I just put my four and half year old and two and half year old down, and I am exhausted. I know complaining when others have many more–or more tragically, none at all–is really lame. I know, I know, I know. But everyday, the end of the day feels like a finish line, and not the finish line that you confidently stride across with all the confidence of an ultra-marathoner who decided to have some fun at the local 5K community fun-run. It’s more like how the unathletic person who does the fun-run thinking it was a 5K, only to find out that it is an ultra-marathon, would finish. Many times after my wife and I get our boys down we find the nearest flat, semi-comfortable surface and flop over on it: our bed, a couch, the floor, etc. Not only that, but we hope to add more children into our family soon, such gluttons of punishment we are.
We are in what older parents confidently (and with all the fondness of someone who has gone through something painful and is glad it is over) call “the tired years.” But even though every older parent will look back at that phase and admit that they were constantly exhausted and don’t miss many parts that made the “tired years” so tiring, they always, always, always without fail tell us: “But enjoy this time; you’re going to miss it.”
I have been hearing this admonition in one form or other since the first day my oldest son was born. I’ve received it the way most platitudes and truisms are received, with a Yea, totally, and nodded head and not much more. It never really sunk in, at least not in any meaningful way. Both of my children were born while I was in graduate school. Balancing work, school, family, and all the other responsibilities just kept life moving at such a pace that I struggled to take this advice seriously. Life hasn’t necessarily slowed down for us at this phase of life, but something has slowly and imperceptibly slid into place in my mind that has made that warning radiate with a new light.
The reality that the steady marching of time is indifferently bearing these precious years away, never to be brought back again, has now dawned on me with all its somber, terrifying, and unsettling truth. I can already see the cherub-like face of my oldest begin to lean out, his round cheeks now less round, his eyes marked more and more with understanding. I now see these moments slipping through my fingers and I desperately don’t want to miss out on them.
Tonight (like most nights in our house), after dinner I wrestled with the boys. It is hard to exaggerate just how much my boys like wrestling. If I gave them an entire day to do whatever they wanted for as long as they wanted, I am fairly confident they would spend the entire day pretending to beat me up. Tonight they had me lay flat on the ground with a pillow on my stomach, them standing above me on the couch, while I pretend to be absolutely and utterly horrified at what they are going to do to me. I make silly, non-sensical rhymes with their name, and turn them into “wrestling moves.” It looks something like this:
No! No! Not the jiggy Jack-a-rooni ba-doongi oooni slam! (the longer I get the rhyme going, usually the crazier they get)
And then they jump (knees first) onto my chest, only occasionally missing the pillow meant to protect me (and occasionally landing on my collar bone, throat, or crotch). I then proceed to let out a loud oooOOOOooo, really selling it, like they just dropped the toddler equivalent of a nuclear bomb on me. (Of course, when they land on my crotch, no acting is required).
They explode in laughter, scramble off of me, and climb back onto the couch with all the energy, joy, and expectation of a pair of cocker-spaniels.
Another favorite wrestling past time in our home is a game my youngest lovingly calls “sacrifice.” I can’t really explain where the game came from, but it involves dad (that would be me), two little boys (that would be my children), and a large pile of pillows (usually the stack of ornamental pillows my wife carefully arranges on our bed each morning).
The boys take turns being the “sacrifice,” which basically means that I suddenly look at them with crazy eyes, channel my best King-Kong impersonation, and chase them down. Once captured, I hoist them up over my head and parade them around like a victor showing off his spoils of war, howling “SACRIFICE! SACRIFICE!” before I hurl them like a meteor into the pile of pillows. The entire ordeal is littered with their uproarious laughter. The downside of this game, however, is that when in public settings you usually get a couple of strange looks from other adults when your two-year-old keeps begging you to play the “sacrifice” game.
