Hey, you know how on Friday afternoons, people get all excited about the coming weekend? Like, they resituate the pleats in their khaki Dockers, turn off whatever lite or kool or smuthe radio station they've been listening to in their cubicles, and go to the bar at, oh, I don't know, Applebee's? (I fully confess that these are rhetorical people. I have not met their like, but surely they exist. After all, somebody buys "business casual." Someone listens to John Mayer. And someone somewhere probably orders those bizarre frozen drinks that come served in a birdbath, made with Stoli Früktøs and bearing classy names like the Poppin' Cherry Colada. Once in a while. Maybe.)
This is how Paul and I get on Sunday evenings. "T.G.T.M.," we tell each other conspiratorially as we go about the business of Charlie's bedtime. We are a pair of frazzle-assed kittens clinging to a figurative tree: Hang in there, baby. Day care's coming.
Lest the rest of this post be misinterpreted, let me state unequivocally that Charlie is a joy. He is affectionate, exuberant, funny, and game. He's curious about everything, highly verbal, and eager to fill every silence with pleasant conversation. (If that pleasant conversation is frequently punctuated with irritating mouth-noises, so be it.) At almost four, Charlie is surprising, satisfying, and wonderful. It's just that on weekends, there's so much of him.
It's intense. A Sunday morning might find us in perfect amity, chatting as we run errands. Sure, listening in the car to his current obsession — the Dead's "Uncle John's Band" — on infinite repeat starts to feel, well, infinite sometime around the sixth time through, and his requests for annotation are challenging, because how do you explain "Don't Tread on Me" to a preschooler, beyond describing that chopped-up pissed-off snake flag? But I manage to gloss over "goddamn, well, I declare," and somehow we make it through, and we sail through lunchtime in harmony.
And the early afternoon's not bad, a few clashes here and there, a little defiance, a little rudeness, but nothing major and no one gets too upset. Mostly we're enjoying each other. Charlie eagerly accepts my invitation to work in the garden, a favorite pastime of his. I let him use what he calls my "safe trimmers," a pair of garden shears fashioned like blunt-tipped school scissors. "What are the rules?" I ask him sternly before handing them over. "Walkdon'trun," he answers promptly, "andkeepmyfingerswellawayfromthebladesatalltimes." He's careful, inasmuch as he can be, and the blades are no sharper than your average "Deal or No Deal" fan, but because I still worry that he'll end up lopping off a finger, I direct him to other non-trimming, non-digit-risking tasks. Gathering rocks, say.
So he picks up a rock, and brings it over to show me. "Ta-daaaaa!" he bellows directly in my ear, nearly causing me to sever my own thumb in surprise. (The Native Americans fertilized their corn crops by dropping alewives into each seed hole. I regret that I have but ten fingers to give for my tulips.) "I got a rock!" he crows. And if you are familiar with the soil composition in New England — there's a reason all those fields are fenced with stones, and it ain't an enduring love of the picturesque — you can easily imagine this happening approximately 350 times before I tell him in exasperation that he need not deliver an individual bulletin upon every discovery. "Go trim something," I suggest, apparently having decided that fingers are a privilege, not a right, and that the branches of my forsythia are a small price to pay for the continued integrity of my eardrum.
He trims for a few minutes, but finds this activity insufficiently fulfilling. With his trowel, he levers up a load of dirt and mulch, and carefully carries it over to where I'm sitting. I can hear him tittering to himself; a preschooler's sneak is not very sneaky. But I decide to let him do it, to allow him the momentary thrill, and I sit there as he dumps the trowel full of soil on my head.
I'm not surprised, and I don't speak sharply, but I do tell him without a hint of humor not to do that again, even though on the inside, where it counts, he has cracked my shit up. I have, alas, merely ensured that he will do it again, and immediately. And he does, so we go inside, which for some reason surprises him. His expression says, "Oh, you meant don't do it again at all? Like, not even any?" His mouth says, "I'm very, very angry!" I'm trying not to laugh, because, Jesus, is his rage both funny and sad. But I'm also kind of angry myself. I'm mad at him for spoiling our collective fun, and I'm mad at myself for not being a different kind of parent. The kind who would have laughed aloud at the first payload, grabbed my own trowel, and crowned my fun-loving son with a humus hat of his own.
And it's all downhill from there. I'm trying to cook dinner while he's trying not to let me. He's bending the plastic sticks of his xylophone, and I'm warning him it's a bad idea. He's howling over the now-broken stick and asking, sobbing, "How will I play my beautiful music?" And I'm torn between assuring him that we can devise some other implement for him to use, because, damn, do I love his love of music, and regretfully agreeing that it's very sad, but sneaking in a motherly reminder that this is what happens when he's not careful with his toys. And as the keening continues, resisting, with every fiber of my spiteful being, saying I'd told him so.
But somehow dinner gets cooked, Ben gets put to bed, and things even out a bit. I largely ignore Charlie during his bath, which suits us both nicely — he gets to spray colored water all over the tile, and I get a brief vacation from being the bitch who cares more about the color of her grout than her son's creative flowering — and by the time his teeth are brushed and his pajamas are on we're back in charity with each other.
But it's been a long day. "T.G.T.M.," Paul and I mutter to each other as he enters to read to Charlie. The bedtime changing of the guard is complete, and I am now off duty. I am exhausted and drained. I would drink even a Cherry Poppin' Colada if one were in front of me. I'd snorkel in the goddamn thing if I could.
None of this is remarkable. On the whole, Charlie is a well-behaved, cheerful kid. He's hilarious and rewarding. He's also almost four, with little sense of proportion. Small disappointments and conflicts aren't so small, I guess, to a person his age. Watching him try to make sense of all this, helping him to process it in the way the world is beginning to expect, is inspiring — because he works so hard — and heartbreaking — because he has to work so hard.
It's also tiring. God, is it tiring. Even a good day feels long. I betray my million shortcomings as a parent by saying so, but on a Sunday night, after two days straight of unadulterated full-strength Charlie — well, yeah, thank God tomorrow's Monday.
Having written all this, I feel sort of uneasy. Have I made it seem like I don't enjoy every moment I spend with our kid? Do I sound like I couldn't wait to see him off come 8 o'clock this morning? Is my attitude unbecoming a person who asked for this — begged for it, and then some?
If so, I'm afraid it's pretty accurate. Because this morning he sat across from me, cheeks bulging, and made one of his favorite and most infuriating mouth noises, spraying everyone's breakfast, the table, and his brother's downy head with wet, chewed particles of English muffin. "GRRRRRRRAH," I said, and chased him out of the house at broomhandlepoint.
It's accurate, so far as it goes, but not complete. Because there was also what he said when he saw I'd sat down at the table before pouring my cup of coffee. He furrowed his brow, concerned, and said, "But I want you to have what you want, because I love you."
See, it's not all bad, of course. Not even mostly bad. Mostly really, really good, in fact. Just intense. So I lied about chasing him out with a broom.
It was actually a sponge mop.