I appear before you on a rain-slick road. You’re driving. I’m ahead, my mouth open wide, my eyes open wider, my arms waving in panicked alarm. My lips are moving, but you can’t hear what I’m saying. And you look over to your passenger and you say, “We better stop, see what’s wrong,” and you ease up next to me. You roll down the window.
Lightning flashes. Thunder drums the dark.
And I whisper something in your ear —
Then I’m gone. Gone as fast as I appeared. As if I was never there.
And your passenger says: “Who was that? What did he say?”
You turn to your passenger and say: “…It was a warning.”
“What warning? Is the bridge out? Is there an accident up ahead? Oh my god, are we going to die? Tell me! What did he warn you about?”
And you say:
“Small children. He warned us about small children.”
* * *
Our son, the one they call B-Dub, turned five.
He has leveled up, and in a few months will DO BATTLE IN THE KINDERGARTEN ARENA.
This is amazing to me, because oh, what a glorious little person he’s becoming. He loves art and he bounces around like a springheeled monkey and he’s surprisingly compassionate. It’s terrifying to me, too, because time is like air in your lungs — you can’t keep it for long. You hold onto it long as you can, but eventually you let it out, and take in a new breath. Time slips in, slips out, and slips away. One day time, like breath, will stop for us.
But one of the most interesting and unexpected side effects of all the shit about which I had no idea. It’s not that I thought having a kid would follow a pre-designed roadmap. I knew it would be full of unexpected twists and turns, and that in basically generating a new human being you’re going to see some emergent weirdness as part and parcel of the process.
I had no idea what was waiting, though. Not really. Not truly.
And so, I appear before you now: a specter haunted by the realities of life with a tiny human. Some of you are thinking of having children. Some of you are already on your way to having them, or have children who are not just small, but very tiny, and those tiny immobilized larvae will one day soon grow up. You’re not ready. I wasn’t ready.
But I am here to prepare you.
preschool is a plague gauntlet
Here is a thing that will happen:
You will send your child to daycare or to preschool. Children at that age are basically just sticky wads of animated strawberry jam — everything gets stuck to them. Further, they are not creatures possessing adult manners. They don’t think much about, say, coughing on each other, or flicking boogers, or licking walls. It’s as if evolution has decided that children between the ages of three to five must engage in a Darwinian Thunderdome where they will test their immune system’s mettle at every possible turn.
So, they cough on each other, and it sticks. It sticks real good. All those germy bits, all those viruses and bacteria — your children are walking, talking petri dishes. Assume they are coated in a persistent grease of angry paramecia.
Here’s the problem, though: you, as an adult, have not had to test your immune system’s mettle in quite some time. Sure, sure, you go to work, but you go to work with other adults who by and large have beefed up their immune response in the normal way. But preschool? Preschool is a jungle. It is a rare bit of rainforest, dark and untested, and full of squirmy things that want to haunt your body. Bird flu? Fuck the bird flu. It’s the preschool plague you gotta watch, because as an adult, you are now going to run the same pestilential gauntlet your kid runs. At that age, kids rock around 8-12 illnesses (colds, usually) a year. That’s one or two a month. And ha ha ha you’re going to get them all. You can’t protect yourself. Your kid will sneeze into your eyeballs. He will touch your food with snot-slick fingers. And after a while you’re like, fuck it. Just gimme the sickness. Just blow your nose into my face. Get it over with. Welcome to Plaguetown.
Two winters ago, I was pretty healthy.
This past winter, I had pneumonia twice, flu once, and like, 80 colds.
THE PLAGUE GAUNTLET IS REAL
laughing at their jokes is a pathway to madness
Kids tell terrible jokes. They make almost no sense. They learn a joke format, but they have no idea what to do with it, and so it’s like, “Why did the washing machine eat the squirrel?” And you think there’s an answer there, so you say, “Why?” and then the child responds, “BECAUSE FOUR AND FIVE POOPYBUTTS LEMONADE STINKYTOWN PROBABLY.” It makes no sense. But it’s absurd, and funny in how not funny it is — and it doesn’t hurt that the young one is cackling like a witch with a cauldron full of village children. So, you do the natural thing.
