Defeated Dad

08/25/2009 By Shawn Burns

The early morning wakeup began the day roughly. Erin usually lets me have until seven-thirty or even eight o’clock before waking up completely alert and in fifth gear. But today it was a little early, she was a little upset, and I was a little too tired and haggard. I dragged myself from my bed and herded her into the living room and I gave up before the battles even started. I camped out on the couch with my eyes closed and flipped on PBS, plugging my ears against the onslaught of the Caillou theme-song (which sounds so much like the old Crank Yankers theme that I can’t get swearing puppets out of my head when I hear it) and prayed for just ten more minutes of sleep. I would have happily accepted the destruction of my kitchen in trade for those ten minutes.

I couldn’t check out for long, though. Although Erin will play on her own for a while, or watch a weird, bald, Canadian cartoon child express pure joy at tying his shoelaces, Adrian woke up shortly after we moved into the living room. Emily brought him out to me, and since she’d had a night of interrupted, fitful sleep while I’d only had a slightly abbreviated one I was on double-kid duty while she went back to bed for a couple of hours to make up for the five she lost the night before. With Adrian on my chest I couldn’t really fall asleep again. And certainly with Adrian on my chest I was suddenly the most interesting blob in the room to Erin who loves her brother fiercely and always wants to kiss him or urge him to say “da!” by getting right up in his face and yelling like a tiny drill sergeant.

Erin was all over me, and all over Adrian until he fell asleep in his swing. Then, as we’ve told Erin, he was in his bubble: “You can’t touch Adrian when he’s in his bubble, baby girl.” This actually works. She usually needs one reminder per day, but I don’t have to chase her away from his swing every ten minutes anymore.

While Adrian was falling asleep I turned the television off. It’s not that he can’t sleep through Good Eats or some PBS shows, but I just wanted it a bit more quiet. Erin pulled out her Mr. Potato Head set and cajoled me: “Come on the ground and play with me, Daddy. Come down and play with me.” And that’s how I found myself on the floor putting a mustached nose on a Mrs. Potato Head and showing Erin how to tell a Mr. and a Mrs. apart, because it has nothing to do with the body and everything to do with the accessories.

I’d put my head down into my arms every now and then between attaching limbs or ears and Erin would boss me around some more: “No daddy. No. No sleeping. Sit like this. Sit like this.”

She just had more go than I did. On many days when I’ve had both kids and Emily is taking a break in the morning I’ll just pack them up in the car and go someplace. We’ll go to the park, or to breakfast, or to the movies. We’ll go anywhere for a few hours and I usually don’t even blink at being on double-duty. (Kids are easy; cracking 90,000 points on the last of the Star Road levels in Super Mario World is hard.) But on this day, even though I knew the right answer to all of my problems was to just get out of the house, the actual leaving of the house, even though I dressed both kids and packed up the diaper bag, was an endeavour requiring so much potential energy that the thought of it made me tired.

Even worse, the longer we stayed inside the more circles Erin ran around me and the more crappy I felt about not being able to keep up with her. And that made me even more tired. I was spinning down into my own entropic hell while the universe left me behind. I could see every answer, and I just couldn’t get up. It’s what the Greeks call akrasia, weakness of will. Socrates thought it was impossible to know the right thing to do and to fail to do it. Socrates was, sometimes, very, very stupid.

While I descended into depressed oblivion Erin accelerated and she began spitting out sentences and questions and requests and demands too quickly for me to keep up with even on a good, Attentive Dad day. In the middle of her puerile polysyllabic purge my phone rang. My contractor was calling me about hemorrhaging money again.


“Hi Shawn, this is Contractor Lady. Do you have a second to talk about gas lines and water heaters and money and your first born child?”

“Yes. At the moment I’m very much considering your offer of reframing the door into the kitchen in exchange for my firstborn. Son or daughter?”

Daddy daddy daddy daddy I want to talk on the phone!! I want to talk!!!”

