I know, I know … it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything to this blog, and many of you have been wondering, ” So Steve, why aren’t we hearing more from you about your newly expanded family and those sweet, cherubic children of yours? When are we going to see more pictures and hear more about their humorous escapades?” My typical response to this is, “I’m getting around to it, mom – be patient.”
The truth is, the reason I haven’t written more about the madhouse I share with four children four and under is … well, I live in a madhouse that I share with four children four and under. That is to say, waking moments at home tend to be spent (a) getting the kids to do something they don’t want to do; (b) getting the kids to stop doing something I don’t want them to do; (c) cleaning up after the kids following my failure to accomplish (b); or (d) recovering from my efforts on points (a), (b), and (c).
Yes, this is an exhausting stage in life, and one that doesn’t lend itself to evenings of quiet reflection in the parlor while sipping on a spot of Earl Grey and typing out thoughts on the ol’ Smith Corona. At this point, the closest thing to a private study is my little cubicle at the office, where – if I’m lucky – I’m able to squeeze out a few moments a week to write once the day’s work is done, fueled by sugary beverages that allow me to ignore the lack of sleep I had the previous night.
This is not to complain, though. Sleep deprivation aside, I love the life and challenges that come with being a dad of four. And I readily acknowledge that when it comes to the challenges of parenting, my wife deals with much, much more than I do, and for longer periods of time. (Although, in my defense, most of my friends of similar age have long since seen this effort-intensive period of child rearing fade from the rear-view mirror. To which Beth would probably respond, “Well, stop giving me children.” Fair point.)
Indeed, flying in the face of that old axiom, this old dog has actually learned some new tricks when it comes to parenting small children. So, should any of you find yourselves raising a pack of little ones, here are few life lessons learned from this daddy of four.
1. For better or worse, you are not raising an army of “mini-mes.” Whether I would have admitted it or not, there was once a time where I suspected my kids would more or less be smaller representations of me and/or my wife. While I knew they would be their own individual persons, there was always the belief that to some degree my offspring would look like me, act like me, enjoy the same things as me, and have the same habits as me (well, at least the good ones). And although there are are enough of my traits evident to assure me of my paternity, a day doesn’t go by where Beth and I don’t look at watch our kids interact with each other and ask ourselves, “Where the heck did that come from?”
Grace, for example, is our little drama queen. She loves to dress up as a princess, even when she is doing it so she can go out and dig up worms in the garden. Every thing she comes across is “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” and a good day is always announced as “the best day of my whole life!” Rarely does a day go by where she doesn’t come up to me, wrap her arms around my leg and proclaim, “I love you, daddy!” (Of course, I absolutely love this, but the cynic in me is tempted to record this one of these days so I can play it for a teenaged daughter who is fed up by her clueless father.) Conversely, the loss of even the most insignificant item, or saying “goodbye” to her cousins at the end of a vacation is met with profound sorrow. She wakes up with boundless energy, moving and talking non-stop until the moment she falls asleep.
In contrast, Caleb tends to move at the rate of glacial advancement. A task like folding three hand towels can take upward of a half hour, and requires constant cajoling and instruction. Generally, it’s not that he doesn’t want to do the work, it’s that he lacks his sister’s ability to stay focused on task for any more than 10-15 seconds.
Then there’s Samuel. Samuel is our little jokester, always ready to do or say something that might draw a laugh. He eats whatever is put in front of him (or his brother and sister, if they’re not eating fast enough), always laughs when his baby brother burps or passes gas …
… okay, so that particular acorn didn’t fall too far from the family tree. Point is, kids tend to grow up to be their own people. The best thing you can do is instill in them the lessons and virtues needed to live a godly life, and model such a life to the best of your ability as a parent. The habits and characteristics they ultimately pick up are somewhat beyond your control – pray that they pick up the good ones.
2. Taking care of four small children often devolves into a sort of “parental triage.” If you’re of a certain age, you certainly remember the scene from the old M*A*S*H television program. “Choppers!” Corporal Radar O’Riley would announce, foreshadowing the arrival of helicopters carrying wounded soldiers to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Unit in Korea. The doctors would line up the patients, do a quick evaluation of the severity of the injuries, and place them in the proper position in the queue for medical assistance.
Parenting four kids is not unlike this queuing process (hopefully with slightly less blood). It is not a matter of tending to the child who needs attention – they all need attention, at all times, immediately. Rather, it is determining which child’s behavior necessitates the most urgent response, and quickly setting out a course of action that will attend to all the children in the order of importance.
Key to developing this skill is the ability to recognize different kinds of cries. A “he took my toy truck” cry is different than a “that’s going to leave a mark” cry. And, when seconds count, being able to respond to both in the correct order is vital.
3. Ambidexterity is a valuable skill to develop. I was born left handed. For most of my life, I have gotten used to not doing anything right (handed).* However, since becoming a parent, I have learned how to do most tasks with whatever one hand is not cradling an infant. (As basketball player Charles Shackleford once famously said, “Left hand, right hand, it doesn’t matter – I’m amphibious.”)
This skill only becomes more and more important the more kids you have. If you can hold one kid in one arm, cut a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in two with the other, and rock a baby in a car seat with a foot, you, my friend, are ready to tend to a large family. Or become a circus clown. The choice is yours.
4. Kids are the worst secret-keepers ever. At some point, you are going to be tempted to give your kids something your spouse would not normally give them, or allow them to do something they typically aren’t allowed to do. This is usually done to (a) reward them for a rare moment of cooperation (or at least not beating on one another); (b) occupy them as you try to get something else done in the house; or (c) to get them to go along with something you want to do of which your spouse would not approve.
