Saturday, April 27, 2013

Divide and Conquer



I once heard people with only one child referred to as Hobby Parents. This has never seemed fair. I had only one child right up until I had two and I don’t ever recall thinking that it was easy. In fact, in many ways, having two children is easier than having one. For one thing, you’re better at it; being a parent, that is. You’ve deposited all your failures into your first child, like a miniature human latrine filled with all the arrogant assumptions and parental hubris you acquired by commiserating with other over-informed, over-programmed, doula-hiring white people during your first pregnancy. Put another way, the second time around, you know that you cannot possibly prepare for having children any more than you can prepare for the apocalypse. You just stock up on canned goods, dig a bunker, and hope you picked the right god. Before child #2 arrives, you don’t read a single book. You don’t go to a single class. You’re too focused on the vengeance your first child is preparing to visit upon you in the weeks after #2 arrives. (“No, it is never okay to draw on the baby, sweetie.”

But then the new baby arrives and to your surprise, it is not so tough. The older child actually likes the new one. You manage the baby’s diabolical sleep patterns more effectively that you did the first time. You can change a diaper in the dark with your eyes closed. You may even have sex before the baby's first birthday, possibly even with your spouse. 

Then, as they get older, they actually play together. This is a revelation. You can be in your own home, sometimes for hours at a time, without interacting with your children. People with only one child cannot imagine this. It’s not that we don’t love our single children, but when you have only one child, you heap so much attention on him that he can’t help but think you’re interested in everything he does. Then, before you know it, you’re having in depth conversations about ancillary characters from the Clone Wars and wondering if 2:00pm is really too early to start drinking. When your second child arrives, it takes your place in this conversation. Within a few years, you are relieved from duty; honorably discharged from Pixar, American Girl dolls, Hex Bugs, Star Wars, Minecraft and everything else that people with two children must only feign interest in. It’s just easier. 

Until it’s not.



Some people say that having two children is hard because of all the scheduling conflicts, the logistical headaches that come with getting two kids to two different places at the same time; soccer and ballet, piano lessons and t-ball, Brownies and juvenile court hearings. But frankly, that sounds to me like the privileged whining of people with too many good options. If you can drive a stick shift, you ought to be able to manage the calendars of two elementary school children. Unless, like me, you occasionally reach a point where you can’t possibly give another shit. And then it’s not a matter of ineptitude, but of indifference. Did you know that if you forget to send your children to tae kwon doh camp with their personal water bottle, they do not, in fact, die of dehydration?

No, what makes having two children hard is that they fight. A lot. About the stupidest imaginable things. My daughter, the older one, has ways of manipulating her adoring younger brother that would make Stanley Milgram proud. He is the sweetest child around, but she can talk him into doing things that violate the Geneva Convention. She changes the rules of their games to ensure that she will always win. She makes him sit in silent observance while she plays with his birthday presents. And she is a fundamentally nice person! But, where her brother is concerned, she is a megalomaniac. She can do this because he worships her.

But even he has his breaking point. And when he snaps, our family goes to DEFCON ONE.
He will spend hours willingly surrendering the Lego pieces that he needs to make his Ninjago guy, but then she will take one without asking.

“That’s a rare piece and you knew I needed it and now I can’t find another one and now I can’t finish my guy and I told you not to take that one! I told you!” he yells.

“No, you didn’t. You said you didn’t need that one,” she lies.

“No, I didn’t! That’s the only one of those and it goes with my guy. You can’t take that one!”

“But I need it and you said I could have whatever I needed from the big pile.”

“But you moved that one into the big pile! I was in my pile and you moved it!”

“No. I just found it there. And you’re not nice!”

And so on.

They are both to blame.

For his part, when you act like a doormat for an hour and a half, you can’t get too mad when someone decides to walk all over you. And as far as she’s concerned, I know she’s lying and he knows she’s lying, but I’m not sure she knows it. In her world, just as in everyone else’s, there is the truth, but there is also her truth. And her truth is the one she believes.

I do not handle these fights well. I try to let them go and sometimes they resolve things themselves. For a while. But I’ve found that once they break the seal on the anger and the hurt feelings, there’s no going back. It is like seeing an ominous wet spot on an earthen dam. It's really just a matter of time before everyone downstream is going to need a lifejacket.

