A Little Perspective, Perhaps, to Go with that Whine?

I was, I admit, feeling somewhat sorry for myself.

My wife travels a good deal for work, and so I’m left alone to do single daddy duty. Right now, in fact, she’s away for a week in San Francisco. Now that both kids are in school it’s not such a burden, but even when she’s not on a trip it’s up to me to get the kids up, fed, dressed and delivered to school, then retrieved, washed, fed, and entertained until mom rolls in.

I have no problem with this, really, it’s just the way things work around these particular parts. What I was mildly lamenting was all of the time I’d been spending with my kids. I’ve written about needing a break from your kids before, and once again I was feeling a bit overloaded.

Our eldest  had recently been home for two weeks with chicken pox, and we had been advised by his doctor to leave the house as little as possible. Believe me, people, there’s only so much UNO a grown man can play before he starts to seriously reconsider his life choices.

Mornings are particularly trying times, when I race around fixing breakfast and brushing teeth and eyeing the clock – dammit, we’re running late again – as I attempt to hustle along kids who display absolutely no sense of urgency. But, uhh, Matt, why don’t you just get up, say, 30 minutes earlier? Zip it, smartypants. You think I haven’t tried that? The trouble is, when the kids wake up on their own they’re fine, but if I go in to drag them from their sleep they’re grumpy, growly – they put the ‘cur’ in curmudgeonly. It’s just not worth it.

And so it was after a particularly rough morning, with the knowledge that my wife would soon be away again, that I was considering myself somewhat put out. I was clearing the breakfast dishes when our cleaning lady arrived. Yes, I see your point. Here I am whinging about having to take care of my children while in the background someone cleans my house for me. But wait, it gets worse.

We got chatting, and she asked me if we were going away in August. I replied that yes, indeed, we were planning to spend a couple of weeks with family in Maine. Rent a cottage on a lake for a week, maybe.

She said that in August she was hoping to be able to take a trip to the Philippines, where she’s originally from. To see her kids.

I didn’t know she had kids. A boy and a girl, it turns out, aged 7 and 11. They live with their grandmother. How often do you see them? I asked.

It’s been four years.

And it was at that moment that I realized something important about myself. I’m an asshole. This woman and her husband moved 7000 miles away from their kids, kids who were 3 and 7 years old at the time (the same ages as my kids now), so that they could work hard and earn money to send back home in order to provide their children with better lives. They want to bring the children here to live, but they don’t know a) if they can afford it, and b) if the Spanish authorities would allow it.

Eight birthdays, four Christmases, four years of not being able to touch your children, read them stories, watch them grow, learn, develop. How hard must that be? How frustrating? How emotionally eviscerating? As I thought about it, I was ashamed.

In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman reports these interesting results from a study of ‘experienced well-being’:

American women rated the emotional experience of spending time with their children slightly less pleasurable than the emotional experience of doing housework.

Perhaps we’re doing something wrong. If we’re being given a hypothetical choice between mopping the floor and hanging out with our kids and we’re grabbing the bucket, we might just want to sit down and consider that for a moment. Why do so many people, myself included, find spending long periods of time with their children taxing? Why are so many parents stressed out about their kids? Why do Frenchwomen, who spend less time with their children than American women, enjoy that time more?

I love hanging out with my kids, but the daily grind of parenting can wear me down and I sometimes feel that I need a break from it. I think that’s normal, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But maybe I need to look at this whole thing differently. Maybe my ‘problems’ with the kids aren’t problems at all, they’re just things that need doing – like fixing breakfast and brushing teeth and getting them to school on time – and I should try to make them fun rather than trying to simply get them done.

For four years this poor woman hasn’t seen her little boy and girl.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to my kids, knowing that I might not see them again for years. For her and her husband, it would be more than a privilege to be able to spend time with their kids, it would be little short of a miracle. Granted, it’s difficult to feel all that privileged when you’re hunched over a poopy toilet wiping a dirty bum, or adjudicating for the gazillionth time some incredibly petty squabble, but the next time I start to feel incommoded by my kids and their needs I have a ready image to conjure up, an image of two little kids half way around the world from their parents, waiting for them to come home.

8 thoughts on “A Little Perspective, Perhaps, to Go with that Whine?

  1. This is an interesting commentary. I do think it reflects on modern parenting. I can’t imagine the feelings the housewife goes through missing her kids, however, modern parenting means that we have our children underfoot all the time. When I was young, I was very rarely home from the age of 6 – the neighbourhood kids spent time playing in the back yard, neighbours house, shops, park, public swimming pool etc. We only went home at dinner time. Parents did not have to entertain children – we did that ourselves, and were more independent, getting ourselves to school and back. I think in this way, parents years ago got more of a “break’ from their kids and as such could enjoy the family time much more, and weren’t stressed out about housework. I tried to appreciate the moments with my kids, as I knew that day when they were “that age” would never come again. But at times……I felt overwhelmed. But that is the rollercoaster of life as a parent.

