Parenting is a zero-sum game, most of the time. I mean, it’s an upward trend, but that trend is only measurable if you zoom in real close and look at it over a scale of several months. On the day-to-day stuff, you’re lucky to break even. To be more specific:
One day you’re up because the kid takes his first step. Next day you’re down because he blows out a diaper and floods his bed with liquid poop. One day you’re up because the kid says “bye, daddy, I love you”, and the next day you’re down because you’re trying to put the kid to bed and he says “I don’t want daddy, want mommy to read.” One day you’re up because you manage to put the infant to bed by yourself without the help of her mom for the first time literally ever, and then three hours later you’re down again because you’re up (awake) with the infant screaming because you screwed up putting her to bed.
Point is, parenting is hard work: thankless and grueling and pushing you to the limits of your sanity and patience just about every day, and somehow — somehow — you learn to temper the good with the bad. You learn to rein in your elation at a breakthrough because you know the monsters will cut you off at the knees when you least expect it. You learn never to sink into the depths of despair because the little blessings will be lighting up your life again with some adorable bit of cuteness or some flash of brilliance you could never anticipate. In other words, you become very, very adept at taking what you can get when the good stuff rolls along. You become an optimist out of necessity. The alternative is too horrible to ponder.
So you chart your victories and you squeeze all the enjoyment out of them because you know that that joy can be snatched away from you at any moment. The big stuff, you don’t have to worry about. The light goes on for the kid and suddenly he wants to use the potty fifteen times in an hour — you don’t have to milk that victory, that one’s going to burn bright for a while. He suddenly makes the connection that you’re not leaving forever when you leave for work and begins happily waving good-bye in the morning and giving you big squeezing bear hugs when you return… that’s not going anywhere. No, to stay ahead of the curve of frustration because he still wants to grab the dog and yank its fur out, or because he still wants to stack a roomful of toys on top of the sleeping cat, or because he still wants to wake up at 5 AM for some goldfingered reason despite the fact that he gets frustrated that there’s nothing to do at that hour, you have to grab hold of the little victories and suck them dry like a wanderer in the desert sucking the sweat out of his headband.
There are little victories everywhere, if you know where to look for them. But the ones worth the most points are the ones disguised as failures. Case in point: Sprout #1 loves the movie Cars. Loves it so much it’s wrong. He’ll watch it twice in a day if we’re not careful. As a result, he’s memorized bits and pieces of it, and he peppers his primeval dialogue with it, sometimes in an appropriate way, sometimes not so much. There’s one line that he loves toward the beginning of the film: “Lightning’s not going into the pits!” which basically never makes sense outside of the context of the movie, and which I only grasp at vaguely even during the film. That one, then, is essentially harmless. Then, toward the middle of the film, Lightning, voiced by Owen Wilson, is driving on a dirt road, trying to absorb a bit of driving wisdom from another talking car (what else would cars talk about, anyway?), when he realizes that the advice he’s received makes no sense, and he discounts it at once with a brilliantly-inflected “What an idiot!” which the sprout can recreate perfectly, right down to the intonation and the roll of the eyes.
So we’re driving. And it’s Sunday in Greater Atlanta, which to be brief means that the rules of the road are out the window and the only thing you can count on other drivers to do is anything they’re not meant to do (U-turns in the middle of a road, suddenly slipping into reverse at a stop light, stopping on a green light and putting a blinker on to try to cross three lanes of traffic to make the right turn they didn’t realize was coming up, burning the tires out to zoom past you in the turn lane while you’re stopped at a red light) and the tension is mounting in the car and in a moment of great frustration, I finally let fly with an epithet. Now, because I know the sponge is in the backseat soaking up everything I say, I quickly start babbling a lot of nonsense in the hopes that the floodwater of extra information will wash away the profanity like a rushing river. But the boy cuts me off, shouting, a la Owen Wilson, “What an idiot!”
And it’s brilliant and funny and appropriate and all of those things but my wife and I share a mortified look because as brilliant and funny and appropriate as it is, we know that if he can let fly with it in the car, he can let fly with it when he gets to preschool, or he can let fly when he’s playing with some kid on the playground, and that’s a situation none of us want to deal with. So we start to correct him, but then we realize that he’s certainly heard worse, and in fact just heard worse, and my wife whispers to me, “at least he didn’t say ‘fargoing idiot’.” And in my mind, I think, or a goldfingered ratbastard, or a motherless piece of sharknado, or afargoing psychopath, or any of a number of other things I may or may not have said in his presence when I forget for an instant that the kid is there and the real world breaks through and you just have to swear.
I nod. We shrug at each other. It’s a little victory. High-fives all around. “He was an idiot, sprout.” And life is good.
Then we get home and he pours apple juice on the dog.
Picture taken moments before he faceplants and tears his lip open, leaving him with a scar on his face for weeks.