The Extreme Highs And Lows Of The Parenting Rollercoaster
From sick kids to kindergarten and travel. The everyday realities of paternity operate in the extremes. In the latest iteration of his "Recalculating" newsletter on parenthood, Argentine writer Ignacio Pereyra examines what it means to be a father.
Sometimes it seems like paternity has thrown me back in time. There are moments where I feel I have been plunged head-first into infancy, or taken back to my adolescence. When it happens, it feels never-ending. Rather than the intensity of said blow-ups, its their frequency that concerns me.
This is something quite similar to my son, Lorenzo, who, at age four, is experiencing a similar stage of development. My eldest son experiences even the most mundane events with an absolute seriousness. He operates almost exclusively in the extreme: “We never play, ever!” is one such call to the heavens, after at least ten hours of activities with his friends.
Lorenzo builds sentences about other themes — food, waiting, story time, going back to Argentina — with the same extremist architecture: always, never, all, nothing. I’m wondering if it’s contagious. Luckily, he does not seem to share my fears.
Then came the guilt ...
One week, Lorenzo was down with a fever. It began on a Sunday, and he had had a high temperature for six days. Just as it looked like he was getting better, he had a terrible night: at 3 in the morning, he woke up, complaining and trembling. He was delirious, and he was having trouble breathing. Even I was scared.
Lorenzo had a fever of 39.6, although he had taken paracetamol hours earlier. My first question was which hospital to take him to, a special concern given that our family was newly living in Greece, a country which is not our own. These are the kind of things I know how to manage blindly, instinctively, when I’m in my home country.
Then came the guilt, a useless recourse to change the situation: “Why didn’t I just play with him all day long?” I asked myself, accusingly. These were the enunciations of a drunk man, full of regret, promising through a bad hangover he would not go back to the bottle. Promises arose, like a lucky formula to exercise the fears: “From now on, I have to be infinitely patient. I have to play with Lorenzo every time he asks me to”.
It’s obvious where my new mantras were coming from: the place of horror which I was sending myself to, trying not to imagine that my young son could suddenly die. Rationally, I knew it was an exaggeration, and that it was highly unlikely he could die from the flu, but in the same vein of knowing that yes, actually — it was something that could happen. Someday, it will happen.
Paracetamol v. ghosts
By nature — as it were — ghosts are not rational, but dramatic and terrifying. Their very origin is the school of “maybe it’s the beginning of a fatal illness”.
As a father, it is inconceivable that one of my two children could die before me, just as I could not imagine dying before my parents at that age.
A throwaway thought: giving Lorenzo all of the things he wants or playing until the end of time is not only not going to cure him or stop anything else bad happening to him, but it is also unreal and unhealthy in terms of forming his personality.
What an absurd thing, to find freedom in work.
None of this really mattered to me when I saw Lorenzo coughing his lungs up. He seemed to be choking as he was shivering. Suddenly, he hugged himself into the fetal position to find some relief. This is when my guilt bubbled over, as if I was the one who caused this attack of bad health upon my otherwise happy child, as if I was the one who therefore had to cure it.
The box of paracetamol came rattling back out, Lorenzo managed to ease his way back into calm, and he fell back asleep. I could only find my way there at dawn; and Lorenzo woke up as if nothing had happened during what was, for both of us, a night of torment.
He didn’t need to take any more paracetamol — the fever had broken. The promises I made to him when he was sick are becoming diluted day by day. I lose patience when Lorenzo screams my name for the thousandth time; and when he enacts a sequence of actions with the singular purpose of catching my attention, to play with him, while I try (and postpone) doing the things I need to do for work.
After a week where caring for my son was the reason for waking up each day, I wanted some time for myself. In the few hours I get where I am not with Lorenzo or working away at another task around the house and garden, I am working. I work for a few hours to get that stuff which is accumulating out of the way — all of the deadlines which I am missing.
The weird thing is that it means working is not only satisfactory, but it's also freeing. What an absurd thing, to find freedom in work. I want to work because it makes me feel better than spending the day looking after a toddler.
I know, I know. Looking after a child doesn't have near the same level of recognition and social prestige that having a job does. For a man, validation is more in the system of being in production, rather than in care.
Mom taking the temperature of her daughter with an ear thermometer
The mandates of masculinity
I read a few excerpts from “The Mandates of Masculinity as a Risk Factor”. This Spanish-language booklet delves into concepts of masculinity, providing multiple frameworks to understand how the duty of being “masculine” is installed and made natural. It's a way of making the different ways in which gender equality is created visible, even to the ignorant naked eye.
Page 16 mentions four mandates of masculinity, a sort of guide to follow, to reach this ideal of masculinity: be a provider; be omnipotent; be powerful; be a protector.
It also says that virility can be analyzed when taking work as the construction of the masculine identity into account: “The man tends to fuse himself into his profession and occupation, thus reinforcing the role of provider”, I read.
Easier to put bread on the table?
My daily duties have me set on auto-pilot. Fatigue is the backdrop of my daily life. My wife and I have not slept well in four years. Ever since we became parents, our day-to-day tasks have become a loop, which guides us through routine.
Change the children, prepare their breakfast (which is sometimes devoured, and sometimes goes untouched), brush their teeth, put their shoes on, go to kindergarten (always later than we want). This is the next chapter.
“Why do I have to go to kindergarten? I always, always have to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t like it there”. What Lorenzo says is not true, but he repeats this mantra at least once a week (and sometimes, every morning).