“Shh, baby girl. I have to talk on the phone right now.” I moved away from Erin as she had crept up to my leg in order to get my attention and yell about her desire to talk on the phone. I’m pretty sure she thought it was Grandma on the other end.

Daddy daddy daddy I need to talk on the phone I NEED to!”

She was so loud I had to move away again and my brain switched off. I was trying to pay attention to what my contractor was saying about not being able to take a shower while the heater was on and all I could think of was that I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the toddler who had just followed me into the kitchen. So I plugged my free ear and wandered out into the hallway, and Erin followed, voice pitched higher. I moved into the living room and Erin followed, voice screeching behind me. When I found myself back in the kitchen and I realized that I had just been chased around my apartment by a screaming two-year old I stopped and put the Contractor Lady on hold.

“Erin, stop. Stop. I need to talk to the contractor right now. Please stop yelling.”

She actually stopped yelling and chasing me for about a second, just long enough for me to pick the call up again to hear the Contractor Lady say something about “trenching” that didn’t sound good at all, and then Erin wailed: “I NEED TO TALK TO THE HON-TRACTOR!!!!”

I fled again, and tried not to get mad, because mad wasn’t going to do anything. But it was completely sapping. Erin’s yelling had woken Emily and when she came out and saw my low, defeated face she suggested that I ride my bike over to a house-related meeting I had coming up in an hour.

“And why don’t you go to the movies too.”

It was a loving, lovely gesture. She could tell I needed to get out of the house, and that I wouldn’t do it without help. She could also tell that I needed some time away from the kids.

Lots of people complain about their kids driving them crazy. We have it fairly easy compared to some people: Erin doesn’t really throw heel-kicking tantrums, and Adrian doesn’t cry all night, every night. But no matter how easy we usually have it I can tell when I am approaching a mindset that won’t allow me to be the parent I want to be. It’s not that I’m going to be a bad parent; I’m not close to hitting my kids out of frustration, or starving them to teach them a lesson. I’m just not going to be a patient parent. I don’t yell. I rarely snap at Erin. And when I do snap at her I know that it’s time for me to take a break.

There are many parents who cannot take those breaks, whose descent into depressed, defeated oblivion is always ongoing, who have no partner who will tell them to take a bike ride and go see a movie. They would envy our problems because we are spoiled in each other.

But some days, some days are are too hard from the get-go. Spoiled or not I have standards for myself that I hate not meeting. Those days when I fail to meet my own standards are days when I’ve been defeated.

Defeated Dad. I would write that blog but no one wants to read this crap every day.


Update: Day 2

Last night Adrian wouldn’t sleep until 1:30. It was my turn with him, and usually this means he sleeps from 8pm until midnight, then Emily feeds him, then he sleeps until 2am and goes back to sleep almost immediately, then wakes up at 4am or 5am and I feed him and he sleeps again until 7am. But after his midnight feeding he wouldn’t go to sleep. It was a running battle of pacifiers and swings and car seats and bouncing and I only won, I think, through attrition and exhaustion. But he fooled me so many times leading up to then by falling asleep in my arms and then waking up immediately when he was put down in his crib that even after he was soundly asleep on his own I couldn’t sleep because I was sure I was going to hear him cry at any moment.

I spent the next two hours awake, anxious, glancing over at him every time he twitched or took a deep breath. He woke up hungry at 3:30am and I gave him a bottle that took him an hour to finish as he lay there, awake and looking around and then fussing and crying. I could feel myself losing patience, but then he turned his face up to me while his eyes were slipping closed and he smiled the most contented smile I’ve ever seen from him. I held it together until he drifted off for good at 4:30am.

When he woke up at 6:30am Emily switched off with me and I went to snuggle with Erin, who’d woken Emily up shortly before in a terrible grump wanting to sleep “In the big bed.” Erin only let me sleep for another fifteen minutes before getting out of bed and insisting that I follow her to the living room.

And in the living room? Repeat day one, but without the call from the Contractor Lady. She e-mailed today instead of calling.

Defeated Dad. Maybe I will write that blog after all.