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Am I the Reason Why My Sons So Difficult?

A friend recently invited my wife and me to his house for dinner at 8 p.m. – that same day. We were terribly insulted. When we explained that we couldn’t get a babysitter on such short notice, our friend asked, “Why don’t you just drop the baby off with your parents?”

I got even madder.

“Uh no, my parents can’t handle our two-year-old son.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not worth explaining,” I said. Look, my parents are great babysitters – when our son’s asleep. Otherwise, either my wife or I have to be around to babysit them babysitting Christopher – and to make sure neither of them has a heart attack, breaks a hip, or lets Christopher fall down the stairs.

“Well, why don’t you just bring Christopher to dinner?”

I wanted to smack my friend in the back of the head. Bring him? Oh, that would be fun. I can see it now: Christopher screaming, running around, breaking everything in the house, wired from being up too late, not going to sleep later that night, then not sleeping the next day.

My eyes narrowed in on my target. I was ready to get physical.

My friend looked at me with those eyes – those “What’s up your ass?” eyes. His two perfect little girls who can stay up to watch Jimmy Fallon and wake up fresh the next day after 12 perfect hours of sleep is what’s up my ass.

We said no to dinner.

A few weeks later, I traveled solo on a trip to my alma mater for a football game. I was ready for a party weekend with the guys. Though I was staying with my old roommate, his wife, and their four kids, I didn’t expect the family reunion the weekend ended up becoming. When I arrived, it was clear from the amount of friends with kids they had also invited that my guys-only party was just a fantasy. But at least I was off the hook. There was that.

The night before the game, around 8 p.m. (the time my son was going to bed at home), we were at a party where the music was blasting; the World Series was on TV; and the group of 20 or so folks were drinking, laughing, and generally being loud and having fun. I was thoroughly enjoying being child free, lost in adult land with no need for bathtime routines or feeding anyone but myself. I could never have this much fun with my son there. But my buddy and his wife were seemingly as carefree as I, even though they were carting around their one-year-old twins.

The babies were wide awake, being passed around the family, all smiles. I asked my friend’s wife if she was worried – she didn’t look like I would look if I were keeping Christopher up that late – and she nonchalantly mentioned something about them possibly being a “little cranky” the next day. Must be nice, I thought.

We didn’t get home that night until about 10 p.m. The twins were fast asleep in their car seats and barely stirred when taken out and up to bed; nothing like the fierce body shiver and neck-pain-inducing cry that I’m used to when my son’s sleep is disturbed. Even more, they slept through the night and woke up at their normal time – about two hours after my son’s usual 5 a.m. wake-up – no worse for wear.

It was all too much to bear. What am I doing wrong as a parent?, I wondered. We couldn’t bring our son to a dinner party – in fact, we’d never even entertain the thought. And we can’t just dump him with my parents on a moment’s notice. If we had our son up to 8, 9, or 10 p.m. at a party, my wife and I would not be calm. We’d be on DEFCON 5, high alert. Nor would he be calm. He would be a wired maniac at such a party, and we’d have to leave after he knocked down an armoire or broke a family heirloom. And if we had stayed out that late, most likely Christopher would scream and kick the entire car ride home and then refuse to go to bed, thus forcing my wife to stay in his room bouncing and/or rocking him for hours (while she plotted ways to murder me) until he fell asleep. Or the alternative: He’d sleep with us in our bed in such a way that if should either of us move, he’d wake up instantly.

Trust me, we adore our son. He’s the love of our lives. But we’re resigned to the idea that we don’t have one of those magical kids like all my friends seem to have. In fact, I spend an inordinate amount of time seething with rage at my friends (clearly), often in the middle of the night, or during a typical 5 a.m. wake-up, or when I’m late for work because of daycare drop off. I’ll randomly blame Charlie* or Richard* (names have been changed to protect friendships) for any number of things my son does at any given moment, completely unbeknownst to them. Sometimes I even get mad at their children, which is of course very healthy.

Whenever I bring up these travails in conversation, said friends always have simple, obvious answers to everything, of course. Regarding our son’s consistent crack-of-dawn wake up time, now two years running, they say, “You don’t go get him, do you?” No, we let him scream at the top of his lungs, approximately 485 times in a row before he decides to climb out of his crib and then onto our bed.

In answer to his sleep patterns, there’s the “Just put him to bed early” camp and the “Just put him to bed later” team. Thanks. We’ve never considered either of those options. You’re a big help.

But animosity jealous rage aside, I do find myself wondering – Is it us, or is it them? Is our kid really a different level of crazy, a physical terrible-two dynamo? Or are we neurotic, fragile parents? I’d like to believe that my friends who partied all weekend are neglectful and have successfully created docile, zombie children, and we can’t do that because our son’s temperament won’t allow it. But maybe it’s our temperament.

After all, my son is almost two, and I still frequently feel like a shell-shocked new parent; I believe my wife feels the same way. Our entire social lives revolve around naps and bedtimes without flexibility. There have literally been multiple weekends where we turn down plans or don’t even venture to leave our Queens neighborhood to go into Manhattan for a few hours because the risk of an abbreviated nap is so great. Part of the reason we’re so strict is that without his nap, Christopher is so manic that the entire rest of the day becomes a countdown until bedtime. The other reason is that we’re constantly exhausted. We need the naps just as badly. In fact, the only time I feel like my old self – i.e., slightly lucid and even borderline intelligent – is on Sunday afternoons, after my second nap. That’s no way to live.

Furthermore, while our friends leave kids younger than ours to play alone in their basements, we can barely leave our son in a room alone for a minute. I’m convinced my son will cannonball off the couch and knock himself out, or find his way onto the fire escape. Believe me, I’d like to sit on a bench at the playground with a coffee and the newspaper and let my son do whatever, but instead I helicopter over him, fearful he’ll shimmy up onto a roof or end up running down the highway.

Sometimes I worry maybe we’re just damaged with post-traumatic-colic-stress disorder. I still feel screwed up from those early days when our lives were dominated by Christopher’s unrelenting colic. I wonder if our obsession with routine isn’t because our son is “spirited,” as Dr. Harvey Karp would say, but because we have become fear driven and simply lacking in resilience. Or perhaps we’ve become one of those new age-y, empower-the-toddler, never-say-”bad”-and-never-raise-your-voice kind of parents. We’ve definitely been accused of not using the word “no” enough with our son, albeit by “all-knowing” relatives.

And then something happens when I ride this wheel of doubt for too long: I remember that infamous Christmas Day when my wife had to drive around for two hours so that our son could fall asleep for a nap because he wouldn’t stay in his crib. How is that possibly our fault? Just how much responsibility should we own for our son’s challenging behavior?

You have to love those people with the easy answers, like my mom with the “I saw this nanny on TV handle it this way, so it’s guaranteed to work!” Or the never-had-kids neighbor, who suggested to: “Just put him down; that’s the only way.” I thought my wife might become a murder suspect on Christmas. It would be one thing if we didn’t care, didn’t want to put the work in, didn’t deeply desire that things go smoother and our son behave differently. We’re doing the best we can. It’s just that the techniques that seem to work for others don’t seem to bear as much fruit for us.

In other words, it’s not our fault that everyone we know has perfect children; they’re just lucky. At least for now. Call me when your kid goes wild in high school, throws a huge party, and crashes the car. On second thought, don’t. I’ll be sleeping.

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