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.
Whining, obnoxious, overly-tired, constantly-hungry, distracted, self-centered snots. And those are the parents.
Before I had kids of my own, a friend came over and trashed my house with her red-headed demon child. As she watched with bemused detachment, her 5-year old tossed each and every one of my ALPHABETIZED CD’s on the floor, then slammed wooden blocks on to my glass coffee table until I stopped the madness with a firm hand. Clearly, Mommy’s Valium-induced stupor had relaxed the hell out of her, and it’s the reason I didn’t feel bad leading them to the door five minutes after their arrival, and toward their next Ground Zero destination. Incoming!
Though not of the mind that children should be seen and not heard (it’s simply not practical), I do understand that they’re not the center of the Universe – or the company of choice for many adults who don’t have or want to be around them. I never had an interest in spending a majority of my time around youngins either – they’re loud, expensive and exhausting – but happened to fall in love with a woman who has twins. Now I’m figuring out how to enjoy the little buggers…and protect the rest of the world from being crushed by them.
The biggest fights Vanessa and I have involve being with Rachel and Riley when we go to other people’s homes, especially when we’re guests in a non-kid zone. If it’s a sleep-over situation or family play-date, and ours can raise hell with other children, let the War of the Worlds begin – we can group-parent and blame their kids for the bulk of the damage. But when we’re somewhere that involves attempting to have adult time while simultaneously parenting, then we’re bound for trouble… and time on the shrink’s couch.
We were recently invited to my aunt’s house to visit her new puppy. Things were going well – until they weren’t – which happens a lot with the twin dynamic. While my aunt took Vanessa aside to try on a vintage outfit she thought might look fabu (it did), the kids got in a tug-of-war with the pooch while trying to dress the little guy in the baseball uniform my aunt had bought for him. The puppy yelped, my Aunt came running, the twins engaged in fight mode, and I just wanted to go home.
Leaving the crime scene, I lectured Vanessa about leaving her kids unattended (ignoring my presence and rules on positive communication), griped about how much of a burden it was to solo parent (as if she didn’t know this), and became angry that simple visits could turn so violent.
“Well then we just won’t go anywhere!” my wife yelled, feeling that she’d been blamed for bad-mothering (an accusation akin in her mind to murder or molestation). And I explained – again – that when we’re over at someone else’s house, she needs to be particularly alert to what the kids happen to be doing. So immersing herself in conversation – no matter how fascinating – or participating in fashion shows is not allowed. If I’m going to be distracted and anxious at a party, she’s going to be anxious and distracted with me. Good times.
Much of the problem comes from being over-sensitive to the situation – overly aware that the kids are being watched like bulls in a china shop, and that I’m being observed in terms of parenting skills, stress level, and the odd, jittery twitches I’ve acquired since the wedding.
I can’t fix or control everything (or so my wife tells me). Just as my father is going to have to learn to say “no” when his new grandkids ask for shoulder-rides, to fill the hot tub with Jell-O, or drive ‘em to ice cream, I’ll need to make the best of each situation and remember (most) adults can fend for themselves. All the same, I feel a certain responsibility to protect everyone from what we brought with us – lovely, energetic, attention-requiring youngsters (and usually a nice bottle of wine to ease the pain).
Latch-key, Schmatz-key: Vanessa takes the twins everywhere; they’ve been attached to her hip (and other body parts) for a decade now, and she doesn’t know any better (or have the resources to hire a nanny or purchase a secure enclosure with electric fencing). It’s like bringing along your seeing-eye dog, rain-jacket, or American Express card – ya don’t leave home without them. I’m the opposite, having spent 20-plus years leaving the house without accessories or living creatures of any kind – no checking for snacks, warm clothes, wet-naps or iPods – just flying out to meet friends for coffee and whatever comes up next. To balance these disparate realities – the pack-mentality vs. lone wolf – requires sacrifice, compromise, baby-sitters, give & take, and a periodic exit-strategy.
Rachel and Riley really are quite polite and well-behaved, considering. Better than most, and in no way malicious; they’re simply not maintenance-free. I can’t fully relax, drink heavily, swear like sailor, drive golf balls into the neighbor’s yard, or pass out in a spare bedroom when we’re on watch. (Not a pretty picture, I know, but old habits are hard to break.)
Life has changed – and often for the better with the hug-fests, giggles, grand smiles and the fresh, innocent outlook that kids bring to my world; nonetheless, it’s important for me to keep a non-parental perspective when dragging the youngsters to new environments. What we parents need to realize is that, sometimes, it’s better without them.
Michael A. Stusser is the author of The Dead Guy Interviews (Penguin).