It is 9:09 a.m. and we are driving down Fall Creek Parkway. It is rush hour. But to me, 9:09 a.m. is a different kind of important: all three of us are already dressed, fed, and on the road. A major achievement in the life of a stay-at-home dad.
Our windows are as open as they get. Spring air is sprinting through the car. Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” is blaring from the speakers, a third repetition officially dubbing it an anthem for the day. Lovers, keep on the road you’re on. In the back seat are my two girls. Cosi, my nearly-four-year-old, is facing east. Her eyes are closed with intensity. The bright morning sun is running with us and the trees from Fall Creek must be casting a strobe effect through her closed eyelids. Light and dark at the same time. She is seeing but not seeing.
Winni, my younger one, is looking west. Her eyes follow one car, then the next, then the next, then the next. Both are unusually quiet, mesmerized by the light and movement. Sometimes even the right is wrong. We are moving at nine miles over the speed limit to what is supposedly a massive seasonal sale at Macy’s. The girls need spring clothes. The day is golden; it feels ripe and plump with possibility. Everything is right, right now.
It is 2:40 p.m. I am sitting on the naughty chair. My eyes are full of tears, my cheeks flush. Cosi’s too. At various points in the past 45 minutes we’ve both misbehaved. We both know it. We are both paying the price. What we did to get here doesn’t matter anymore. We are just here, on this chair.
She is sitting in my lap. Her body compresses and expandes like a paper bag as she cries.
She turns around quickly, tears streaking little highways down her face. With all the honesty and sincerity that only a three year old can muster, she manages words between heavy breaths. “Daddy. You can. Go. I will stay. I have forgiven. You.”
I turn my face like I’ve been slapped. My hands go to my eyes. Where does she find these words, the strength to forgive? I wish I could say from me.
It is 10:38 a.m. and we are driving northwest on Michigan Road, a few miles from downtown. We dropped Momma off at work. Alexi Murdoch’s “All My Days” is on the stereo this time, and the sun is again keeping pace. A snapshot, and you’d think it’s a perfect morning.
It is not. I feel like an epic, historical failure in the history of parenting. Name a way in which the morning could have collapsed into chaos and it has. Thoughts run through my head as fast as I am driving. I am thinking: women can really do this job better than I can. Women are more biologically in tune with their children than I will ever be. Women are more compassionate and graceful. Me? I can carry eight full grocery bags and a two-year old in the other arm. That is my special power.
I am just not fucking cut for this.
I am headed somewhere other than home. Home is a dumping ground of laundry and dirty plates and unswept floors. There is no plan for lunch, no grand strategy for dinner. The day, exploded. I have snapped like a rabid dog at my children all morning. I was pretending when I kissed my wife. I spent the early morning shitting on the toilet and resenting other parents as I read their Facebook statuses, seething with resentment. Fuck arts. Fuck crafts. Fuck playgroups. Parks too. Fuck life lessons.
I turn a corner onto an unfamiliar road that looks quiet. We are suddenly in a strange place, a section of the city protected with a castle wall of affluence from the barbarian encroachment of stoplights and traffic and strip malls. It is hilly, with trees, fields, and wooden fences everywhere. There is a small farm up ahead, just over the rise. A voice from the backseat breaks the quiet. “Look! Horses, Daddy! Horses!”
It is 3:14 p.m. The three of us are sitting on the sidewalk. Our backs lean against the brick storefront of Joe’s Cycles like it was made just for us. Heat simmers from the pavement and ice cream is freefalling from our chins. My girls charmed Joe into tripling the scoop size. “Chalk-oo, too, please, Chalk-oo, too, please!” Works every time.
If I imagined a perfect scene as a stay-at-home dad before I became one, this is it. I elbow my way in for another bite of ice cream. I feel like I have given my two girls a gift today, the ice cream a delivery method for something else: the pavement. The cars. The hot sun. The echoed laughter from the bike shop. Dandelions peeking out from cracks. The gangly smiles from homeless passersby. The ant carrying a crumb across the sidewalk. My great gift to my children is to stumble us into these rare mundane moments. Beauty in the common, shit like that.
It is 8:21 p.m. and the sun is barely holding on. The neighborhood birds are pecking at the ground for one last easy meal before they find their nest and sleep.
The days pass like cards flipping in the air from a deck fallen from my hand. A third child is on the way and I am sleeping less because I am worrying more. I need to find a preschool for my first. My second spent two weeks tied to a bed in intensive pediatric care one year ago, and lately has been looking up at me with those same deepset eyes murmuring, “Huhrt, Daddy, huhrt.” I am scrambling to find myself, to find my family’s self, even to just be.
I am digging in our garden outside. Everything makes sense out here. Plant this, water here. In a few weeks, green bursts from black. The dog across the alley is barking at someone scavenging for metal in our trash. I stand up to look. He sees me and scurries away to the neighbor’s bin.
Behind me, a little girl’s cries seep through the windows of our ancient house. I listen for a bit, and then bend down to the soft ground. I dig a little deeper.