It’s been about a month and a half now, but I haven’t told my boys, six and three, that daddy was laid off. I would have thought they would have picked it up from my stubbled face, crappy demeanor and daily dress of mismatched and stained warm-ups and T-shirts. Then again, my boys can be holding a fat stack of Pokemon cards in their hands and be screaming to their mother upstairs about how they can’t find their Pokemon cards.
I’m pretty sure at this point that I’m not going to tell them. The reason isn’t that they couldn’t handle the news or because of my own shame at the situation. The reason is that it’s not their problem. Childhood ought to include a Free Pass on adult nightmares – at least within reason.
Am I keeping secrets? Is my house going to turn into a psychological petri dish teeming with nasty viruses only to be solved by years of therapy? I don’t think so. We don’t shield them from the hard facts of life. When we found our goldfish belly up one morning, we told them it died before we flushed it down the toilet. We haven’t held from them that I’m an unrepentant Cubs fan (this has turned out to be a nice form of aversion therapy – my kids run away from televised baseball like vampires from silver stakes). In any case, they understand at least in a general way that life comes along with some amount of pain.
My boys were only vaguely aware of what I did in the first place. As it happened, it was only in the last year I started taking them to my former office, which is as dramatic and intimidating as a movie set, a great open space filled with cluttered desks under a bank of skylights. Once they figured out they could snag candy from some of the desks, they liked it. Otherwise, it was just a weird and stuffy place we had to stop before going to the park.
Of course I liked showing them off. Even if the whole idea of work never fully registered with them (which it never did), it felt important to demonstrate that their father was more than just the suspect dude who can find the remote.
At the moment the most immediate concern for me – other than, of course, how to replace a fifteen-year job at a newspaper when newspapers are viable as buggy-whip manufacturing plants – is how to keep hold of my sanity. Being jobless has turned daddy into a bit of a bipolar mess. I am high with possibilities and grand schemes one minute and then in an incredibly dark mood about the bleak future the next. My family is on this roller coaster with me and they didn’t ask for a ticket.
And I am with my family all the time. Cut loose from a time clock, I spend more time with the boys than ever. My wife is working two part-time jobs with irregular hours. I take our boys to school and day care in the morning and I am home most afternoons, trying to figure out how to pry my oldest from SpongeBob SquarePants. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how SpongeBob takes great joy in his job as a fry cook. God, I hate him.
What amazes me is how completely different my life is now – as if the day I walked out of my office for the last time, I was transported to one of the moons of Jupiter. I knew staying at home was work. I sympathized with my wife whenever spring break paired her with the kids. But I never realized. I never had the first clue. Even on the days when I’ve spent maybe two more hours tending to my brood than normal, I feel like somebody has worked me over with a sack of oranges.
And the days have shrunk. I’m hardly a neat freak, but working in a house with dirty dishes in the sink unnerves me. So I do the dishes, then maybe a load of laundry and then look up at the clock and its time to pick up the boys. Having a 9-to-5 (or what closely resembled it) kept fences on family time and personal time. Don’t for a minute think I didn’t see work (which over the years had become an entirely manageable routine for me) as a regimented refuge away from the messy but sweet chaos of home.
Now the alarm clock is useless and the hours bleed into days and the days are – well, I was rather stunned at how quickly I came unhinged from the calendar. I really have to think hard about what day it is.
I hear these complaints forming in the back of my head and I so wish to stifle them. My sons are at a great age – practically exploding with new words, feelings and intense, genuine interest in the simple things, like the robins that bounce around our backyard looking for worms. But I’m wracked with guilt, especially when I am doing a spectacularly bad job of parenting (when, for instance, SpongeBob stays on way longer than it should). What on earth am I good for? My paycheck was at least tangible proof – when I had one coming in, I should have brought it home every two weeks and waved it around like a flag.
How do I contribute now? My skills as a repairman are negligible. I’m more dangerous than helpful when I am wielding a hammer and nails. Where I truly shine is with with sarcasm and jokes. Really, I feel like some seedy, second-rate comic who’s flopping at this nice suburban home until he can get his big break at the Laugh Hut.
And I am always trying new material out on my captive audience. The boys are in the stage when they simply can’t ask enough questions. We dutifully feed them answers, but they don’t listen so the questions come back around again and again. It plays out like a circular logic routine you would use to break a particularly tough terrorist. So I’ve figured out a shortcut.
I’m devolving, tumbling down to their level. Three-Year-Old: “What’s for dinner?”
Three-Year-Old: “What’s for dinner?”
Me: “Octopus feet.”
Three-Year-Old: “No, it’s not!”
Me: “Yes, it is.”
Three-Year-Old: “I don’t like octopus feet!”
Me: “Well, it’s what’s for dinner.”
Maybe in the end that’s what’s most bothersome. Maybe without an office or a title to wow my children and steady my wobbly ego, there is nothing separating me from my kids. I’m just another crazy savage hanging around the house. Worse, I’m devolving, tumbling down to their level where there’s great delight in burping loudly at the dinner table and the best knock-knock jokes are the ones where poop toilet is at the door. Yeah, sure, I’ll buck up and find a job here sooner or later. And I know that once I do, I’ll wonder why I was so anxious in the interim. Meanwhile, I do have some work to do. I mean, these octopus feet aren’t going to cook themselves.