It’s 5:50 in the evening.
I’m standing in my kitchen, an oven mitt on one hand and a spatula with a half-melted handle in the other. And I’m feeling completely devastated. There are no other feelings — just pure devastation.
Because of the stupid fish sticks. They’re still frozen. I put them in the oven 20 minutes ago and they’re still ice cold. W.T.F. I hate them so much.
It’s been one of those days. Same as yesterday. Same as tomorrow.
You know what I mean, right?
In my 44 years of living, I have known many levels of exhaustion. I have laid my bag of bones down at night too tired to even sleep. Hard labor, long drives, broken hearts — I’ve been through it all. But at the end of many days I have found myself unable to rest even when my body was more tired than it deserved. Even when the darkest, deepest sleep possible was the only thing in this world that could offer me any salvation.
Yet none of it compares to this parenting thing.
Hell, none of it even comes close.
Raising children, and I mean really raising them — being down in the ditches where they spend lots of their time, helping them stand up when they fall, correcting them so many times in the course of a minute that there are moments when it seems that you have been frozen in time and trapped inside a GIF that will never end — it’s a hard, hard way to live.
No one can deny it. And if they do, then they’ve never been there.
I’ve got three kids, ages 7, 5, and 2. On the surface of things, we’re more or less a normal American family. Divorced as I may be, and rolling single as dad and a man, we’re still more typical than strange or different. And so I can say this now with full confidence and candor, and naysayers be damned:
Parenthood has turned my brain to jelly. My muscles are worn out from thinking and speaking. My eyes, once lit up like a prairie sunset, have gone dimmer with each passing day.
Sometimes I feel like being their dad is enough to shake the blood out of my veins. Like it’s draining me of all the old juices and electricity that once made me vital and certain and strong.
At the end of most days now, I’m stumbling across a finish line that never seems to count. Because I have to cross it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the one after that too. Just to keep them alive. Just to keep them smiling; to keep their bellies full and their coconut heads sleeping quietly on the pillows.
If that ain’t love, I sure as hell don’t know what is.
It’s a high price to pay, being so worn out by the end of the day. It is, I know now, the hardest job that exists.
But to walk away from it would kill us in a matter of moments. Or, if it didn’t, well, then we never deserved the gig in the first place.
Lord, oh Lord, I feel myself fading.
And this isn’t fair at all. It’s 7:17 in the evening and I’m wet from bath water being splashed up out of the tub by a 2-year-old swinging a rubber Orca.
I need food. I’m a dad, but my mind is mama bear. Behind my tired eyes I see the quick visions of grizzlies turning on their young. Baby bears starting to annoy their mama, so she let’s them know it with the flash of a snarl so menacing and true that there’s not a critter in the land who would dare cross her.
I try that.
Charlie slaps some more water all over my shirt and the bathroom floor and there’s no one around so I figure what the hell. I drop the washcloth in my hand and I rear back and show my teeth and I hiss and growl out of nowhere, like a madman. I’m not even done though when I know that I’m messing up bad. Charlie’s initial smile instantly transforms into an even bigger one. Next thing I know he’s doing it too, thrilled to be bear-facing with dad. This tub time just keeps on getting better, that’s the way he sees it.
I laugh. I cry inside. I’m so tattered and torn in my guts. I need a break. I’m not alone and I know it. All across town there are other parents like me trying hard to get their young cubs into their beds. Patience is done for the day. All that remains is this insatiable desire to be by myself, to be by ourselves … each one of us, every mom and dad. But it’s never easy.
I look at Charlie laughing and growling at me and there is a part of me that wishes he was a cheesesteak stromboli right now. I’d gobble him up, lickity split — no questions asked. That’s how much a part of me wants to have a little dinner in front of the Netflix.
It doesn’t go down that way though.
I lift Charlie out of the tub, dry him gently with a towel I need to wash but I’ve been putting off because I’m behind on laundry — same as I’m behind on everything else. He smells like flowers and summer rain. He’s squeaky clean.
He keeps growling at me even from underneath the towel I’m rubbing him down with.
My stomach growls back at him. I could sleep right here, right now, standing up in this bathroom, three kids still awake in far corners of this house.
But I don’t. I just growl back, a half-hearted weary old grizzly growl and he laughs. Then we both laugh. Then I slip him under his covers with his blankie and his stuffed animals and his eyes are flickering shut right away. It’s a beautiful scene too, because it’s all mine, you know?
This is all mine. My kingdom. My tired, hungry kingdom that goes on and and on and on.
Then I head back downstairs to do the dinner dishes with a strange smile sagging across my lips.