Three Single Days
I was left alone with my two children, combined age 5, for 72 hours. It wasn’t too bad because I had the lowest expectations and surrendered all entitlement to do anything productive, enjoyable or restorative.
This is the obvious key to a happy life, especially as a parent, which some low-key geniuses naturally grasp while others like me have to work at. Expect nothing and be surprised and delighted when good things happen. You might not end up the most accomplished or rich without a demanding mentality, but you almost certainly will be happy if that’s the goal.
Not to say happy should be the goal. There’s this fun, trolling retort to all the millennial-targeted self-help around happiness:
What’s so good about being happy?
I’ve heard the topic described as fulfillment vs. happiness or happiness vs. highs. I like the word “satisfying.”
We’ve all been on vacations and party trips and had moments gazing out at a body of water, just the right amount of drunk, practically floating in bliss. These are highs that by definition recede. Otherwise wealthy folks or really anyone with a decent 401(k) and no dependents could never be unhappy.
To me, a satisfying life means your routine feels good and right: exercise, food, sex, work, interactions, leisure, errands, housekeeping, intellectual stimulation. All or most of these things have gotten better for humans over time despite what you might see on the news. All or most of these things take a staggering hit when children are born despite what you might see on Instagram during holidays.
Thus it makes sense birth rates are dropping. Life is getting better, so there’s more to give up when kids crash the party. Do they bring meaningful happiness or fleeting highs along with that six-pack of DHA Omega-3 milk?
You could say happiness, that kids make the day worthwhile and everything else is just highs. You could also say the opposite, that kids reduce daily quality of life and mask it with bursts of oxytocin during warm-fuzzy moments.
I don’t have a clear opinion with such limited experience — sorry if it seemed like I was building toward a conclusion. My guess or hope is kids under the age of 5-ish are more about highs than happiness, but then this possibly starts to reverse as they get older and loosen their hold on your time and headspace. But that could be survival optimism from someone who’s pot-committed.
Survival mode was the game during those three days of single parenting in triple-digit Texas heat. Without my wife there, I was more acutely aware of a feeling of unrest, this baseline anxiety that never goes away as an adult in charge of children. We just learn to live with it.
There is always something to think or worry about, a mental treadmill on incline 3.5. Sleeping and eating should be two of the more effortless, even pleasurable tasks in life, yet I can only look forward to the day they don’t monopolize planning and execution priorities.
Until then, they are a model of loss aversion — hating to lose more than loving to win. The triumph of the kids devouring my pasta for dinner our first solo evening was dwarfed by their rejection of steel cut oats for breakfast the next morning. A good night’s sleep is quickly forgotten, while a bad night’s sleep lingers and compounds.
After strategically timing his outbursts to keep me out of R.E.M. state throughout the first night, my 20-month-old was due for a legitimate nap the next day. I took him to the mini theme park known as the Frisco Public Library, stimulated and tired him, kept him awake on the long drive back, got a little food in him, and anticipated the perfect nap and some recuperation for me. It lasted 37 minutes.
The laughable silver lining in their needing so much attention and supervision was it left no time to be demoralized. It would be demoralizing to see a chart showing duration of peace and quiet. The time between tantrums, demands for engagement, doing something that needed to be stopped, not doing something that needed to be done — was so short it was almost useless.
These teasing micro-breaks put just enough fumes back in the tank to keep running, and they were supplemented by incredible highs. The stuff you remember forever. I have watched this video of the boys reuniting with their mom at Dallas Fort Worth International, pushing 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, at least eight times.
I hate how I nearly ruined it with my ugly voice and commentary. This was basically when Toby truncated what could have been the greatest scene in the brilliant history of “The Office.”
Both my sons are mama’s boys because they intuitively prefer unconditional love to analysis and iteration. Being away from their life source even for three short days was difficult for them. My 4-year-old announced he would chase her airplane in a garbage truck and hugged my leg every time he thought of her.
He also seemed to step up for his little brother in a departure from his default tormentor vocation. He comforted him during cries for mama and not only shared toys but played together. They built their first fort under the dining room table, a beautiful milestone toward invalidating my one-child proposition only six months ago.
There was even a fun role reversal in a public bathroom when the little one figured out the aggressive-sounding toilet flush unnerved his alpha sibling in a vulnerable position.
Even while being sleep tortured at who knows what time, walking the toddler back and forth in his blacked-out room, I had a moment. I used to have to support his oversized cranium against my sternum as the bobblehead nodded off.
This time he brushed off my hand whenever I laid it on his head and even his back. He barely fit against me anymore. I wondered if this might be the last time he fell asleep in my arms and couldn’t remember his brother’s last time. I tried to soak it in.
At the library, I staged the most nostalgic pic. My oldest looks so much more like a young boy than a toddler now.
He’s in that short window, obsessed with dinosaurs without understanding fossils and extinction. When I think about how life is kind of short and only about half of mine will overlap with my sons’, how the little bodies that still fit in my elbow bend will tower over their mother one day… it’s almost unbearable. I have no doubt there will be times in the future when I feel desperate to have one more needy weekend with them.
My wife goes out of town again in two weeks, which isn’t far enough in the future for that feeling to kick in. I’m neither looking forward to the grind nor completely dreading it either. I expect it to suck with some satisfaction.
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