A sense of where he is

Last night I stepped out of the shower, grabbed my towel, and heard a voice: “Daddy, what are you doing?”  It was Jay, calling to me from his crib across the hall, wide awake long after we’d read him his books, rubbed his back, and told him it was time to go to sleep.

On days when Jay takes a long nap, or his motor just wont stop running, it’s not uncommon for him to lie awake in his crib for an hour or more.  He spends some of that time lying quietly on his stomach with his hands beneath his body and his head tucked into his usual corner of the crib. He sings, too, sweet riffs on familiar songs: “Down came the rain and washed the spider….let’s go play the leaves outside.”

But mostly he talks.  As I walk out of his room after saying goodnight, he tells me, “Daddy, take a nap.” He says it with the cadence of a towel snapping—“Daddy, taaaaake a-NAP”—that Caroline and I try to recreate in our off-hours when, against odds, we find we miss the sound of his voice.

He monitors our activity in other ways, too.  On Monday nights when I open the front door to take out the trash he’ll hear the jangle of the chain lock and yell down, “Daddy, don’t go outside.”  When he hears the kettle filling he calls out, “You making tea Mama?” “Whatchoo watching,” he asked me the other night when apparently I hadn’t turned down the volume on The Daily Show far enough.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “It’s time to go to bed.”

“Oh,” Jay said, and fell silent.

Jay’s nighttime calling reminds me of the “The Waltons,” the 1970s television show about a big family trying to make it through life in Depression-era Virginia.  There was a period growing up where my family watched it every weekday night after dinner.  My mom would sit in the same corner of the couch and crochet, while my brother, sister and I vied for the best remaining seats—the recliner, or room to stretch out on the couch beside her.

Every episode of “The Waltons” ended the same way, with a wide exterior shot of the family’s white farmhouse and the off-screen voices of Ma and Pa Walton and their seven kids calling out goodnight to each other.  “Goodnight Mary Ellen, Goodnight Jim Bob, Goodnight John Boy,” and on and on.  Even as a ten-year-old I knew the whole thing was a little too sweet, but I went in for it anyway.  I found it comforting that despite the hardship and turmoil of the times, the Walton kids could count on the most important parts of their lives being in the same place every night.

I imagine Jay might feel the same way as he narrates the evening from his crib- that he knows how the land lies around him.  At least that’s how I hope he feels, because if there’s just one thing I could give Jay it would be this: a childhood that is consistent and secure, that gives him a fixed point to work from when he’s ready to explore the less certain parts of life.

And I think he’s developing that.  When he hears the sounds of the shower turning on and off, of a towel being pulled from a hook, of his brother crying downstairs, he doesn’t just know what these sounds are—he’s learning what they mean.  The sound of the kettle filling doesn’t just prompt the idea of tea: it fills Jay, maybe, with the image of his mother standing at the kitchen sink, and it allows him to know the distance between her and him, up the stairs, around the corner, past his pile of cars, across his woven rug.

But as I stepped out of the shower last night and heard Jay’s voice, I realized something else, too.  Just as the sound of my feet walking down the hall gives Jay a sense of where he is, the sound of his voice calling from his crib gives the same thing back to me.

How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

Yesterday Jay fell into a perfect storm of a tantrum.  He woke up feeling off because of the time change, then missed his nap, fell asleep in the car on the way to get Caroline, and really, really did not want to be woken up to eat dinner.  Utter earth-rending calamity ensued.   Our only salvation was a one-minute YouTube video about a toy tow truck that Jay asked to watch over and over again—“I want to see the movie with the small car on the big car”—until it was time for bed.

Jay last night, recovering from his meltdown

It wasn’t an evening to live through again, but it wasn’t so bad as to make me question our overall decision to become parents.   Which brings me to a TED talk I watched last night by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate who’s often credited with inventing the field of behavioral economics.

