Parents who watched the 2014 Winter Olympics will remember the commercial that made them cry. A plump, diapered baby steps, falls. Her mother picks her up. Several other babies fall and their moms help them to their feet. The same children, a little older, puffy in snowsuits, venture onto ice, fall and get picked up by their moms. An earnest piano melody proceeds patiently before becoming a violin swirl, circling itself yet inching slowly forward as the children grow older. They hurt themselves. They cry. Their moms are always there, selflessly picking them up, comforting them. It looks exhausting. The kids try harder and harder things: on snow embankments, in skating rinks. The scenarios become treacherous. The moms watch with fear, with compassion, their vigilance invincible. Failure becomes triumph; the children are Olympic athletes, and after winning the gold, they skate/ski/snowboard to give their careworn moms waiting on the sideline hugs of gratitude.
If I find myself repeatedly watching this commercial on YouTube, it’s because I need the fantasy it offers: that all the tedium and toil, all the incalculable hours are leading somewhere amazing, and that when I arrive, what I have accomplished will finally be appreciated by all as I’m awarded the gold medal of parenting. Indeed, the commercial does more than promise this reward; it tries to give parents a bit of what they want while they watch. And what they want, it seems, is not actually to reach the grand finale of parenting, but to re-experience the whole thing in a different way. The ad condenses the raising of a child into two minutes, gathering all of the boring, stressful moments and turning them into steps in a slow, heroic climb to victory, rolling together the little disconnected bits of feeling into a satisfying whole, a big glistening snowball of pride, joy, yearning, love, suspense, wistfulness and hope that feels like how you think parenting should feel and lets you imagine what it would be like to feel that way every moment you spend with your kids.
I remember dancing to a Temptations song with my two-month-old son Julian in my arms, the late afternoon sun filling our living room, and thinking, This must be one of those quintessential joys-of-parenting moments. But I was also worried that he would fall asleep at 6:30 p.m. rather than 7:15 p.m., so that his body would decide it was just a nap and he’d wake up two hours later rather than the six hours we were aiming for. That’s why I was swinging him around with pretend-joy: to keep him up, though his eyes were already closing. I suspected he hadn’t drunk enough milk and would get hungry, but if I tried to give him more, he’d be well over the 32 ounces recommended by our pediatrician and might start spitting up. I considered whether he was waking up so frequently because his pacifier kept falling out of his mouth, and I wondered whether we should take it away altogether. I hoped he would have one more bowel movement before I put him in his crib, so we wouldn’t have to change his diaper in the middle of the night. And I kept dancing. One day, I thought, I will remember this afternoon and say to myself: how beautiful. And there was undeniably something beautiful about it, but I couldn’t feel it at the time, and so I made a mental note to try to feel it all later.
Children remind you to live in the moment, but you can’t. They want to explore a random alleyway because the piled-up dry leaves make a crunching sound when they step on them. They want to pick up a stick twice their size and swing it around as they walk down a crowded sidewalk. They want to crouch down and stir a curbside pool of icy swill left by a recent storm as trucks zoom by. You want them to keep moving, put the stick down and leave the goddamned puddle alone. The walk home is just a series of life-threatening hazards. Your stomach clenches every time a car turns abruptly into the crosswalk. You want to get them wherever you’re taking them as fast as possible. You want them to grow the hell up so you can have a real conversation. You think about what they might become one day. Later on you’ll remember what they were.
I used to think I was going to be an awesome parent: goofy, magical, filled with joy. It’s a role guys are often invited to imagine themselves taking on—the fun dad whose immaturity becomes a virtue. Potential moms are encouraged to be like the ones in the Olympics commercial: nurturing, patient, endlessly self-sacrificing. Actual parents of all genders will likely find themselves trying to be both. My wife and I have done our best to split responsibilities fifty-fifty, and if you put in the time it’s impossible to sustain either role for very long. One reason you end up becoming deeply invested in your child’s potential is that parenting forces you to recognize your own limitations as a human being.
Several months ago, my wife spent a week in Europe for work. She left Wednesday evening, instructing me not to kill our seven-year-old and not to treat the apartment like a frat house. I had a good retort ready, but Julian talked right over it, so we all hugged instead and then it was just the two of us. That was when the Daddys started. If I spent too long doing the dishes: “Daddy. Daddy.” If I went to urinate: “Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.” If he caught me being inattentive while he was telling a story: “Daddy. Daddy. Daa-deee!” I was cool with it the first night. I let him stay up later than usual, even though he had a cough, so he could finish building a Lego truck, and remarked while putting him to bed, “We’re going to have a great week together, just the two of us, aren’t we?”
