I had this dream when I was 26. Cathy and I had moved to Illinois but we weren’t yet living together so I had my own place. In the dream, I was standing on a hillside. I looked up, and there was Cathy, sitting on this gigantic throne. She was larger than life, the throne was probably 30 feet high.
Then, all of a sudden, all these fetuses (feti?) came shooting out of the bottom of the throne. She appeared to be firing babies out left and right. I just stood there as they zoomed past me and rolled down the hillside. Then I thought, “Wait! Come back here, fetuses!” And I started chasing after them, taking those giant, ten-foot strides you can only take in dreams. I finally managed to catch up to one of them. When I picked it up and turned it over, it had this little mustache. It bit me on the finger, and I woke up.
Now, I’m no Freud or anything, but that sounds like someone who isn’t exactly ready to have kids. Not that kids were in our immediate future. Cathy had just started grad school and wouldn’t be done for another six or seven years. I was working for a local news station in a job that gave me just enough money to stay above the poverty line.
It would take another eight years for us to be ready to have kids (though Cathy will tell you that she was ready long before I was). By then, we had moved to Boston. We had two jobs, no kids, and a condo. We were living for each other, living for ourselves, and it felt great. I can’t tell you exactly when we decided we were ready to have kids because I don’t think it worked like that. At some point, I guess, we just felt it. We were done living for ourselves. We wanted to see what was next.
Contrary to popular belief, your life doesn’t have to magically change the moment you have a kid. If it doesn’t happen for you, don’t sweat it. There was no magic the first time I looked in Nate’s eyes. Just terror. We had this person now, a person who relied on us for survival. Pretty soon, these nurses were going to be dumb enough to let us leave the hospital with this person. The first month was a blur. No sleep, lots of tears. There was no magic. My magic moment came a few years later.
We were at a going away party for one of Cathy’s work friends. It was an afternoon/evening thing so kids were invited. Aside from Nate, who was two at the time, the only other kids at the party were a brother and sister who looked to be about four and six years old. They were playing together; Nate was kind of on the periphery, doing his own thing but also looking over at them from time to time, slowly making his way into their space. They’d look up at him every once and a while but they never acknowledged him.
And then something happened that made the two kids laugh, I think the brother told the sister a joke. They both laughed, and so did Nate. “This is my in!” I imagined him saying to himself. But as soon as he started laughing, the other two stopped. The boy glared at him and angrily declared, “That’s not funny.”
And the look on Nate’s face…I’m getting worked up right now just thinking about it. He was absolutely crushed. All he wanted to do was play with these other kids and they just shut him down, iced him out. I was furious. I wanted to fight that kid. I wanted to punch him in his little six-year-old face: “YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME, HUNTER OR WHATEVER THE HELL YOUR STUPID NAME IS?? YOU WANNA STEP OUTSIDE??”
That was my moment. “Oh, I get it now.” I had never experienced that kind of emotional intensity before. Seeing Nate’s face drop, seeing that tear well up in his eye made my heart hurt so much that I was (not really) willing to punch a child in the face. That’s a kind of next-level love and protection that I had never experienced before. “I get it now. That’s why we have kids.”
You don’t realize it at the time, of course. That’s the weird little trick your mind plays on you when you have kids. On a day-to-day basis, we’re all just trying to get through the day. The moment never strikes you. You never stop in the middle of the day and say, “Ah, the beauty of parenting.” Most of the time it’s, “I DON’T KNOW WHERE YOUR SHOES ARE. USE YOUR EYES TO LOOK FOR THEM. NOT YOUR MOUTH.” But as weird as it sounds, when the day’s done, I don’t look back and think about how terrible they were; I look forward to the next day so I can see them again.
I was a stay-at-home dad with Nate for almost a year. We moved to Sacramento for Cathy’s job. It took me a while to find one for myself, so I stayed at home with the little guy and looked for a job while he napped. After a while, I started feeling desperate. I actually considered taking a job teaching Realtors how to use Pinterest. I don’t even know what the hell Pinterest is, but it didn’t matter. I just had to get out. It was exhausting. Stay-at-home parenting was exhausting in a way that I can’t fully describe. When Cathy came home at 5:00 I just handed her the baby and said, “I’m out.”
But what’s funny about all of this is that I actually smile when I look back on that year. I remember the fun times, the beautiful days, the hour long walks we’d take. There was a coffee shop we went to everyday. We’d walk in and everyone behind the counter would go, “Norm!” They loved Nate. I went to the bathroom one day and when I came back they had taken Nate out of the stroller and replaced him with one of those large coffee carafes, hoping I wouldn’t notice. They wanted to keep him.
That’s the stuff I remember. I don’t remember the yelling and the crying, the hands covered in shit, the exhaustion, the desperation. I remember laying on a blanket in the living room and watching his eyes widen every time I shook his favorite rattle. That’s a pretty neat trick that the mind plays.
I’ll give you another example. Last year, the four of us went camping on the California coast. We woke up the next day and drove to Santa Cruz. We checked in to a hotel, got cleaned up, and spent the evening on the boardwalk. The next morning, we woke up and drove down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and spent the day with the otters and the octopuses (octopi?) before coming home.
So the thing about that trip is that I probably spent 80 percent of it yelling at someone. Sometimes Nate, sometimes Cathy, usually Aaron. Just shouting. Constantly. “KEEP IT DOWN. GO TO SLEEP. FINE. DON’T. STAY UP ALL NIGHT. I DON’T CARE. I HATE ALL OF YOU.”
But again, when I think back on that trip, that’s not what I remember. I think about how fortunate we are to be living in such a beautiful time and place. I think about how happy I am that Cathy and I get to share so many amazing experiences with our boys. And I can’t wait for the next camping trip.
So now we have another kid on the way. The battle will no longer be evenly matched. There will be three of them, and only two of us. We’re going to be outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and outplanned. It will probably be a boy, which means my future is going to be filled with deafening flatulence. At some point, I imagine Cathy and I will just give up saying, “QUIT PLAYING WITH YOUR PENIS.” The minivan will stink. The laundry will never end. Bones will be broken. Alliances will be formed. Madness will consume our house. Hairs will go gray, or leave me entirely.
And I’m kind of super excited for it.