The main point of the talk is that there are two kinds of happiness: “Experiential happiness,” which is being happy in the moment; and “reflective happiness” (my term, not his) which we feel retrospectively, when we take stock of what we’ve accomplished in life.  Kahneman stresses that the two are very different things, noting that the correlation between people who are happy in-the-moment and people who are satisfied with their lives is relatively weak (only about .5)

Parenthood would seem to illustrate this distinction perfectly.  I certainly wouldn’t say I felt “happy” dealing with Jay’s tantrum last night, but I find the overall project of raising Jay and Wally to be the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

At the same time, I don’t agree with Kahneman’s argument, at least not as it’s used to conclude, as an article in New York Magazine did a couple years ago, that having kids makes people less happy.

The first reason is that, on balance, raising Jay and Wally produces more happy moments than stressful or boring moments.  If I were to tally it up, I’d say the “happy” moments outweigh the “boring/stressful” moments by about 3:2.  And if you account for the intensity of the moments the imbalance is even greater (the happy moments being a lot happier than the stressful moments are stressful or the boring moments are boring).

The second and more consequential reason I disagree with Kahneman’s dichotomy is that “satisfaction” is not something we feel only upon reflection; it’s something we feel in the moment, too.  I have in mind the kind of satisfaction Matthew Crawford wrote about in his best-selling book from a few years ago, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an inquiry into the value of work,” where he talked about the satisfaction he gets from working on motorcycles: immersing himself in a problem, figuring out how something works, devising a solution.

And that’s why, even on bad nights like last night, I think parenting still stacks up pretty well on an in-the-moment basis.  Jay’s tantrum didn’t make me happy, per se, but there was something very satisfying about the deep immersion in life and in a relationship with another person that I experienced as I helped him work through it.

Here’s Kahneman’s talk:

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Regarding Wally, Jay’s still not sure how he feels

When I last wrote about Jay and Wally as brothers, Jay was alternately dive-bombing Wally’s bassinet with a basketball and scaling our bedskirt to reassure his wailing brother, “It’s okay, I come back.” Their relationship has only grown more schizophrenic since then.

This morning Jay, who’s been potty training for a week now, sat on his little plastic john and said: “I want to poop on Wally.”

I replied: “How about you poop in the potty.  That would be a first, too.”

Pooping is just the start.  Jay has requested permission to pee on Wally, to break his bones, to feed Wally to the monkeys, and to spit on him. Except, with the spitting he didn’t ask for permission—he just did it, twice, and as a result was sent to bed at 7pm on Friday night with no dinner, no playtime, and not a single hug or kiss. (Alright, fine, he got a kiss.)

But there is sunny news to report as well.

Jay is not a very affectionate kid.  Hugs cramp his style.  Kisses are a nuisance. The only time I’ve ever seen him treat a stuffed animal like a companion was when he put his rabbit in time-out for breaking a Lego tower that Jay himself had destroyed.

But, for reasons Caroline and I can’t quite figure out, he’s very affectionate towards Wally.

Yesterday Jay woke up from his afternoon nap (which, btw, is majorly back on track thanks to some award winning fatherly cunning…more on that later) and sat next to Wally and me on the floor.  Jay wrapped his hands around Wally’s head, smushed his brother’s face into his chest, and nuzzled his cheek against the top of Wally’s soft, sweet head.

This happens several times a day and Caroline and I always praise it:  “Oh, you’re such a good big brother, Jay.”  But really we have no idea what’s going on.  How does the nuzzling square with wanting to poop on Wally?  And what to make of the fact that Jay has never nuzzled a single other object in his entire life? It just seems too good to be true that this small beast who took his place at his mother’s breast would be the one true object of Jay’s affection.

It occurred to me recently, though, that Jay might have a different angle.

Most weekend mornings Jay runs out of his room and climbs into bed with Caroline, Wally, and me.  It always breaks my heart a little when he bursts into the room all sunny and full of morning vigor and sees Wally and Caroline lying in bed together like illicit lovers: How could he not feel left out?

But if Jay feels hurt he doesn’t show it.  “Where’s Wally,” he says, as he grabs hold of the duvet and pulls himself up onto the bed.  He climbs over Caroline’s legs, declares that he wants to go “in the middle” and wedges himself between Wally and Caroline.