Thursday things got worse. I snapped more than once in the morning while rushing to get breakfast and both our lunches made—Daddy—to get his homework in his backpack—Daddy—to get my papers together for work—Daddy—to get him dressed, to get myself dressed (I skipped showering), to get our teeth brushed—Daddy, Daddy—and to get him to school on time. Work was, as it always is for parents with white-collar jobs, an oasis of relaxation. But I had to leave a meeting early and run to the subway, and then mentally will the train not to be delayed in order to get back in time to pick up Julian from his after-school gardening class—which meant I was frazzled and out of breath by the time I reached him.
It was piano that finally precipitated our fight. We almost made it to bedtime. The problem is that there are just too many chances to slip up, too much slow wearing away of your parental varnish, and eventually they catch you at a bad moment. Just after he started practicing, Julian got mad, as he often would when he played the wrong notes, grunting violently and banging the keyboard. I tried to stay calm.
“Julian, can I show you…?”
“No, no, no,” pushing my hand away and continuing to pound random keys.
“Can you look at the notes on the page?”
“I don’t want to practice! I hate practicing!”
“Okay, but look at the staff. Use your sentence: Grizzly bears don’t…”
“Just don’t want to play!”
“It’s the bass clef, so…”
“Can you try this measure again?”
He started playing the right notes, but hard and angrily.
Then, playing a wrong note, “DADDY! WHY CAN’T YOU HELP ME?!”
“I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU!”
“NO, YOU’RE NOT!”
“OKAY, IT’S AN F! GOT IT?! GRIZZLY BEARS DON’T FEAR ANYTHING, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT BY NOW? YOU’VE BEEN PLAYING PIANO FOR TWO YEARS, FOR GOD’S SAKE!”
“Daddy, why are you being mean?”
“Then just play the song, and I won’t be mean.” I knew I was in the wrong now, but I couldn’t bring myself back into the right. I had too much momentum.
“I don’t wanna play the song.”
“JUST PLAY IT!” I saw Julian’s face crumple first, his chin wrinkle, before I heard how my voice sounded: growly, dark and aggressive, like a comic-book villain’s.
And then Julian played, crying the entire time, carefully finding all the right notes. It’s hard to describe how it feels to make your own kid cry, how everything inside goes a little haywire. At that point, I should have hugged and reassured him, but I was still shaking with rage—not directed at him anymore, but it didn’t matter. It had become clear to me that I was a shitty dad and couldn’t pretend to be a good dad even if Julian needed me to.
“Good,” I said, rising from my seat. “You’re done. You can go play with your toys.”
Julian was still crying as I walked away. I climbed into my unmade bed thinking to myself: I hate this. I hate being a parent. I hate everything about it. I could hear Julian sniffling. He played with his truck for a few seconds. Then he came into the bedroom. It was too soon. I needed an hour, or maybe a year, to recover. He climbed on top of me. I just wanted to lie under the blanket and feel like shit indefinitely. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get away from him.
“Julian?” I began, my voice muffled under his body, as I tried to sound like the kind of parent who says the right thing to their kid at the right time.
“You know Daddy loves you, right?”
“More than anything.”
“And you’re really good at piano. You know that, right?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Let’s both try not to fight with each other for the rest of the week. How does that sound?”
That night, before going to sleep, I did something that didn’t make any sense, since I’m an unbeliever and have been since I was a teenager. I prayed.
“Dear God,” I whispered, my hands actually clasped in front of me. “I know I screwed up with Julian tonight. I know I shouldn’t have lost my temper. Please don’t let him be damaged or scarred by anything I’ve done. Please let him be happy and healthy. And please help me to be a better dad. Please help me to be kind and patient with him. Please help me appreciate and love him.” I couldn’t think of anything more to ask for, so I just added, “Grizzly bears don’t fear anything,” and went to bed.
