The Accidental Parent is a column about a life-long bachelor, Michael Stusser, who recently married Vanessa, the mother of 12-year-old twins, Rachel and Riley. The essays follow his marriage, cohabitation, and blending into a new insta-family. Be advised, this is NOT an advice column. Think of it like watching a roller-coaster. All you have to do is sit back and listen to the laughter – and a little screaming.
Little did I realize that a majority of parenting involves running your kids like dogs – from the park, to the pool, to the zoo, to the game, to the grandparents, to piano practice, back to the pool, to the dentist, to the store, to the playground, to the barber. And back. All in a day’s work (with the emphasis on work, regardless if it takes place on a weekend).
This is the point in the essay where one recalls simpler, ancient times when weekends entailed a Mother telling her offspring to, “Go outside and do something.” A good time in those days of yore involved kicking cans, petting cats, chasing girls, stomping puddles, diving into leaf piles, some TV dinners, and then more frolicking in the frozen tundra. No minivans, videos, malls, money, or Soccer moms needed. Just push “play.”
At our house, we don’t have toys galore, both because we can’t afford the high-tech gadgetry, and because the clutter messes up the Art Deco theme we’ve got going in the living room. Luckily, our twins, Rachel and Riley, are as inventive as the Wright Brothers, putting on puppet shows, crafting forts out of pillows and umbrellas, and making a pet out of any insect within 1000 miles. Which takes up about ten minutes of a given day. Unfortunately, every once in a while (i.e. every weekend of the year), a longer chunk of time must be used up. (If you ask me, that’s where TV and Netflix come in – but for some reason, Vanessa refuses to let them watch more than 12 hours of tube a day…).
I’m one of those people who like to plan things out in excruciating detail, whether it be the purchase of electronic equipment, contract negotiations with the phone company, a marriage proposal, or Mapquesting espresso stands along driving routes. Planning for kids activities, however, is about as exacting as quantum physics. The possibilities are endless, the randomness an added bonus, and the only certainty is unexpected occurrences. (We spent last weekend watching Rachel rock and twist two baby-teeth out of her mouth. Ewww..) Still, I like a game-plan, and a back-up when Plan A falls to pieces.
Whereas I’m structured and self-disciplined, Vanessa has a more free-form flow to her schedule. (The ways she figures it, getting them ready for school every day of the week and dragging her ass to work is all the structure she wants. Go figure.) Often, Saturday looms on the horizon and we won’t have one thing on the agenda. A blank slate – no birthdays, no dinner plans, no ticketed events, no hikes through the countryside, no potential outings of any kind! And though I do understand it’s not our job to fill each waking moment entertaining the twins with activities (that’s what camps and boarding schools are for), I do feel the need to be prepared in the likely event they ask me what they’re going to do all weekend, or, worse, bring up the dreaded B-word. (Bored!)
The weekend is always here before you know it – and shockingly the kids have no trouble getting up-and-at-‘em. People slowly rise, eat a few toaster pastries, check the weather, make some calls, gather some options, and – before you know if – they’re off to Skate King for the afternoon, heading to the YMCA for free-swim, or climbing the REI tower. Hell, sometimes they pick up another kid and things actually get easier to manage. (Who woulda seen that coming?)
Of course, this organically-flowing exploration doesn’t always turn into Pleasantville. Fact is, there are times when free-form is truly hell. While, in theory, it may seem like over-scheduling your kids playtime will leave them without the ability to make their own fun in the future, if you don’t structure the time, the kids will. And let’s face it – youngsters often have bad ideas: a hose, a hamster, a rug-river, a call to RotoRooter, a raging headache.
The key for me is to have my own plan, or be swallowed by the inertia that are the twins. Sit on the couch with a newspaper for long enough and you will be dragged into a game of Cranium, a pillow-fight, partner yoga, or an argument. Usually my plan involves a journal, the paper, and a coffee shop several miles from home.
Even the most anal of us have to periodically let go, and, I must admit, there are times when my mind is open to the free-form madness, allowing me to be swept up in the willy-nilly ebb-and-flow of Vanessa and the dynamic duo. Lunch rolls around, sushi is suggested, rice and rollers appear, and the fish factory begins, along with spontaneous karaoke, donned kimonos, some Manga drawing, and a Hello Kitty fashion show. Tell me ya coulda put that on the DayPlanner.
Michael A. Stusser is the author of The Dead Guy Interviews (Penguin).