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.