It’s not true, because between our travels and holidays — and illnesses — he skips it often. It’s not true, because every time I go to pick him up, he tells me on the way to the car how much fun he had with his school friends, and that he’d like to see them for longer next time.
Once again, I feel guilty. Though I have some doubts, I know that I am not harming him. What I also feel bad about, since the first day we brought him to daycare, is that I am also looking forward to living my life without him for a little while. Saying it like that is politically incorrect, but believe me when I say it’s much easier to put bread on the table than to look after a child.
As the Venezuelan psychologist Carolina Mora advises, my wife Irene and I tell Lorenzo that while he is away, we can work and do other things that we’d like to do.
I try not to depict it as this or that. I like being with him. I also like working. I like having alone time for my own activities too. I also tell him that he is very lucky because both parents work from home, which means that we spend many more moments together than other children — and parents — can only dream about having.
Blaming it on the couple
In the middle of what can sometimes become a roaring swirl of tensions, life as a couple also continues. Irene and I have been together for almost 11 years. And that’s where we can sometimes find ourselves in danger of growing apart from each other too.
When we’re low, the fact emerges that we have hardly been out alone on a date. It’s maybe happened twice in just over four years. It’s always been for less than six hours in total, and even then we have argued for at least half of that time.
In those moments, it’s easy to ask ourselves why we’re together if we’re having such a bad time of it, especially since it is all so hard. But I always end up realizing that, when dealing with the turmoils of parenting, the couple becomes the scapegoat. Even if it is not the cause of this ill feeling: we are who we are, and the way we live has an impact on our relationship and our family life. In any case, we should be thankful for our partnership at its core.
I was speechless a few weeks ago when someone who doesn’t have, and doesn’t plan on having, children told me, insolently and arrogantly, that it surprised them when parents complain or suffer: “You knew what you were setting yourself up for, so why are you whining? Surely you knew what you were signing up for?”
Now that I am writing this, I realize that I’m more annoyed with myself — that I just didn’t respond in kind, with the same aggression. By keeping the fire of my anger inside, I ended up getting burned myself.
I could have told them that life — in general, and in particular with family — isn’t an Excel sheet where you can anticipate and program schemes, and rely logic to exert absolute control over certain situations. Quite the opposite: life as a couple with children is like taking a Tagada ride without a harness or restraints.
And of course, when things are going well, when all is said and done, you can feel the warmth and shelter of being in your relationship. There are shared looks and smiles, there is complicity. There is quiet. There is the desire for more. The wondering why we can’t have more beautiful moments together. We come back to the idea of having a third child, a topic which lingers over our relationship in the tough times as well as the good. It’s illogical, I have said it before, and we know it. But denying this desire won’t make it disappear.
Child picking strawberries from kitchen counter
On the morning I am writing this, Irene has taken our seven-month old, León, to Bucharest with her. And after a week off with the flu, Lorenzo is back at kindergarten. I haven’t gone back to the house to work. I am alone at the beach outside our home. I meditate. And then I sit down to write this. It’s obvious: I need to do this more often.
Looking after our family’s well being is not “helping her” — it’s loving each other.
Irene and I have spent two decades traveling often. Our relationship is a product of this never-ending journey, and our love story began between trips. Nonetheless, and almost always, we’ll have this pre-trip stress that pops up, whether we are traveling alone or together.
Sitting on the beach, I remember a request from the night before, when Irene was packing, and when she asked me to “help her” think through a logistic detail of her forthcoming work trip: did she need to take the baby’s car seat with her? If she did, then how would she be able to protect the baby from the heat and rain, which the weather app promised her awaited them in the Romanian capital?
I told her to take the car seat — safety in the car trumped safety from the sun and rain, which could be handled through other precautions. I was slicing up a vegetable pie as I replied — a part was for the freezer, another was for my sustenance that week. I felt that Irene was getting annoyed.
She said she told me to check out a different stroller, which had a clip-on to protect from the sun, rain and wind. Maybe I could take it out and put it on the car seat. I told her, you only told me to think this through with you; she replied, no, that was after you didn’t hear me asking you to look at a set-up for the other seat, and that’s why she had asked for “help” to think this through, as a top-up request.
I remained convinced that the conversation had not gone this way, in much the same way that I am certain she was right. When Irene and the baby got to Bucharest, she texted me: “Thanks for ‘helping me’ with the car seat”.
All of a sudden, it clicked that the whole scene was just pre-travel-with-a-baby nerves. She was thanking me for being paternal. And looking after our family’s well being is not “helping her” — it’s loving each other.
We showered together that night before Irene left, and we cuddled in bed. Finally, I am going to sleep well for a night, I whispered, knowing full well I shouldn’t say such a thing (yep, I am superstitious).
León had a bad night. It was one of the few times when breastfeeding and his mother was not calming him down. It was one of the rare times when my arms were more effective than his mother’s. He fell asleep. I put him down; he woke up. I picked him up; he fell back asleep quickly.
This too shall pass
I spent some time with León in my arms that night. I asked the darkness, the only one up at that hour, does he want to be with me because they’re off tomorrow? And those nightmares took shape, the ones which you burrow deep: What if something happens tomorrow on their trip, and this is the last time we’ll be together, and happy?
I lie there with León gripping my pajamas, his other hand on my face, looking for contact though he is asleep, as if he wants to reassure himself that I am there with him.
And when am I going to get a good night’s rest? That moment — with León clinging on, in exhaustion — feels like forever, but it’s just a moment, and this is just a phase. It’ll go quickly. Parenthood is full of extremes, I think.
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