At some point, I try to intercede, which inevitably makes things worse. Even though I know that they are not really arguing about Lego pieces but about the power imbalance in their relationship, which can only be changed by social Darwinian forces beyond my control, I foolishly try to establish who took what from whom and whether this violated a specific, pre-stated prohibition against such “borrowing” of said Lego pieces; all the while being sucked into their irrational vortex of mutual victimhood. I cannot fix this because one cannot find justice in an inherently unjust world; the world of siblings.



All of this has an amazing byproduct. Not long after our second child arrived, we began splitting them up. We largely abandoned utopian notions of nuclear family outings and decided to divide and conquer. This changed everything. Sure, it prevents them from fighting because they are not in each other's presence, but that is not the true benefit.

I’ve found that spending one-on-one time with my children is infinitely more enjoyable now that I have two. I think this has something to do with how much each of them relishes being alone with me, and vice versa.  After my daughter was born, it was hardly uncommon for us to be alone together. Any time my wife left the house, there we were. Every time I took her to the park, it was just the two of us. When the boy arrived, that all changed. Now we were a threesome, at minimum. When I am with both of them, even our best conversations are less interesting.

“Dad,” the boy asks, “is it true that Buster Posey has never hit two grand slams in one game?”

“Yeah,” she adds. “That’s what I said because I don’t think it’s common for players to hit two grand slams in one game.”

“You’re right.” I answer. “It’s not.”

“But it has happened, right?” he asks.

“Probably.”

“But Buster Posey hasn’t done it,” she states.

“Not that I know of.”

Talking baseball with my children is a great joy. Not because of the content of the conversation, but because it’s happening at all. Like seeing a rainbow, it briefly blows my mind that it’s occurring, but no matter how happy it makes me, after a while, I’m ready to move on.



Then, one day, my wife takes my son to a birthday party and I am alone with my daughter. We ride the ferry into the city and collect lunch fixings from the farmer's market. We sit beneath the bronze statue of Gandhi, assembling sandwiches.

“Dad, who is he?” she asks.

“He was a man from India who showed the world that you could solve even the biggest problems without violence.”

“Like Martin Luther King?”

“Yes.”

“Did they know each other?”

“I don’t think so.”

“But they would have liked each other, probably.”

“I’m sure.”

She tears off a piece of baguette and pulls the soft dough from inside, rolling it into a ball before putting it into her mouth.

“This bread is really good.”

“Isn’t it? You know, before your brother was born, I used to bring you down here at the crack of dawn.”

“Because I wasn’t a very good sleeper, was I?” she laughs with rare self-effacing confidence.

“Nope. You weren’t. And you’d have me up so early that sometimes I’d throw you in the stroller while mommy was still sleeping and we’d walk all the way down Market Street. And this bakery would just be opening.”

“Was it a long walk?”

“Yes. But it was nice to walk as the sun was rising.”

“And then what did we do?”

“Well, we’d wait for the bakery to open and I’d buy a two loaves of warm bread that they’d just taken out of the oven.”

“Did we eat it?”

“Yes. We’d hop on the streetcar and eat a whole loaf on the way home. Then when we got home, we’d give mommy the other one.”

“We didn’t tell her about the one we ate,” she says authoritatively, remembering something she cannot remember.

“Nope.”

“But we saved one for her, so it was okay.”

“That’s right.”

“Dad? Can we do that again someday? Go to the bakery just the two of us?”

“Oh, I suppose we can make that happen.”



The following weekend, I will take my son to Baker Beach, just as I used to when he was a baby and his sister was off at preschool. We will dig holes in the sand and throw rocks in the waves. He will ask me about the fishing boats, heading out under the Golden Gate. They’re catching Dungeness crab, I will tell him. He will tell me everything he knows about crabs; they have pinchers, they walk sideways, they can make friends with dolphins.

“Tell me an imaginary story,” he’ll ask.

We will rest on the sand on a dirty blanket I pulled from my trunk, watching the surf casters pull perch after perch after perch from the waves.

“Once there was a dolphin and a crab and they were the best of friends,” I’ll begin...



Perhaps the best thing about having two children is how much you appreciate having just one.

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