The Accidental Parent is a column about a life-long bachelor, Michael Stusser, and his engagement to Vanessa, the mother of 11-year-old twins. The essays follow his marriage, cohabitation, and blending into a new insta-family. Be advised, it 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.
“Honey, do me a favor before you go to sleep and check to see if the kids are still breathing.”
It’s really the magnitude of the parenting gig that’s overwhelming. I can handle things one step at a time — reading bedtime stories, applying sunscreen or packing school lunches. But if I stop to ponder the big picture, I may very well get on the next Amtrak and ride ’til it crashes in Plano or Redding or points unknown.
As it stands, I’m not equipped for the journey: Puberty, proms, patience, pregnancy, pop music — and that’s just the Ps! I don’t know CPR or answers to the WASL. Got no pre-med, no pre-law or pre-recs. In fact, no understanding of what’s needed. Can too much peanut butter kill a kid? Do the twins really need haircuts? Is a bike helmet required for shoulder rides? Is it safe to meet the neighbors? (Hell, I haven’t met my neighbors — and for good reason!)
There’s no way I could have known that I’d be an incredibly overprotective parent, shouting about putting coins in their mouths or giving our street address to people on the telephone: “It’s just our babysitter, Michael.” We hold hands in the crosswalk. We look both ways. We stay away from matches and fireworks and crack, and friends that will grow up to be felons. I AM MY PARENTS — of this, there’s no question. (And that’s a good thing: I’ve lived this far…) Incredibly, and without reason, there are times I think they can and should leap tall fences or go naked to the lake. Why not rollerblade down the steps? They’re on park property — I’m sure city planners thought of these things. “That’s an everyday dinner fork — he should be able to run with that, right?”
Luckily, there’s “the wife” to point out blunders and errors in judgment: “Um, baby, it’s kind of a good rule of thumb that if they can’t do it themselves, it’s not a good idea. So if Rachel can’t pull herself up to the top of that steel structure you just set her on, maybe she shouldn’t be up there.”
Death and destruction — that really is the worry. They’re these cute little creatures to play with, and you’d hate for them to be run over by a bulldozer, get drafted in an insane war, or date Tattoo Tommy Lee. Before I met my new wife Vanessa (now there’s an idea that’s going to take some getting used to) and her two kids, it was a relatively novel concept for me to be caring or protective at any level — about anything. It’s why I’ve avoided house pets, plants or live-ins of any kind. Deep stuff, this child care. It was hard enough to take care of myself, much less a tag-team of 50 pound tykes.
Ridiculous as it may sound to those in-the-know, parenting is very — well — real, for lack of a better word. Raising a kid is a responsibility of staggering proportions. Like having a goldfish, only bigger. (And if, God forbid, something should happen, you can’t just grab another one in a plastic bag at the next kid’s fair…) For those who make the choice, it’s an ever-present and all-encompassing gig. I’m not sold on or preaching “the real deal.” Lord knows the planet doesn’t need any more kids, and living a child-free life has untold advantages — including lower debt-income ratios and blood pressure. I simply realize I’m in it now and can’t flit off to Africa, get smashed on a two-week bender, or roll the dice with my third round of re-fi money as easily as before. And maybe that’s a good thing — time will tell.
My instincts tell me to cradle them like precious gems, pamper them, and protect them from the cruel world of CNN, SIRIUS Radio, and “Grand Theft Auto.” Then I realize it’ll all be fine: I just need to change the water now and then, keep the tank clean and toss in those fish flakes for periodic protein.
The other day, Riley was sick as a dog and I agreed to watch him for a few hours while Vanessa was at work. Zonked out big time, he slept well past his normal hyperactive self-wake-up call at 7 a.m. Checking in on him every 20 minutes, I’d lean down real close to his face, put my hand on his heart and listen for his breathing. The air came out in a nasty, wheezing fashion, but there it was, clear as a bell, in and out like the tide — in and out. In sickness and in health, the kid was breathing. I can do this. I can do this.
Michael A. Stusser is the author of The Dead Guy Interviews (Penguin).