“I SAID IT’S TIME TO GO!”
This experience started out like all the rest the last few months — with the best of intentions and me trying to find my back to involved fatherhood. And then it ended like it always has for the last few months — with me getting impatient and yelling at the boys.
This time it was Sam. I took him to walk the dog down the dirt road across the street from our house. The road ends at a small pond that Sam loves, mainly because it’s now frozen over and he discovered that when you throw a rock on a frozen pond it makes a really cool noise. But when 3-year-olds find something new and fun, they want to do it again. And again. And again and again and again. Over and over until they’ve squeezed the enjoyment out of it like so much blood from the stones they seek to skip along that ice-encrusted surface.
I knew he’d want to linger and I told myself to be patient with him. After all, with the hours I work we haven’t had much time together and I know he just misses me.
So we threw rocks for five minutes and it was fun. Then I felt the familiar sensation of a buzz in my pocket. Work email. Dammit, I’ll have to respond to this. I gently say “Hey bud, it’s time to go back, OK?” He ignores me in favor of picking up another rock and tossing it down to smash against the ice.
I feel the discomfort growing as I try to read the email, herd Sam, all with the dog’s leash attached to my wrist, which is yanking me as I try to catch up on what I need to do when I get back to the house. I put my phone in my pocket and kneel down beside him and tell him again how we have to go home. He cries and says “NO!” and I can see him digging in his heels. I take a breath and try to reason with him and tell him “Peanut is cold, we need to walk back so he’ll be warm.”
I’ve now lost my patience and the thought of emails I haven’t yet responded to fills me with more dread and loathing than is healthy. But that buzzing is my job, that job is my future, my future is that house, and that house is everything I want for my family. Which means whatever that email is is the most important thing right now. The ridiculousness of that statement is not lost on me, even in the moment. Yet it has taken hold of me and I can’t fight it. Not now. Not there at the frozen pond with my phone abuzz and my son’s temper flaring and the dog pulling — pulling me in a thousand different directions so that I’m everywhere and yet nowhere all at the same time.
“SAM, I’VE HAD IT. LET’S GO OR YOU’RE LOSING A TOY!” I scream, too loud. Too close to him. I’ve now triggered Sam’s fight or flight response and he almost always chooses fight. He scrunches up his face, balls up his fist, and grunts like it’s Lord of the Flies. He’s savage now and I made him this way, only now I’m off the reservation too.
I snatch him up but he’s big and I have the dog, who pulls me off balance and forces me to put Sam down. He views this as a victory and runs back toward the pond as I yank the dog to give chase. He’s screaming about wanting to throw rocks. I’ve just threatened to take every toy he’s ever owned or will ever own. Our father-son walk has turned into a grudge match and neither of us is going to yield an inch.
This imbalance can’t be blamed on the kids or work. It’s my fault. I didn’t do it on purpose but that doesn’t matter, and it’s up to me to fix. I just don’t know how. I don’t know how to excel at my job without working the hours I work. I don’t know how to be a good parent if I routinely go 2-3 days during the week without seeing them, and then spend my weekends being annoyed by them and the work I didn’t get to during the week.
It’s easy for others to tell me I just need to spend less time at work, but my job is what’s allowing us to move into a great house. My wife would work if she could, but she can’t. It’s not good for her health and I won’t have her in that situation again. So I stumble on, hoping to find a middle ground I’m not even sure exists and wondering how much human leeway I’ll be afforded by my family until I’m nothing more than a stranger passing in the night who shows up late for events and spends time screaming at little kids for wanting to throw rocks on the icy pond.
I have no answers, just anxiety. It is the fear of worrying you’re screwing everything up and realizing you won’t really know the answer to that until it’s far too late. It’s the terrifying notion that a job you love and the people you love could very well need more time and attention than you have to give, yet something has to give. Otherwise you end up having WW III over rocks on a pond.