After nights like that you can’t help but ask yourself, why exactly do people have kids? You imagine the lives of your childless friends. They travel frequently to remote parts of the world or become fanatically committed to obscure hobbies. These pursuits may seem designed to cover over feelings of emptiness or purposelessness, but what purpose are you serving? Is your sense of virtue as a parent justified? Doubtful. You know, whether you like it or not, that you are part of an ongoing campaign by the well-educated elite to pass on certain cultural and economic advantages to their offspring, thus thwarting any genuine redistribution—all under the banner of selfless devotion to your child. And on top of that, you’re making the same mistakes your parents made, or different but equally bad mistakes, thereby helping to produce yet another dysfunctional generation, who will then screw up their kids and so on until… what? Most of the time you suspect you’re not bettering humanity; you’re just prolonging it, doing your small part to help civilization in its current form persist another lifespan or so. And probably not much longer than that given how fast the planet is heating up—a calamity you’ve only served to hasten by adding one more oversized carbon footprint to the mix, even if your kid obsessively turns off lights in your apartment because, already at age seven, he’s worried about the polar bears.
“Why? Why? Why?” your child asks, and you don’t know the answer. Your task as a parent is to keep human life going a little longer, but sometimes you find yourself wondering, what’s so great about human life? Why do we need more of it? Raising kids makes this feeling more acute. Not just because you’re at the point where most of the exciting things you once imagined the future had in store for you—oh, the places you’ll go, etc.—are either in the past or never happened at all. But also because as a parent you are thrown daily into a state of mere being, of existing for hours at a time devoid of any goals other than passing the time. Look at the vacant expression of a typical parent at a playground following their kids up and down the ramps and ladders of the jungle gym. This is life absent a higher purpose or plot, aimed only at perpetuating itself. You could say parents are like Sisyphus, except their role is less heroic. Replace his mountain with a mini-slide, his rock with a rubber ball, and the parent is the one who has to stand nearby and make sure he doesn’t break his neck so he can keep bringing the ball back to the top of the slide and watching it roll down over and over again.
Some days are different, of course. Instead of struggling against it, I ease myself into a pointless Sunday morning. My steps are lighter than usual as I trot alongside Julian on his scooter en route to the ice-skating rink or soccer field. He makes up a joke. “What’s Snake’s favorite museum? The Museum of Natural Hisssstory.” I laugh. We have nothing important to do and that’s fine with both of us. We talk about where the rats in the subway station go, whether they live in secret cities made of old shoes and soda cans. Late in the day I tell Julian to look at the sky, which is glowing deep blue between the distant buildings on the horizon.
He stares, then asks, “What would it be like to be there?”
“You mean in the sky?”
“In the glowing part.”
“Good question. Would it still be the sky if we were there?”
“Daddy, of course it would. The sky is the sky.”
“Okay, but would you rather look at it like we’re doing now, or be there?”
“I’d like to go there. I’m going to go there.”
“All right. You’ll have to tell me what it’s like.”
The morning after the piano fiasco, Julian’s cough sounded worse than it had the day before. He told me he was sick and wanted to stay home from school. My heart sank. It was Friday and I knew we’d be spending every minute of the weekend together, but we needed a six-hour break from each other first. I needed it, so I could finish a half dozen things for work, go for a swim or maybe just have my own thoughts for a little while. I took Julian’s temperature. Normal. In the past he’d claimed to be sick and spent the day running laps around our apartment. I decided to send him to school. On the walk over he kept coughing, a dry, piercing bark—continuous but not phlegmy.
“Daddy, I don’t feel good,” he told me.
“What feels bad? Does your head hurt?”
“Do you feel weak or tired?”
“Sort of. Not really.”
“Listen, if you start to feel worse, just tell your teacher and I’ll come pick you up, okay?”
“I’m working from home today so I’ll be close by.”
After dropping him off, I decided to swim laps at the YMCA. It felt wrong to be away from my phone for that half hour, the only person in the vicinity who could take care of Julian if he needed someone. And not just away from my phone, but in another medium, water, where no cries could reach me, as if I’d abandoned the world that my son and I shared. Nobody called during my swim. It was just after I’d returned home, opened my laptop, and started making a mental to-do list that the phone rang. It was the school.
“Your son has been throwing up. Can you come get him?”
“Sure, I’ll be right there.”
He was sitting upright in a small chair next to the nurse’s desk when I arrived.
“Daddy!” he called out, smiling with relief.
“He vomited as they were lining up for recess,” the nurse explained. “Apparently he’s been feeling unwell since this morning?”
“Yeah, he mentioned that he was feeling sick, but he didn’t have a temperature, so that’s why I sent him.”
“Normally they tell you,” she replied, her palms out in a shrug whose meaning I couldn’t quite read.
“Thanks,” I said. I turned to Julian. “Hey buddy, let’s get you home.”
He seemed fine on the walk. He explained that he knew he needed to throw up when they were in line, but he was too far from the bathroom.
“It was just one mouth-shot of throw-up.”
