I’ve been a father for nearly 13 years now, and because I’m a slow learner, I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that much of the stress involved in parenting is borne of my own unrealistic expectations.
You know those, right? Here’s one of my favorites: “I just got the car/house clean, and it looks amazing…now we’re gonna keep it this way!”
No. No, we aren’t.
For a long time, I actually expected that we’d keep the house clean. Or even the car clean after a detailing, which seems much more doable in theory since you don’t spend nearly as much of your time there. But it, too, is equally fruitless.
And so I’d experience the same wave of disappointment and hopelessness every time I slumped into the couch and looked around to witness the damage wrought by the latest kid tornado: discarded clothes and toys everywhere, dirty dishes everywhere but the sink, trash items everywhere but the trash can, etc.
Life was a Chinese tank, and I was that little Tiananmen Square guy thinking I could resist the inevitable.
At my house, even worse than the cleaning situation is the inter-sibling bickering. At their current ages — 12, 10 and 6 — it is nonstop. I could’ve hosted an East Coast-West Coast rap battle in 1995 and seen less bloodshed and turmoil than I now see on an average Wednesday.
Yet I have too often been trapped in the mindset that I should expect no bickering, and a clean house, pristine behavior, and other such sparkly unicorns of magical thinking.
I’m much better at this in work life than I have been at home. For instance, if my agency is about to lose a client and it’s beyond our control, I’m very good at getting on board with the assumption that we’re about to lose their business. And when you’re already assuming that’s going to happen, it’s way easier to swallow when it does.
I heard another way of putting it by Amir Khan, a top-ranked professional boxer. He’d just won a fight yet taken some punishing shots, and the ringside interviewer was asking him about some of those shots. He said something like: “It’s boxing. You get hit. Being a prize fighter and expecting to not get hit is like getting a shower and expecting not to get wet.”
Damn! How true is that!?
And at some point it finally trickled into my thick skull that this extremely simple boxer logic applied to my household as well. Raising three young kids and expecting no clutter and no bickering is like jumping in the shower and expecting not to get wet.
Good lord, that’s simple. Where was my brain for the last 12 years?
I know we aren’t going to keep the house clean, so rather than jumping right back on the stress-out pony and freaking out about every newly dropped crumb or wrapper or clothing item left on the floor, I’ve finally figured out that it’s best to instead just enjoy the glow of a newly spotless house while it lasts. Because it’s going to be disappearing slightly faster than a shooting star disappears from the sky. There is no point in bitching and lamenting the quick disappearance of that shooting star, and it’s equally fruitless to actively mourn the commencement of the re-cluttering process.
I know they’re going to bicker, and while that doesn’t 100% wipe away the annoyance of hearing them do so, it also removes the need for me to treat bickering like an urgent problem that must be snuffed out immediately.
And on the plus side, I also know they’re not always going to bicker like this. They’re just at the perfect age where one is never at fault and the other two are constant agitators — times three.
But ultimately, I know that one day sooner than I think, there will be no more bickering at all. The house will be quiet and clean, because they’ll be gone, out on their own. And I can already feel the loneliness of sitting there on the couch, in the eerie silence, wishing that one more time I could hear them upstairs yelling at each other, or find a telltale half-empty cereal bowl lying around. For all of my own bitching about chaos and bedlam, there will soon be a time where I yearn for it all over again. But it won’t come.
In the meantime, then, between hating it and yearning for it, I’m slowly making my peace with the chaos.