My boys are not only fighters, they are also lovers. They genuinely delight in displaying affection. My youngest will often stop whatever he is doing, run over, and lean his adorably large head with his pillowy cheeks on mine or Hillary’s leg for a second or two before saying “I wuv you mommy,” or, “I wuv you daddy” before he shoots off back to whatever he was doing before; totally unprompted, out of nowhere. When I leave for work in the morning my oldest will almost have a panic attack if he doesn’t get to give me at least fourteen hugs and kisses, usually peppering me with extra ones as I walk out the door. And most of the time when I come home, I am met with the most adorable stampede you’ve ever seen. It looks like Hallmark is filming stock footage for cheesy feel-good flicks.
I think one of the most special things about your young children is the ability to look into their eyes without feeling uncomfortable. That is extremely intimate and thus very rare, reserved usually only for your spouse. Whoever said that the eyes are the window to the soul is really onto something. Most adults avert their gaze out of a sense of shame or discomfort; you feel uncomfortable with someone staring into you. But my little boys don’t do that; they welcome it. When I put Calvin or Jack down for bed and stroke their hair, one of my favorite things to do is to just look in their eyes as they babble on about their day or what stuffed animals they need or what their plans are for tomorrow. I find myself thinking do you realize how loved you are? and consciously try to communicate that love through how I look at them.
But all of this doesn’t even scratch the surface.
How can I put into words the experience of my son melting into me as I hold him? The weight of his head laying on my shoulder, his small arms wrapped tightly around my neck and torso, the smell of his hair lying gently against my face. Or how can I adequately explain the significance of the warmth of my boy’s face as I rest my forehead against his and he gently laughs as he rubs the tip of his nose against mine while saying nosey, nosey, nosey, or his little kisses on my cheek, the whispery, sleepy baby-voice of his “goodnight daddy.” Those moments, that experience cannot be easily conveyed in words.
My wife recently laid on the couch as we watched a movie together as a family. As our youngest toddled by her, she said, “Calvin, do you want to cuddle mommy?” He thought about it for a second, “Mmm, yea” and climbed up next to her, snuggling in tight. And there he laid for the next hour and a half as we watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, his little body pressed against hers, one of her arms his pillow, the other curled around his tiny chest, rhythmically falling up and down. You couldn’t think up of a more ordinary moment than this, yet at the same time it was so special and so beautiful and so good that I almost want to call it sacred.
I know that as my children age and, Lord willing, new children are added to our family I will get to see new aspects of my children that weren’t there before. I’ll see them step into their own and take up the mantle of responsibility. I’ll see them wrestle with the complexities of life and (by God’s grace) I’ll see them walk with the Lord. I’ll get to read Lewis and Tolkien to them. Lord willing, I’ll get to watch them become men, go into the world, get married, and raise children of their own someday. And in those transitions there will be new blessings to be grateful for and new challenges.
Parenting young children is hard. It can be tedious, it can be demeaning, it can be exhausting. One moment you can be staring adoringly at your child and the next they have sneezed in your face, or knocked over the cup of milk you have warned them a thousand times about being careful with, or lied to you. Parenting isn’t sexy or glamorous or even always satisfying. Sometimes the good is hard to see, and sometimes making the right parenting decision is painful. But nothing good in life is easy, right? The best things in life often require the most from us, often are what stretch and push us most.
While at times I fantasize about the days when my kids can get themselves ready for bed or pour their own bowls of cereal or stop asking me to replay the same song for zillionth time, I know that as those skills come, other opportunities will be lost. My boys won’t be interested in playing crazy with their goofy dad forever; they might not be so free with their affection; they won’t come running at me when I walk through the door; they won’t instinctively reach up to grab my hand.
I recently have gotten into the habit of telling my boys, “You are a gift. I’m so happy God made you my son,” at night when I am putting them to bed. I say this to teach them and remind myself of how precious the gift of a child is. When the days bring temper tantrums, timeouts, and seemingly endless frustrations, I want my boys to know those hard days don’t change how Dad feels about them, and I want to remind myself when I am feeling burnt out–these boys you have been entrusted with are a gift, don’t lose sight of that.
Every phase is a gift, but I really don’t want to miss out on this one.