more candy. My hesitation was well-founded -- as he stood next to the dessert table between Eric and me as we chatted, Peter got the familiar wide-eyed look of panic on his face and made the little urping sound that signals an impending explosion. I scrambled for a plate, a napkin, a garbage can, anything to keep it off the birthday cake. I spun around, plate in hand, only to see Eric stretched out in the classic parental pose for vomiting children. He was standing precariously balanced on his tiptoes, arms outstretched to make the catch, face a mixture of compassion and sympathetic nausea, trying at once to console Peter and keep from requiring an entire change of clothes himself. He had the same three seconds to react, and he'd beaten me to it.

No question about it ... he's a dad.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Read Me a Story?

I think I'm a pretty tough cookie when it comes to my children's wheedling. I effortlessly refuse appeals for curly fries from Arby's. I have no qualms about nixing requests for bites of my pizza. I can heartlessly deny the demands of imperious little voices wanting to blow out candles, drink chocolate milk, or wear orange pants and a hot pink shirt to church.

One question, though, leaves me helpless every time -- "Read me a story, Mama?"

Anna Quindlen writes, "I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves." This is unquestionably the kind of home my children live in. Partly because I am completely missing the interior decorating gene, but mostly because we have more books than the Salem Bookmobile. One wall of the family room is a custom-built bookshelf with books from knee-height to ceiling, picture books on the bottom, a nearly complete collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books at the top, and everything from Newbery Award winners to Plato in between.

Mary has bookshelves of her own, Peter has a large toybox that inexplicably filled itself with books instead of toys, and in the rest of the home, the stairs and the laundry room are the only places that are reliably free of books. There are magazines in the dining room, children's books under the couch, Bibles on the nightstands, atlases on the coffee table, and philosophical texts in their sixth year of temporary storage on the office floor.

If it's true that the best way to teach is to do, my children will learn that almost anything can be done while you read. At the end of a particularly talkative evening with one of my children who shall go unnamed, the parents will frequently look at each other over the dinner table and simultaneously say, "Books." There is a quick scramble, and quiet reigns, broken only by the sound of rustling pages and intermittent chuckling if someone is reading Terry Pratchett again. When I fix a dinner that involves more stirring than creativity, I can frequently be found with a wooden spoon in one hand and a novel in the other. I read in the bathtub, although I am no longer allowed to do so with first edition hardbacks. I keep a magazine in the car against the highly unlikely event that I actually arrive somewhere early and have to wait. And really, is there anybody who doesn't read in the bathroom now and then?

Our family came by it honestly. I read at the age of three, to my parents' delight and surprise. (They claim I was reading my father's Greek texts as an infant when I sat in his lap during his study for seminary courses, but I think that may be parental pride speaking.) My mother recalls me coming home from kindergarten exclaiming, "We learned "N" today, and now I can spell my name!", and then settling down on the couch with the Readers' Digest. Michael learned to read a little later, but made up for lost time by reading (at his father's encouragement) the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the age of eight, Crime and Punishment at nine, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at twelve.

My sister and I read voraciously, and our mother's only rules about checking out library books were as follows: 1. Only half of the books could be about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and 2. she wasn't going to help us carry them. We mastered the art of carrying a stack of books balanced on our fingertips and held down with our chins. My mother tells of us nearly causing a librarian heart failure when we approached the desk of the tiny public library in the coastal town where we vacationed with twenty books apiece (including their entire collection of Carolyn Keene). The poor lady gasped, "Do they know they can only check out five books?" We stared at her, goggle-eyed -- that was only going to get us through to dinnertime! We reluctantly put thirty books back and came to the library nearly every day for the next three weeks.

So when my children sidle up to me at five minutes before bedtime, book in hand, it's hard to say no. They haven't yet acquired my sister's devious strategy of getting the parent to agree to just one book, and then choosing the longest one on the shelf. It worked, too -- I remember many nights of happily reading in my own bed for an extra forty-five minutes, half-listening through the thin walls as our father rumbled and muttered and roared his way through Beatrix Potter's interminable The Tale of Mr. Tod. I know the day is coming, though, and I suspect I will be no more able to resist the tactic than my dad was.

Mary is starting to get the idea. She plays quietly until 8:57 p.m., and then comes into our home office with an elaborately surprised expression on her face. With an innocent voice worthy of an Oscar, she asks, "Isn't anybody going to read me a story?" We smile ruefully, caught again at having let the last few minutes of the evening slide by while she hid out in her room. Michael settles down with her for the next chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia, or she and I embark on another giggle session over the absurd adventures of Paddington Bear.

Peter isn't far behind in creative methods of obtaining bedtime stories. He knows that even if it's 9:15 p.m. and we got home late and we're all tired and cranky and need to go to bed, he can always get a result with "Mama, you read me?" He has now adapted this strategy for our normal bedtime reading routine. I will read three or four of the short children's books he loves to hear again and again, doing my best to evoke the proper awe at "He was a beautiful butterfly!" at the end of my 293rd reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As soon as the last page is closed and I am preparing to call it a night, he is already hopping off his perch on the rocking chair and announcing in an eminently reasonable tone, "We read one more." I open my mouth to tell him to get into bed, but I am always swayed by the sight of his pajama-clad backside bobbing over the edge of the toybox as he rummages through it for our long-time favorite, Where's My Hug?

I put him to bed, finally, and he insists that we leave the door open and the nightlight on. He claims it is for "No dark!" but last week I discovered otherwise. I looked into his room and saw, as parents probably have since the first ancestors of Frog and Toad made it to papyrus, the manifestly guilty little face of my child pop up from behind a blanket carefully arranged to conceal the Little Bear book half-hidden under the pillow.

I know I ought to make him stop it. He's disobeying, and he's not getting enough sleep. I'll go talk to him in a few minutes, really I will. Just as soon as I finish my chapter.

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