The problem with these scenarios is that the very recipients of your largesse are likely to bite the hand that feeds them (figuratively, but possibly literally, dependent on the age of said recipients). A trip to the ice cream parlor, or a quick lesson on how to get maximum altitude when jumping from bed to bed will no doubt be breathlessly described to your wife the second she walks in the door of the house. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them, “This is just a secret between you and me, right guys?” The pure excitement of what they have seen or done requires them to tell somebody, and who better than mom?
But it’s worse than that. Due to their incomplete development, children are incapable of understanding principles of scale and scope. Everything in their lives is big – including your secret outings. Allowing the kids to watch TV for an hour while you catch up on email becomes, “Dad let us watch cartoons all day long!” A quick run up the street for lunch turns into, “We went to McDonald’s, and I had a hamburger, and lots of french fries, and a milkshake, and …”
To mitigate the damage done by little loose lips, it helps to think up a good rationale ahead of time for such cases. “We were out running errands all morning, so I thought if we grabbed a quick bite before we got home it would save in cleanup time, and clear some additional time for naps.” The bed bouncing? A simple demonstration of Newtonian physics for the toddler set. There’s no guarantee such explanations will win over your spouse or convince her of the inherent goodness of the endeavor, but it should at least convince her that the activity wasn’t as bad as the kids made it sound.
5. Sleep is NOT overrated. On occasion, you might hear a conversation with a father of multiple kids that goes something like this:
Individual #1: Wow, you have x children at home?
Individual #2: Yep.
Individual #1: That must be extremely tiring! Are they letting you sleep through the night?
Individual #2: Pshaw! Sleep is overated.
In such a scenario, Individual #1 is either (a) putting on a display of false braggadocio to hide the fact that he is about to break under the pressure of a solid six months with no more than three hours of contiguous sleep; or (b) a person with a severe mental issue that may or may not call into question his ability to father small children in the first place.
This is because sleep is not only not overrated, it is the single greatest gift you can receive from your young children. (Okay, love. But sleep is a strong #2.) It is the equivalent of putting on an old pair of pants you haven’t worn in years, realizing they still fit, and then finding a crisp $20 bill in the pocket. It is not to be expected often, received joyfully when it occurs, and never taken for granted.
As with most commodities, the value of sleep is established by it’s scarcity. As a bachelor, I wasted many a night’s sleep staying up to play video games, or watching a really bad sci-fi film on late night TV. Now, I long for the days when I can go to bed at 10:00, not to be disturbed until the morning light gently filters through the window blinds. Alas, such nights and mornings are but a distant memory. (And again, I readily recognize that Beth has it much, much harder than me. The occasional late night diaper change or pacifier reinsertion pales in comparison to breast feeding every 3-4 hours for pretty much the entirety of our marriage.)
Perhaps the thing that makes sleep invaluable is that, unlike other commodities, sleep cannot be stored up for future use. Like manna from heaven, it has an expiration date of one day. Spare moments that are not utilized are gone forever.
The key is to take those moments when you can. Work out a schedule with your wife where one of you occupies the little ones while the other one naps. Even an hour or so will go a long way toward charging dying batteries and preparing you for the bedtime routine (which warrants its own blog post).
And remember, there will be an opportunity for retribution, when these light little sleepers turn into teenagers who want to sleep until noon.
6. The ability of a child to turn “neat” into “disastrous” borders on the magical. If you are a parent, you probably can relate to this scenario. On the days where I am alone with the kids, we will start cleaning up the house sometime around 4:00, with an eye toward having a neat house by the time mom returns sometime after 8:00. With much effort (and the occasional bribe – see #4), we can get the house in a state where it actually looks like people live there. Once this is done, the 90-minute process of bathing four children begins. Finally, with the house nice and neat, and the kids freshly scrubbed, I can start to make dinner. I put the kids in the family room, turn my back, and …
I can only suspect that our government has created some kind of silent scatter bomb that they are surreptitiously testing in our house on Saturday evenings. How else to explain the level of desolation that occurs in the time it takes me to start a pot of boiling water in the kitchen? In a moment, our livable family room has become a veritable junkyard of toys, art projects, and books, strewn across the floor. All the couch cushions have been removed and piled up in the other side of the room, granting kids access to shelves and desks heretofore unobtainable. And those freshly scrubbed kids? Covered in markers and glue.
Truth is, I think my kids understand my vulnerability at dinner time. They know that when daddy is cutting raw chicken, he won’t be able to leave what he’s doing to stop them from doing what it is they’re doing. They understand that as long as he has something on the stove, he really can’t leave it for long to check and see what trouble they might be getting into. And they’ve become quite efficient in using that short period of time to inflict maximum destruction.
By the time mom finally does return home, the house looks no better than it did earlier in the day. The temptation, of course, is to not clean in the first place, seeing that the resultant condition of the house is unlikely to be much different. This fails to take into account lesson #4 – that your kids will inevitably tell mom later in the week, “Why do we have to clean up? Dad doesn’t make us do any chores!” Best to maintain the Sisyphean practice of teaching the kids to clean up after themselves with the hope that someday the lesson might actually sink in.
These are but a few of the things four (almost five!) years of parenthood have taught me. And I’m sure that as the years advance, so will the opportunities to learn new lessons (and to relearn these old ones). Don’t be surprised if this turns into a regular feature of this blog – ’cause I’m old, and if I don’t write these things down, I’m going to forget them. You know the old saying – he who doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it. (I used to know who said that**, but I forgot to write it down. See?)
*Actually, this isn’t entirely true. While I do almost everything left-handed, I do play guitar, such as it is, in the normal right-handed position. The one thing that would be cool to do left-handed (a la Hendrix and McCartney), and I do it right-handed. Sigh.
**George Santayana. Be it so recorded.