The new normal

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Three months ago my wife went back to work and I was left all alone with the two kids. At first I felt overwhelmed and certain I wouldn't last more than a couple weeks. But now, whatever: it's the new normal. A lot of people consider the idea of staying home with a preschooler and an infant terribly daunting and ask me how I do it. Christ, it's not like I survived the Spanish Civil War or a Sudanese refugee camp. Sure I have less time for "me" and it's more difficult to get anything done. But I'd like to think the human spirit is malleable enough to survive famines, depressions, and even, someday, Armageddon. Yeah, I think I can survive two kids. Save your pity for John and Kate Plus 8. A day in that household looks more like the Apocalypse than mine ever does.

Yesterday afternoon I dropped our daughter off for a playdate with her best friend and wandered around for a couple hours with eighteen pounds of baby boy strapped to my chest. So light and easy without that other set of hands constantly searching for one of mine to hold, that other mouth constantly hungry, or thirsty, that other little brain always bored. There was no need to worry about him running into the path of a car or picking some neighbor's beloved flowers. He got tired and I fed him a bottle: that artifice of a breast which is all I can give him. He always takes it greedily with brown eyes full of wonder and gratitude locked with mine so filled with love, I know. His hands reach up to me in the quiet of those moments to find my own hand on the bottle or maybe brush across my cheek. I pretend to nibble on those tiny fingers and a smile spreads around the nipple. Our thrice-daily joke. When he was three months old I would put him to sleep by sitting next to him and slowly, methodically closing my eyes and yawning in a pantomime of serious exhaustion. After a few suggestive shuts-and-opens I'd see his own lids heavy, and then finally close. It was just that easy.

Now we have a new routine: a sister distracted with markers and a giant pad of paper, new songs, a rhythm of my hand against his back. Now he is almost ready to hold his bottle by himself, and I know I will miss holding it for him even though it will make my days easier. Over the course of an afternoon without his sister, I am reminded of how easy he is, how simple his needs are. But those needs are always growing and changing. And we always adapt.

So many people say, when you go from one to two, that it's "two times the kids but ten times the work." That's not true. That's just something mildly clever and easy to say.

It's not that two kids are ten times more work than one, it's that having two makes you lose perspective on how hard it was to go from none to one. Your daughter spends an afternoon with a friend or a night with her grandmother, and suddenly you've lost your ballast. Suddenly there is no gravity. You could tango with your wife with a baby bjorned between you, you feel so free. The very idea of freedom has morphed into something your pre-parent self would not recognize, something from which he would turn away in horror.

And then the playdate ends. Grandma brings her home. And everything returns to normal.