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    • It definitely seems different these days. Like you, when I was a kid we were much more independent. In summer we’d leave the house in the morning, go back for some lunch, then show up at dinner time. From the second grade I was going home from school every day for lunch, fixing myself something to eat, then going back. When did that change? My son is 7 and if he wants something to drink he asks me, and I go into the fridge and get it for him. I think I’ll have to stop doing that. Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts. Cheers!

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  2. I’ve been there too… kids can suck your energy and motivation easyly… now, I’m going away from mine (not for four years, but long months of just video chat await me) and it perspectivates everything, no doubt. You value more the little moments, yet you still feel tired after watching the same child movie for the nth time or having to spend the weekend scolding him not to make a mess everywhere.
    My point is. Don’t blame yourself for thinking that way. All parents do, especially if they spend all day with them. Going away from them however hurts any parent and… well… makes you wanna share all those hard moments you first got fed up. Does it make sense?

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    • Complete sense. Well, except for the ‘perspectivate’ thing. 😉 It’s all about finding a balance that works for you. And I think that’s true for almost everything in life. It’s all about the balance.

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    • Thanks, Cuttlefish. The video cracked me up as well. Nice to see an advantaged suburban kid satirically acknowledging what is taken for granted rather than feeling entitled to it. Thanks for the read!

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  3. Way to bring me down first thing in the morning when I’m trying to enjoy my coffee. Your housekeeper’s story is heart-breaking. If her story were a movie I would be so disturbed that I’d leave the movie theater.
    There are many times I’m in the same boat – The “Would-it-have-been-easier-to-get-a-puppy Boat”. But then I have an Aha! moment and I’m falling madly in love with the drawing my son just made of he and his dad ice skating for the first time. The stick figures are both smiling and wearing little rectangles (skates) on their feet. If my kid was trying to manipulate me, he did a brilliant job.
    Often, you’re a single parent for long stretches and that (I imagine) can set you up for some serious vexation. Being able to step back and recognize that you’re fortunate in many ways is a good thing. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
    By the way, parenting could be much more gruesome. If you were a wolf or a seagull you’d have to regurgitate your food to feed your kids. Yikes.

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    • Well Mama, you know how I like to spread the sorrow. It’s just my MO.

      Awful to think about, isn’t it? There are moments when I think how nice it would be to go through life blissfully ignorant, believing that yes, there’s unfortunate, even horrific stuff out there, but it only happens to a few people far away, and it’s nothing to do with me. I loved all of the blooming rhododendron in Ireland, until I read that it’s an invasive species and it’s wreaking all sorts of environmental havoc and is indeed a very, very bad thing. I enjoyed (sort of) the orca show at Marine World, until I watched ‘Blackfish.’ That coffee that we were trying to enjoy when I came along and blew it for you? Perhaps it’s best not to know who picked it and under what conditions.

      One of my favorite fatalistic quotations is from the environmentalist Aldo Leopold, who wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Sometimes I wish I couldn’t see the wounds, I really do. I envy the lust for life, go for the gusto, devil may care attitude of, say, Anthony Quinn in ‘Zorba the Greek.’ It would be great to dance the sirtaki on the beach while the world you knew crumbled around you. It’s just that I don’t like to dance.

      Anyway, this whole thing started me thinking the unthinkable. My wife, currently spending time with family and friends in San Francisco, mentioned that we should all take a holiday together in Hawaii. Sounds great. I love Hawaii. But then I started thinking (which is always trouble). Four flights to Hawaii, plus a week’s accommodation, car rental, food, entertainment, boat cruises, etc., would probably run us about $9000.

      What if, for about that or less, we could fly our housekeeper’s kids here to Spain? How would that money be better spent? Intellectually and morally, of course, it’s a no-brainer. A brief luxury holiday in Hawaii vs. reuniting struggling parents with their young children, children they haven’t seen in years. But would I be ready to forgo a passing pleasure in my own life to do something that would have a lasting impact on the life of a family I barely know? It’s not like this woman has been working for us for years, has been caring for our children or anything. She’s cleaned our house five times. Could I really fork out thousands of dollars (which could go to a down payment on a home) to get her and her kids together again? I don’t know. Probably not. I could rationalize this in a million ways, give her an extra 100 Euro at Christmas, whatever. But the very simple equation remains, that we could skip an expensive holiday and instead bring this family together.

      She’s coming tomorrow, and I’m going to ask her about specifics on her kids, where they live, go to school, etc. I have no idea where this is going. But I promise to let you now how it goes.

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