“Hiii Wally,” Jay says in a cheery, high-pitched voice, applying his palms to his brother’s temples and pressing his nose square into Wally’s.  Caroline tries not to interfere too much but she does temper the pressure on Wally’s head.

Finally, when the affection verges on trauma, she pulls Jay away and asks him if he had any dreams last night.

Any theory about Jay’s feelings with respect to Wally would probably miss the mark, at least a little.  The arrival of a younger sibling is a complicated thing and Jay’s emotional world belongs to him alone, if it belongs to any one at all.   But if it were possible to parse every one of Jay’s actions to an emotional cause I imagine we’d find a little bit of everything coursing through his hot toddler blood: a desire to get a rise out of us with his poop threat; a real wish, from time to time, to leave Wally out in the cold; at least a measure of genuine affection that I hope will grow over time to define their relationship.

And maybe, also, a hard kernel hope that manifests as a nuzzle, even when the intended object isn’t really his brother’s soft hair: “If I love this baby who Daddy and Mama love, then maybe they will love me.”

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No sleep to spare

Wally, sweet Wally, is taking his pound of flesh.

He extracts it differently each night. Pacing, knee-bending, 2am, 5am, nurse, nurse, nurse, nurse, nurse.  These ain’t glory days at home.

Seven years ago I was watching television late at night and came across a special on Mt. Everest.  It was about how in the so-called “death zone” above 26,000 feet the normal rules of morality are suspended: If you fall you can’t expect your fellow climbers will have the strength to pick you up.

For Halloween Jay dressed as a dalmatian but thought he was a cow. Our neighbors, seeing the fatigue on our faces, offered us a beer.

That’s not incommensurate with how Caroline and I feel these days.  Bleary-eyed, heads pounding, we’re hit with the incomprehensible several times each night: I cannot believe I have to get out of bed again.

And in that state, neither of us has a lot to offer the other.

(Or to use a less severe analogy, we’re like that “Seinfeld” scene in the women’s bathroom, where a tightfisted woman tells a desperate Elaine: “I’m sorry, I don’t have a square to spare.”)

There is one sanctuary.  We call it the “Sleep Cave,” down in a dark corner on the bottom floor of the house.  It has heavy blinds, a white noise maker, a new bed, and an 800-fill down comforter.  Sweet oblivion.

But how do you get to the Sleep Cave? On Sunday morning Caroline generously let me go first.  From 8-10am I was buried in a deep, anesthetic slumber that recalled a thatched hut on a Thai beach in a World Before Wally: the greatest sleep I’ve ever known.

Then it was Caroline’s turn.  I stumbled out of the Sleep Cave limp and groggy and found her sitting with the boys on the kitchen floor.  Wally was leaning forward against her raised knees like the figurehead on a ship; Jay was intent beside them with colored pencils and construction paper.  The three of them looked so happy that I thought maybe I could sneak off for just a little more…

Caroline smiled and said: fat chance.

She handed me Wally, told me Jay might need a diaper change, and then walked out of the room looking as free and easy as a single girl in an open convertible on a sunny American highway.  We didn’t see her again until after lunch.  Or was it dinner?

For the most part Caroline and I split evenly what sleep there is: two hours for you, two hours for me.  There is some posturing that goes on, too.  There are times when I make an extra-pronounced yawn or I sigh louder than I need to, just to let Caroline know I’d be willing to take the extra sleep if she has some to spare.  And, as generous as she is, Caroline’s not beyond letting me know how many late-night nursing sessions I slept through, just so, you know, we have the score straight.

Still, our days don’t lack completely for small mercies. Every now and again Wally nurses back to sleep at 5am just when we thought that a day we absolutely, positively could not bear to face was upon us.  And early this morning Jay—who hasn’t earned many gold stars for empathy—played by himself for an hour while I slept on a fold-out mattress at the base of his crib.

Between Caroline and me there are moments of grace, too.  This morning, with Jay eating breakfast and chipper Wally bouncing in his chair, Caroline put her arms around me while I was washing dishes.  I turned to face her, one pair of dark-circled eyes to another.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too,” she replied.  “Almost more than sleep.”

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