But he vomited again the minute we reached home and continued to every twenty minutes after that. Mostly he missed the receptacles I held in front of his face, no matter how many times I suggested that he aim, jerking away at the last second to hit the floor or his bed. When I wasn’t cleaning up each new mess or replacing his sheets, I lay down next to him feeling guilty for having sent him to school. I still couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He didn’t have a fever. Maybe food poisoning? Whatever it was, he seemed to be getting steadily weaker as each hour passed, sleeping for long stretches and then barely able to lift his head to throw up when he awoke, hardly talking or opening his eyes at all. At first I thought I should just let him rest, but at 3:45 I decided to call his pediatrician. It was an hour before they were due to close.
“You should bring him in,” the doctor told me.
At this point Julian refused to get out of bed and yelled at me feebly that he didn’t want to go anywhere. I wrestled him into his clothes the way I used to when he was a toddler, except this time he put up almost no resistance. Then it seemed he couldn’t really remain in a standing position. Which was a surprise: after all, he’d walked home from school no problem. Realizing I had no choice, I picked him up and carried him, his legs straddling my waist, his head resting on my shoulder, three stories down and five blocks to the doctor’s office. I had no idea what was wrong, but it suddenly seemed serious.
Julian normally loved seeing Dr. Baker. She directed all her questions at him during checkups, continuously referred to him as “handsome,” laughed uproariously at his observations and got him talking about details from school I didn’t even know about. But this time he barely registered her appearance, and she didn’t seem in a joking mood. Right away, she put an electronic clamp on his finger to test his oxygen while listening to his lungs with a stethoscope.
“Yeah, he’s really wheezing.”
“He’s having an asthma attack,” she explained. She turned to the nurse. “We need to do an Albuterol treatment immediately.”
“But he doesn’t have asthma.”
“This may be his first episode. He was throwing up all day?”
“He was. But why would that be a symptom?”
“Because when the lung vessels constrict, they start breathing harder to try to get enough oxygen, and it triggers the gag reflex.”
“So he’s been struggling to breathe all day?” I asked, my own lungs feeling short of air as I attempted to make sense of what she was saying. I remembered how Julian had told me that morning that he wasn’t feeling well, but couldn’t explain what was wrong.
“Pretty much. Kids have strong lungs, though, so he’s probably been successfully compensating.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“The Albuterol will help. But I should warn you. It can make people a little giddy.”
The nurse returned wheeling in a small beige machine. The doctor explained to Julian what they were going to do, then strapped a see-through rubber mask to his face with a little container filled with clear liquid just below his mouth. It was the kind of equipment you never want to see attached to your child. It filled the mask with steam and sounded like a vacuum cleaner. After five minutes they took a break. Julian suddenly raised his head, smiled and began talking.
“Wow, that was weird. The air kind of had a sweet taste. Your hair is longer than usual,” he informed the doctor, making her laugh for the first time since we got there. Julian was sitting up now, kicking his legs under the table and looking around the room, as if seeing it for the first time. If you’ve ever dreamed about a deceased family member who was suddenly fully animated, and you say to yourself, How can this person be up and talking to me, they’re dead—that was sort of how I felt in that moment.
“I don’t want to send you guys home right now,” said Dr. Baker. “He’s going to need several more treatments, and I’d like him to be under observation for the next few hours.”
Ten minutes later, an EMT came in pushing a stretcher. After asking me three times whether I was coming with him on the ambulance, Julian lay down on the stretcher. “Fun ride!” he commented, twisting around to make sure I was there, as he was rolled down the hallway. On the way to the hospital, the EMT, a burly and freckled twentysomething with sensitive hazel eyes, told the ambulance driver to put on the siren while he took Julian’s vitals. “We’re not in a hurry, but we gotta make sure you get your money’s worth—right, kid?” Julian agreed. He was now thoroughly enjoying himself. I emailed my wife: “Call me when you get this. Julian’s had an asthma attack. He’s okay now. We’re going to the pediatric ER. Everything’s going to be fine.” It was six hours ahead in Geneva, which meant she was probably asleep, but she sometimes had insomnia.
After arriving at the ER, we did the usual rounds. We saw half a dozen different health professionals in succession, each of whom asked us to explain why we were there and then disappeared, never to return. Finally we were given a curtained-off bed in a large room where lots of other sick kids were waiting with their parents. I noticed my phone was almost out of battery, so I wrote another message to my wife. “Phone about to die. Call us at the NY Methodist pediatric ER. Julian is okay. Everything’s going to be fine.” We’d been waiting forever, but Julian didn’t seem bored. There was too much action around us. To him our trip to the hospital was an adventure, and I wasn’t about to disabuse him. Eventually a doctor came and gave him another Albuterol treatment and tested his blood-oxygen level.