NOW YOU JUST FUCKED UP.
You should not have laughed. It’s like inviting a vampire into your house. That joke, like the vampire, is here to stay. All day long the kid will be galloping around, yelling “FOUR AND FIVE POOPYBUTTS LEMONADE STINKYTOWN PROBABLY,” again and again and again. FOUR AND FIVE POOPYBUTTS LEMONADE STINKYTOWN PROBABLY. FOUR AND FIVE POOPYBUTTS LEMONADE STINKYTOWN PROBABLY. FOUR AND FIVE POOPYBUTTS LEMONADE STINKYTOWN PROBABLY.
For the small person, it just gets funnier.
For you, it’s like a worm eating your brain.
And you can’t get them to stop. Not until the next joke. Don’t get me wrong. It’s sweet, in its way. They just want to please you. They want to amuse you and themselves. But it will ruin you. It will eat your mind. Endless absurd punchlines. Around and around. Again and again. Until you’re hiding under the covers, shoving LEGO bricks into your ears.
nothing will ever be clean again, you filthy filthmongers
We have taught our kid to clean up after himself, and even still, he’s like a megaton bomb. He’s a little earthquake. He is a whirling mote of chaos in a formerly well-ordered existence, and his chaos is infectious. Nothing is ever really clean. Nothing is ever really organized. His room will be clean for five minutes, and then you blink, and instantly it’s a flood of stuffed animals, or LEGO bricks, or crayons. I’m not even sure half the things we find on the floor are his. I think children open portals to the rooms of other children, and toys flood in and out like a moving tide. Mess generates mess. CHAOS REIGNS.
all your base belong to them
My kid is a little over three-feet tall. He weighs as much as a couple pixels. He’s a scrappy, skinny little root, cute as a button, as innocuous as a bunny.
And he controls most of the territory in our house.
It happened almost overnight. He went from ROLY-POLY PILLBUG CRAWLIN’ AROUND THE FLOOR to JACKRABBIT WITH A ROCKETBOOSTER RUNNING INTO WALLS AT TOP SPEED and it just happened. He has his room. He has a playroom. You’d think — dang, for a new person, that’s a pretty good haul in a house he doesn’t pay for. Two whole rooms?
Basically a kingdom to a tiny person.
But the child, he is spatially greedy.
The living room. Our bedroom. The hallway. His toys creep in like possessing tendrils. His stuff, his presence, his chocolate-smeared handprints (god, that better be chocolate). You wake up one day and you realize: “I don’t own this house anymore.” Once, he had two rooms. Now we have two rooms. I have the kitchen and the bathroom. And even the bathroom isn’t exactly a sanctum sanctorum, either. You’ll be trying to do the unholy business of taking out the body’s garbage in peace and quiet — then you’ll see a shadow descend underneath the crack below the door. Gentle footsteps. A knob, rattling. Sometimes he won’t even say anything. He’ll just stand there. Other times he’ll yell — “ARE YOU DONE POOPING.” Or he’ll say something completely absurd: “I CAN STILL SEE WITHOUT A FACE.” All to remind you that he controls it all. Get used to it. The air you breathe is his air. The floor? His floor. You’ll know when you lay in your bed and damn near get a Boba Fett up your no-no hole. Your pillow is gone because he took it. He owns it all. YOU OWN NOTHING HOW DID THIS HAPPEN TO YOU.
sometimes they’ll draw things that look like dicks or boobies
The other day at breakfast — in public — I looked over to see that my son was very plainly drawing a dong. He had his crayons and his paper and right there was just — it was a dick. It had balls at the bottom. We’re not talking like, anatomically authentic, but a basic grade school rendering of an amateur hour wangle-dang. I said, rather hesitantly, “What are you drawing, kiddo?” And he said, “I’m drawing WALL-E,” and then he proceeded to add more details, all of which thankfully eradicated the overall dickness of it. Other times, the essence remains. “I drew a plane!” Yeah, no, that’s a dick. “I drew some clouds!” Oh my god, those are boobs.
To be clear, at no point am I suggesting children or adults should be shamed about body parts — or that they should be unaware of them — just that, they have a limited availability of shapes in their palette, and when they draw, sometimes it’s a stick with a couple of circles at the end.
poop butt pee farts also humongous deuces
Everything is poop and butt and pee. All day long. And the child will never not find it hilarious. (Sometimes, you’ll think it’s hilarious, too, which will as noted only reinforces the behavior. MOMMY LAUGHED AT POOP JOKE NOW HERE ARE 758 MORE.) They will insert the word ‘poop’ into a sentence and think it’s high art. “Do you want more mashed potatoes?” “I WANT MORE POOP MASHED POTATOES HA HA HA HA.” “Have a good day at school.” “YOU HAVE A GOOD DAY AT FART HA HA HA HA.” (Okay, that was a pretty good one.)
Also, sidenote: your kids will drop Herculean deuces. It will seem impossible that the log in the toilet — which is as big as a body-builder’s flexed forearm — came out of that small person. It will be a deuce larger than you produce as an adult. It will be the kind of turd produced by a slovenly man who just ate seven microwave burritos. You will take a picture of it in the off-chance the Guinness Book of World Records will come and give your child an award.
everything is feast or famine
Last week, we couldn’t get B-Dub to finish any meal. Even snacks he’d poke at, pick at, then set aside to go play. (Basically, the meals were boring, preventing him from far more interesting endeavors, like trying to ride the dog or drawing Kylo Ren lightsabering Iron Man in the face.) And we’d have that classic fight of YOU NEED TO EAT YOUR FOOD and he doesn’t want to eat his food, and we don’t want to force him to clean his plate because sometimes people just aren’t hungry but at the same time, we kind of need him to consume basic nutritional intake so he doesn’t get scurvy or rickets or some other wasting disease.
Now, this week? Flipped on its head.
This morning along, by 9:30AM, he had eaten: a bowl of cereal, a packet of applesauce, some saltine crackers, and a generous plate of scrambled eggs. I’m pretty sure he was thinking of killing and eating one of us to slake his howling hunger.
It’s not just with food, though. This is life with a small child. It’s EVERYTHING or it’s NOTHING. It’s 60MPH in one direction only. This week, he likes My Little Pony. Next week it’s LEGO. This week he wants to constantly be outside, next week the outside is poison and the sun is killing him and it’s terrible why do we torture him. Which leads me to:
goddamnit they’re dramatic
Speaking of which, your kids are are going to be mega-dramatic. Every slight against them is Shakespearean in its dimension. You tell them, “No, you can’t have that toy,” and it’s as if you shat inside their soul. It’s like you denied them vital life services. They’re going to die if they can’t have that toy. That toy is everything. That toy is life.
They get a boo-boo and it’s like, AGGGH I AM DYING, THEY WILL HAVE TO TAKE OFF THIS LIMB TO SAVE THE BODY, I’M BASICALLY GUSHING BLOOD OVER HERE, I’M PRETTY SURE THAT’S MY ORGANS OVER THERE ON THE FLOOR, FLOPPING AROUND LIKE A FISH TAKEN OUT OF WATER. Meanwhile, there is no actual cut, and when you ask them to identify which foot they injured, the foot changes every time they answer. “This one. No, this one. That one. The other one. Just give me a Band-Aid.” (Spoiler alert: Band-Aids are basically like injury stickers. They just want them. They think Band-Aids will fix bruises.)
We have at times offended him and he has made it very clear that he would now like to go to a different family, he does not like this house, he does not like his room, he does not like the food, he likes nothing about this place including the parents, and by golly, he wants to be adopted out elsewhere. “I want to go live with another family tomorrow,” he says. I can’t even twist it around on him. I say, “Okay, I’ll get the paperwork started,” and you think, ha ha, you tiny fool, you will think I’m serious. You expect him to backpedal, but oh no. You dig deeper: “Your next family doesn’t have a TV, lives in a dumpster, and has a pet crocodile who will bite your legs off while you sleep.” “GOOD,” the child answers, “THAT SOUNDS MUCH BETTER THAN HERE.”
Sometimes, they can hurt your feelings. They can hurt you in your very heart.
