As soon as my 3-year-old grabbed the Play-Doh, I knew what I was in for. “Roll this, Mommy,” he instructed, wanting me to make a smooth, thin canvas for him to cut a circle out of. “How about we make a heart this time, or a giraffe?” I asked, holding one of the dozens of cookie-cutterlike tools. “No, a circle,” he told me. I put my head down and got to work. We made circles again and again. We barely had a chance to appreciate our spread of putty polka dots before he mashed them all together and handed me the lump. “Here,” he said. “Roll this, Mommy.”
As I rolled, again, I thought about how many minutes needed to pass until my husband came home, until I went outside for a run, until I’d feel like an autonomous adult again. These are thoughts that have streamed in my mind essentially since I brought my son home from the hospital. Exchange Play-Doh for spending an hour putting him down for a nap, or bargaining bites of dinner with the promise of a “Wheels on the Bus” video. It was clear on Day One and Day 14 and Year 3½ that parenting wasn’t about feeding your intellect or your desire for pleasant spontaneity. It was about repetition. It was, in no small part, about embracing monotony.
A colleague of mine brought up a good point the other day about how most of us are hooked on happiness — the euphoric, fleeting feeling you get when things happen to you, such as a raise or a free Beyoncé ticket — instead of seeking Marie Kondo-sanctioned joy, a warm sensation of fulfillment from within. I have historically made moves to spark happiness, not joy. I like working hard and then waiting for the reward just as much as I like anticipating a less-deserved fun night out; I even get a high from waiting for the high. You could say what has made the doldrums of the day-to-day bearable, at least up until motherhood, was my faith that Something Epic Could Be Just Around the Corner.
With parenthood, though, all of that is flipped upside down. The so-called big things that happen fall more into the joyous category: watching my baby toddle down the hallway for the first time, staring into his eyes when he grabs my face and cackles. I can recognize this as joy, I can even bask in it. But these moments feel soft and gentle; they’re not the brand of heart-jumping excitement I am used to. I’m not well versed in how to hold onto them, either. Especially because they are often interrupted by whatever responsibility needs tending to next.
Joy, however great, also doesn’t scratch the itch of the ego-driven, circumstance-based high I know so well and don’t believe needs to be ignored. Of course, epic things can happen outside of my parenting life and identity. But I can’t fully separate them from parenting. Even when I land a good writing gig, I still need to figure out how to juggle the time to make words with the time to make Play-Doh circles. Or even when I am excited for a night out with friends, I am still aware I will be up at 6 in the morning, encouraging my son to pee, just a little, into the toilet. There is no more high while waiting for a high because I know that the gnawing routines of parenting are just around the other side of happiness.
At least, it all feels very limiting until something epic actually happens. Not in an exhilarating kind of way, but in a heart-shattering one. Then, suddenly, boredom feels like relief.
My father had been living fairly gracefully with Parkinson’s and dementia for half a decade before he needed round-the-clock care last year. I wanted to be there for him, like he had been for me, so I flew out to see him in Hawaii as much as possible.
Over the course of a season, I went there four times to give my stepmother reprieve, to put my father in a nursing home, to say goodbye. I spoon-fed him blended cereal with heavy cream and guided him around the nursing facility when he had a sudden burst of mania. I put a catheter on him at night so he wouldn’t leak out of his diapers. I stared at his chest and his mouth as his breathing went from deep to shallow to gasps to stillness.
Losing a parent is gut-ripping regardless of the state of the relationship — this I already knew, having lost my mother when I was 25 — but to lose the last person who’d unconditionally move the moon for me was especially poignant. My father was always the good-time dad: He took us to the mall every Friday, letting us pick out whatever greasy food we wanted. He escorted me to my first concert, Cyndi Lauper, when I was 8, and watched numerous dumb bands with me well into my 30s. During the last window where he could travel, he surprised me with a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Parkinson’s had already stripped him of much of the expression in his face, but I could feel him looking over at me to make sure I was enjoying myself. My father understood the value in happiness. It’s safe to say mine brought him joy.
Watching him slowly be unable to do things for others, and then himself, was one of the hardest parts of witnessing his demise. But he still tried. As we walked around the nursing home one afternoon, my hand clutching his tiny biceps, it hit me that this might be one of the few times I had left with him, and I began to weep. I turned into his chest, where I could feel every bone, and sobbed. He wobbled a bit, then caught himself, and put his arm around me. He held me up like he always had.
In this way, it was not hard to take care of my father because it was reciprocal. Also, having to care for a toddler had prepared me for scheduled feedings and impromptu walks to nowhere and providing comfort to someone who couldn’t express himself. It wasn’t that my mind didn’t wander taking care of my father or I didn’t dream about the giant glass of wine I’d have when I left the nursing home, but being with him in these basic, life-maintaining ways seemed like the best thing I could do to fill the hole in my heart.
When I’d walk through my apartment door upon returning from Hawaii, I’d let out a body-long exhale. Suddenly, the emotional stakes of caring for my son seemed much lighter. It was just me and him and my husband and the little life we had made together. Time was infinite, which was still daunting but more freeing than it had been.
One Saturday, my husband out on errands, I told my child to grab his coat. “We’re going to the playground?” he asked. No, I told him, let’s just walk. “Where are we going?” he asked multiple times as we made our way down the block. I don’t know, I said, before pointing at a squirrel on a neighbor’s lawn. We stepped forward to get a closer look. We tracked it up the tree and across a branch, my son broadcasting its every move until we couldn’t see it any longer. I thought about the moments with my father when nothing much happened, when time passed just watching TV or in car rides home from school, but I knew he was there. I also thought what he would do in this moment.
“Wanna get a cookie?” I asked. “A cookie!” my son said, his eyes wide and bright. “A cookie, yes! A cookie, yes!” he said, jumping around in a circle.
It was only 10 a.m., but we were all overdue for a little bit of happiness.
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