There are some things you can predict and expect when you sign up for parenthood. Long nights come to mind, so do moments of tearful pride and loads of spilled milk.
But then there are things that unfold in parenthood, and you look at these things and you’re like, “How in the world did this happen? What, exactly, am I doing?”
Not long ago, I decided to start a ritual with my six-year-old son—a simple bedtime practice that would provide a tiny bit of extra male bonding between us. Let me stress that I wanted it to be simple.
Tucking him in to bed, I said, “This will be our secret manly way of saying we love each other.” I pounded my chest twice and pointed at him, like baseball players do after they hit a home run and they want to tell the sky above they love it. My son did the chest-pounding point back to me. There. We had a simple ritual.
Within a day or two, word had gotten out. His mother knew about our “secret” bedtime ritual, and she and the boy were doing their own chest-pounding thing. And the boy’s nine-year-old sister wanted to know what her special bedtime ritual would be.
Next thing I knew, improved bedtime rituals were being devised by both my son and daughter. The rituals were becoming more complex. It wasn’t enough to say, “I love you” the way baseball players say they love the sky; we needed more action.
These days, the bedtime rituals with my kids are downright complicated. I cannot communicate these rituals to the reader because part of what makes them special is that they are secret—my son doesn’t know the ritual I share with my daughter, and my daughter doesn’t know the ritual I share with my son. And I don’t know the ritual my son’s mother shares with him, nor do I know the ritual she and my daughter share. Nor do the children know the rituals the other shares with their mother.
(Do you see how confusing this is already?)
The bedtime rituals are also complicated because:
- Children who are not part of the ritual cannot be anywhere near where the ritual is being performed, and if for some reason they are near and cannot get away, they must close their eyes and plug their ears while the rival ritual is being performed. Then, vice versa.
- My son’s ritual has no less than twelve separate movements that must be performed in order, or else you have to start again, or halfway through, or something. It’s borderline OCD. The movements include some chest pounding, some wishes about not dying a horrible death, some light slapping, among other things.
- My daughter’s rituals are so simple that they are amazingly easy to forget, and as an added challenge, she likes to switch them up—only slightly—every few weeks or so. I get so confused that sometimes I will accidentally start delivering my son’s ritual to my daughter, before catching myself. This pleases her.
Or sometimes when I’m saying goodbye to someone who is not a child, I’ll become momentarily confused and think, “Okay, now what is the ritual with Dave from the cafe? Oh wait, Dave from the cafe and I don’t have a bedtime ritual! This isn’t even bedtime! Okay, Dave, plain ol’ goodbye then!”
Back to the kids: make no mistake, even when I am not with the kids at bedtime, the rituals must be performed, over the phone. If you live in Atlanta, perhaps you have seen a man on his cell phone, outside a restaurant or café in the early evening hours, blowing anti-death wishes into the phone, pounding his chest with his phone, or making light slapping sounds into his phone. Perhaps you have seen him shrugging to passersby, and saying, as if it is obvious, “Bedtime.” Perhaps you have seen a woman doing something similar (but definitely different) on other nights.
Sometimes the rituals are performed with the children present, in a public place. Perhaps you have seen a man and his son or daughter, huddled in a corner of a restaurant and making odd gestures and whispering things for several seconds. Perhaps you have seen a woman doing just such a thing with the same son or daughter.
Well, as the parent in this picture, it’s moments like these when you go, “How in the world did this happen? What, exactly, am I doing? This is parenthood? Or is this mental illness?”
I think the answer is simple: some parts of parenthood are like a mental illness. They defy responsible adult logic and behavior, and yet you still perform them.
And really, why not? Aside from your kids, with whom can you spend fifteen seconds telling them you love them, but only with complicated and nonsensical hand gestures and kisses and sounds?
Dave from the cafe certainly isn’t willing to play along.
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