Monday, March 3, 2014

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My Kids and I are Frenemies


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It was about ten days before Christmas and we were driving to Best Buy. Mel, my wife, was in the passenger seat of our ten-year-old green Mazda. Tristan (my six-year-old) and Norah (my four-year-old) were in the back seat. Tristan was playing Angry Birds on the iPad, and Norah was eating a sandwich bag of Apple Jacks cereal. It was dark out, and we’d been driving for some time. We live in a small rural Oregon town, which means that we do most of our shopping online, and for what we can’t find online, we have to drive at least 30 minutes to get it. I can’t speak for Mel, but if I had to choose between driving into town and shopping with the kids, and slamming my junk in a car door, I’d take the car door. Every trip was a non stop barrage of whining and bitching and sleeping and wanting and needing and farting and peeing, and by the time we got home, I usually had to pry my hands off the steering wheel because I’d been holding it with a white knuckled grip for several hours.
Tristan asked Norah for some of her cereal and she said, “No!” Then she thought about it for a moment, wiggled her little feet, and said,  “Only if you let me play the iPad.”
“But it’s still my turn,” Tristan said.
Norah reached for the iPad. Tristan hugged it and turned his body to the window.
Both whined. Both begged. And Mel and I rolled our eyes because this is an argument that was all too recognizable. Usually we wait a minute before getting involved, and hope that the situation will fix itself, but it almost never does.
Eventually Tristan said, “Norah won’t share her cereal with me!”
And Norah said, “Tristan won’t give me the iPad!”
Mel was in the passenger seat, which made her the primary care giver. While driving with kids, being in the passenger seat holds certain obligations. It’s not like when you’re on a trip with a friend where you have the option to talk or sleep. Mel was the one obligated to pass back spill-free cups of milk and water, snacks, toys, discipline, love, and so on, because if I had to, I might crash the car. To accomplish these tasks, sometimes Mel had to unbuckle, making the position extreme and underpaid. 

Clint and Norah: getting along

“Norah. Tristan. You need to share,” Mel said in a stern, but compassionate voice.
Mel turned around and gave both kids the mom look. However, I think it was less effective in the dark.
Tristan was moaning by this point. A hollow sorrowful moan that was somewhere between real crying, and that fake cry he often makes when trying to get an Angry Birds Band-Aid for a scratch that wasn’t bleeding.
“I just wanted some cereal,” Tristan said. I looked in the mirror. He was cradling his stout little tummy. “I’m really hungry.”
“Tristan,” I said. “You had pizza about 10 minutes ago. You can’t be that hungry. Stop being dramatic. Just trade Norah the iPad for some of her cereal. You’ve had the thing long enough.”
“But I’m in the middle of a level!” He said it with sincerity and obligation, as if what he was playing had real consequences on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
He looked at me with sorrowful blue eyes, heavy with longing, his shaved little head tilted upward, as though I didn’t understand how hungry he was, and didn’t care. Like I didn’t get how important it was for him to finish the level. He looked at me like I hated him because I wouldn’t grant him what he wanted. Because I wouldn’t let him have his cake, and eat it too. He does this every time I take away the iPad, tell him he can’t have dessert because he didn’t eat enough dinner, or force him to tie his own shoes. And I will admit that every time he gives me this look, I feel like shit. I feel like I want him to be my friend more than I want him to be my son.
Mel was still arguing with Norah. She gripped the cereal tightly in her little hand. Norah wasn’t going to budge. Then Mel looked at me as if I was to do something. As if it were my job to solve the problem. So I did what felt like justice. I gave them each what they wanted. I told Mel to grab the cereal from Norah and hand it to Tristan. Then to grab the iPad and hand it to Norah.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
Both kids looked at me with terror. I looked at Mel with sincerity.
Mel did just what I told her to. Then she flipped around in the seat, buckled her seatbelt, folded her arms, and looked forward, her lips drawn to a tight line. She was waiting for the reaction.
Norah whinnied, “I’m still hungry!”
Tristan screamed, “I was in the middle of the level!”
Both got what they wanted, but neither was happy. I hate situations like this because there is no way to really remedy the situation in a way where everyone is happy. If one of them had ended up with both the cereal and the iPad, then the other would be angry. No matter what I did, I was the villain.
            “Both of you need to learn how to share,” Mel said. 

            “Mommy! You're going on the naughty list!” Norah said.
            “Yeah!” Tristan said with a satisfied snarl. “The naughty list!”
            I started laughing.
            Mel looked at me. “Really?” she said.
            “Come on,” I said. “That was funny.”
            Mel was now giving me the mom look. “You need to grow up.”
I exhaled and wondered if she was right.
            “Norah, you don’t have the power to put anyone on the naughty list,” I said with a stern tone that commanded power and compliance.
            “Daddy, you’re on the naughty list, too,” she said. “You’re both being mean to me. Stop talking. I need a quiet time.”
            She folded her arms.
            Tristan repeated himself, only I was in the sentence now. “Yeah, Dad! The naughty list!”
            Tristan threw the Apple Jacks to the floor in protest.
            “Good idea,” Mel said. “Let’s all be quiet.”
            “Stop talking!” Norah screamed.
We all went silent.
            We were still about ten minutes from Best Buy. And as I drove along the freeway, Tristan and Norah had angry eyes. These were the same eyes girls often gave me in high school when they thought I was annoying, or gross, or rude. These were the same eyes boys gave me on the play ground right before they pushed me off a swing. These were the same eyes my ex-girlfriends gave when we happened to bump into each other two weeks after we broke up. And they were the same eyes my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend gave me during the unfortunate run in. These were eyes of anger, irritation, and hatred.
            It is in these moments that I wonder if my kids like me. For the most part we get along. Most evenings we laugh together. Tristan still wants me to go outside with him and play soccer. And Norah still wants me to watch how fast she can run down the hall. And in those moments, I feel like we are good friends. Old friends. And I want to be their friend forever. I want to be the “cool dad.” I want to be the confidant. I want to be the one that my kids go to for advice. I want to be the dad that my kids are not embarrassed by. I want our home to be where my kids take their friends to hang out because it is hassle free.
But at the same time I am aware that I am their father. I have to tell them no sometimes. I have to solve arguments where there can only be one victor. And it is in these moments that I wonder if Tristan and Norah really hate me. Moments like we had in the car on the way to Best Buy, where both kids stare at me, angrily, like I’d just crushed their dreams.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley