I went back to work this week after almost fourteen months full-time parenting our boys. After the initial shock of the bright lights and the typing and the chair that spun around and the buttons on the front of my t-shirt and the weird way my shorts seemed to go all the way down to my ankles… I started thinking about what, if anything, I could take away from the year.
I think I should not have been thinking about these things while I was being paid to type and spin and talk and type and spin. But I can’t be completely sure about that.
Here are the three things.
Know the names of the other kids in your child’s class
I stumbled onto this one by sitting in Milo’s class every Monday morning while the children read to me one by one, according to a list in a clipboard.
None of them made eye contact for the first week or two but pretty quickly they started calling me ‘Milo’s dad’ and asking me questions like; “Milo’s dad, why don’t you have any hair?”, “Milo’s dad, why aren’t you at work?”, “Milo’s dad, why aren’t you wearing any socks?”.
Because I had the official clipboard with all the names it was very easy for me to quickly learn who they all were and I could easily respond with their names; “Well Angela, because my father cursed me genetically”, “Ahmed, that’s because I’d rather be here hanging out with you”, “Milli, I am, but they are those really little ones that stay down inside your shoes. I think they look stylish.”
There was a big box that I sat next to containing books of all different genres and reading levels. Most of the kids would thumb through diligently to find the right coloured reader for their level, and to find a subject that interested them. In this way I quickly learned a little about what each of them was interested in. Oh, tadpoles? Oh, green pythons? Oh, Alex you like witches with metal teeth and bony legs? Cool.
This tiny bit of knowledge was useful on so many occasions with Milo throughout the year. It gave me material for follow-up questions when the standard first refrain of “how was your day?” was met with “good”… as it always is, and has been since the dawn of time, or shortly thereafter when children were invented. “I saw Jerome bouncing his handball after school. Did you guys play today?” etc etc. It didn’t always work of course, but assigning names to the conversation joggers definitely seemed to help.
It also helped when Milo was in and out of friendships, or sitting next to new people, or not invited to birthday parties, or carefully exploring with me whether it’s okay to break a promise to someone at school if that someone had made him promise not to tell anybody that the someone was planning to burn down the school (for example).
Of course I had the opportunity to sit in the class with a clipboard and repetition and conversation, which is not easy to replicate when your precious time is absorbed by paid employment. This is the blue-ribbon scenario and any opportunity to get inside the classroom should be seized; it lets you behind the curtain, you see how your children hold themselves in class, how they interact with their friends and their teacher, if they are comfortable and happy. It also gives you irreplaceable insight into the ordered chaos their teacher is dealing with.
But it occurs to me, if such an opportunity is not available to you (as it now may not be to me), this knowledge can still be won with some focused effort. I am not naturally good at it, but I am actively trying to listen and process and talk to all these new kids at drop-off and pick-up whenever I can, and ask the boys about their new classmates each day. I think it is worth the effort.
One of Monty’s new friends told me today her grandma is planning to dress up as a flamingo next term. I hope this to be true.
You will probably feel you wasted the opportunity
I did. I felt like I blew it.
How few tree houses we built, how irregularly we rambled aimlessly up mountains, how absent from our bookshelves are any original comic books sketched together, how short the list of art galleries we visited on a whim. How many potentially interesting conversations did I shut down because I was tired or distracted? How many games of chess and Yahtzee did I decline? How many times did I say no to the playground or tree-climbing after school because I wanted to go home? It can keep you up at night if you let it.
But don’t let it.
When we asked the boys to name the highlight of the year they both said ‘ice cream and library on a Tuesday’. This was one of our routines. Every Tuesday after school we would ride our bikes first to the local Sri Chimnoy café for ice cream and enlightenment, and then onto the library at which time we would clean them out of any books related to Minecraft, terrarium building or wetland bird migrations.
This year has confirmed for me that children do not care about pretty views, and they have very little regard for grand gestures. They love routines, traditions, predictability and spiritual ice cream. And actually, when we allow ourselves to accept it, that’s what adults love too.
Most likely you still won’t know what you want to do when you grow up, but you’ll be more okay about that
It is tempting to think that any extended time away from one’s usual routine will yield insights on important matters such as; purpose, direction, employment, health, hobbies, ‘beard or no beard’. Very little of this happened for me. I made no substantial career change, I cannot play the lute, I have no new tattoos, I hold no high scores at the arcade, I am now clean shaven but not deeply committed to it.
But… I am more comfortable with the uncertain soup of life than I have ever been.
My hopes and ambitions remain, but the energy is different. I am not completely sure why. But I think watching your children everyday learn to read, and chop vegetables, and ride bikes (or not as the case may be), and do lay-ups, and perform the Budapest Gambit, and write numbers with chalk, and dye their hair pink, and sometimes be kind to each other, and make smoothies, and tell jokes, and tie their shoe laces, and master card games, and do cannon balls, and play records, and sometimes do thoughtful and considerate things, and identify lizards correctly and juice lemons… delivers a calmness and perspective to your life.
These boys sit at the core of our family and my life, and I have spent a year confirming that every day. So perhaps life decisions made in the second or third ring, although important, seem less consequential than they once did. I think it’s something like that.
Or perhaps I am just misunderstanding the critical importance of the typing and spinning and talking and typing and spinning. Or perhaps I am just not doing it right…
Shoes well worn