Our son is fond of saying, “You guys don’t make good choices.” It’s a surprisingly hurtful thing to say. He doesn’t mean it to be. It actually sounds rather mild as a condemnation, and we laughed it off at first. But as an adult you’re suddenly cast on a doomward spiral: OUT OF THE MOUTH OF BABES COMES WISDOM AND OH GOD MY LIFE WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH IT. You suddenly question everything from that doughnut you ate yesterday to your choice in a college degree.
you can’t negotiate with terrorists except you’re going to anyway
You’ll make a deal with them. Because it seems like the thing to do. Sure, sure, you’re a real hardass who would never negotiate with your kids, except somehow despite having the patience of an irritable, pee-filled chipmunk, somehow your child will outlast your stubbornness. So at some point you’ll try to negotiate.
You’ll say, I will give you the thing, but first you have to do the other thing.
And they’ll agree.
And you feel like, yeah. Wow. Compromise. It’s how everything happens. It’s the root of politics, of career, of life itself — compromise. And you feel surprisingly adult, because your child has learned a Very Valuable Lesson™.
Which is true.
But they learned a different lesson than you thought.
The child learned: MY PARENT IS WEAK AND WILL MELT LIKE ICE CREAM IN THE HOT SUN.
Next time, they show up, and instead of fighting, your kid offers the bargain right out of the gate. “I would like a cookie, so I will do this other thing to get the cookie.” Again you feel adult. Again you feel like — bingo, bango, bongo in the Congo, look at how well compromise works!
The time after that, though…
The child knows to test your resolve. If the small human can get a cookie after, say, eating five more bites of food, then how about four? And you say NO, IT MUST BE FIVE, SO SAYETH THE LAW, THAT IS HOW COMPROMISE WORKS, and once again, the child has rooted herself to the idea that there is literally no way in heaven, earth and hell she is going to eat five bites of food. It will be four, and there will be a cookie. Or! Or the child will eat five bites, but they will be bites so small they could be described as “molecular.” And the child will say with a cheeky twinkle, I ate my fiiiiive biiiiites. And you’re like, goddamnit, kid.
You stand your ground, of course. You plant your feet and make a decision. And maybe you “win.” But probably, the kid goes away having eaten no bites and nobody gets any cookies and now you hear about that specific cookie for the next six years.
Did I mention kids are dramatic? Yeah.
Finally, this leads me to:
never promise them anything ever
Do not make them a promise.
Because you will, by some strange universal law, have to break that promise.
And you think, oh ho ho, but it’s a small promise. Sure, we can have ice cream when we get home. Yeah, we can go swimming tomorrow. Yes, of course we can take Tiny the Owl (stuffed animal; not actual owl) to Little Jim-Bob’s house.
You’re a positive parent. These are easy promises. No problem!
You get home, and there’s no ice cream, and the store is closed.
You can’t go swimming tomorrow because the pool is rented out.
You can’t find Tiny the Owl, or you remember that Little Jim-Bob is allergic to Fake Owls.
And now, now you’re trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of a promise made and your inability to fulfill it. Adults, of course, can negotiate this disappointment well. And of course part of your job as a parent is in fact to inoculate your children against that kind of disappointment so that they can weather larger problems later. And yet, you made a promise, you fucker. Your child remembers. Your child never forgets that promise you broke. Not that night. Not the next night. I suspect your kid will remember it when he gives your eulogy, and he’ll probably tell everybody about that time you said you’d let him play Minecraft after school but you didn’t because basically, you’re a monster who hates fun.
I always wondered why my mother said two words to me very, very often:
Now, I know why. Because you can’t promise anything. Not even simple things. Everything got the answer of “We’ll see.” Can I have ice cream? Can I have a puppy? Will there be air to breathe? Will I be murdered tonight? We’ll see, child. We’ll see.
Practice the phrase well, young parents.
I Kid, Of Course
The tiny person is the best thing, ever. All these things aren’t really warnings (okay, the plague gauntlet is real), but is just stuff that may or may not happen and even when it does and it feels frustrating, it ends up fun or funny later. Having the kid is the greatest charm and the weirdest adventure, and happy birthday to him. We love him very much. Even though he’s taken over our house and says “poop” a lot.
And let’s be honest. I say “poop” a lot, too.