“He’s doing much better. You’ll be able to go home soon. It’s good you’re here.”
“What would have happened if I hadn’t brought him in?” I asked.
The doctor looked at Julian quickly, then back at me, slit his eyes and shook his head. I got his meaning. After he left, I asked Julian if I could go to the bathroom. Julian said fine. In the bathroom I stared at my reflection in the mirror, put my hand over my mouth and tried to cry, but couldn’t make anything come out.
An hour later the doctor told us we were discharged. He’d called in a prescription for Albuterol and a home nebulizer at the one pharmacy still open, which we’d have to pick up on our way home, so I could administer another treatment later that night. On our way out, I let Julian get all the items he wanted from the vending machine in the lobby. We’d never had dinner. It was only 9 p.m. when we stepped out into the chilly autumn air, but it felt like the middle of the night. Julian watched a street he’d never seen so dark pass by through the window of our taxi while I wrote one last message to my wife, using the final minute of battery I had to explain that we’d left the hospital.
At home, I hooked up the nebulizer to the mask, which was easier than I expected, and gave Julian another dose while I read to him. Lately he’d been worrying about robbers coming into our apartment, so I sat next to him as he fell asleep. His breathing seemed normal. I set my phone alarm for 3:30 a.m., when he was due for his next treatment, got undressed and lay in my own bed, listening for any movements from the next room. I thought about what might have happened if I hadn’t called his pediatrician that afternoon, if I’d just let him rest. It could have happened so easily. I thought about finding him the next morning. Then I tried as hard as I could to think about nothing until I fell asleep.
I would love to bring this essay to some kind of Olympian finish, but I don’t know if I can. It might help if you put on music you remember from your childhood. That’s what I did the Sunday following Julian’s visit to the hospital, after I’d taken a dozen panicked calls from my wife who finally got all my emails from the night before, after I’d given Julian six more Albuterol treatments, and after I’d scoured our apartment clean of all possible allergens. By Sunday afternoon we had nothing left to do, but I still wanted him to stay in and rest, so I put on the Carly Simon Pandora radio station, hoping to hear all the soft-rock classics that my mom used to play when I was a kid, while Julian and I sat down for a long game of Rivers, Roads & Rails on our living room rug.
It was a good afternoon. I was mainly just happy that Julian was there and back to being himself. He seemed so skinny in his green striped pajamas and I wanted to hug him over and over again, feel his sturdy little rib cage. His attack, the doctor explained, didn’t necessarily mean he had chronic asthma. He’d returned from visiting my mom a few days ago with the same cough he always seemed to get when he was there, so we’d had him tested for allergies. The results showed that he was in fact allergic to cats, dogs and dust mites. Thus his reaction might have been a stronger-than-usual response to visiting my mother’s pet-filled house, or to the allergy test itself. To know for sure, we’d have to wait and see.
The way the game Rivers, Roads & Rails works: you get a bunch of cards with some combination of river, roads and railroad tracks on them, and you have to connect those cards up to the ones that have already been played so that you gradually construct a landscape together. Your goal is to run out of cards, though you have to keep drawing more when you can’t make a connection. It’s kind of a boring game, but also mellow, and that day neither of us wanted it to end. The sun was coming through the window the same way I remember it doing back when I was dancing with Julian as a baby, the music from my childhood seemed to slow everything down, and the world we were making just kept sprawling out further and further across our living room, stumbling over the edge of the rug, slipping under chairs, surrounding us as we slouched together on the floor. For a while, I imagined a particular route Julian and I were building was going to lead to some significant final destination, and when it got there, we’d know the game was over. I’m not sure why I thought that. I knew what was on all the other cards: just more streets, more rivers, more train tracks, surrounded by beaches, houses, post offices, parks, campgrounds, shops, etc. Then I thought maybe we could loop our route around, and connect it back to the beginning, so that the whole thing would be a circle, and there’d be no loose ends. But the roads, rivers and rails kept veering further and further away from where they had started. And so finally I realized what would happen. We’d play for as long as we could, after the sun had set, after Pandora had given up on us, allowing our creation to grow in as many random directions as it wanted, and then, once we ran out of cards, even though there’d be unfinished paths left dangling, heading nowhere, we’d stop.
Art credit: Fiona Filipidis