I take it back! Being a parent actually makes it EASIER to do nice things for other people

_MG_5745Two years ago I wrote about how becoming a parent had made me slack off in my commitments to people and causes outside our immediate family (you may remember that post as the story of returning a lost phone to a man with no shirt and a big tattoo). I gave two reasons for this. One, I was busier, and more willing to take shortcuts when it came to civically minded activities like recycling. Two, Jay, Wally, and Caroline come first, which means to some extent, everyone else comes second.

Two years later, I’m ready to revise that view.

On a recent Saturday morning a friend dropped her two-year-old daughter off at our house so she could take her older daughter to music lessons. The following Monday night we had a friend and his three kids over for dinner during a week in which his wife was out of town. On another Saturday, Caroline took two sisters from James’s class to a birthday party so that their father, who has a newborn, could get a break.

A couple things have stood out to me about these experiences.

First, and most importantly, each action did genuinely make someone else’s life better. During stretches when Caroline is out of town, I know just how grateful I am when someone hosts the boys and me for dinner. When we offered to watch the two-year-old while her sister had music lessons, their mom’s relief was palpable. Often it’s hard to know if your efforts to improve the world really make a difference. Here, on a very small scale, there was no doubt about the effect.

Second, each of these actions was pretty easy to do. On most Saturday mornings we’re hanging around the house, and adding another two-year-old to the mix—especially one Wally likes to play with—isn’t all that hard. We cook dinner just about every night, and it’s easy to turn pasta with blue cheese and grapes for four into baked manicotti for eight. Plus, like us, our friends have young kids and were happy to eat dinner at 5:30pm.

We all want to do things that help other people, yet it’s often hard to figure out how to act on that feeling. About a year ago I read an article on the “pay it forward” phenomenon at drive-through restaurants, in which people spontaneously decide to pay for the order of the person behind them in line. The article noted that at a Chick-fil-A in Houston, 67 people in a row had done this for complete strangers. When I mentioned this to Caroline, she said there’s this pent up desire in America to help others, and so when something like “pay it forward” comes along, people jump at it.

If there is this pent up desire—and I agree with Caroline that there is—it’s because the possibility for generous action comes up more in some circumstances than others. One of the very best things about being a part of a church is that it provides many opportunities to do nice things for other people, both as community service and for the other members of the congregation. To take another example, I think of Caroline’s parents, who are active in their co-op building. Their membership in that community sets the stage to perform and receive generosity: people in the building can feed each other’s pets, or lend each other their empty apartments during the holidays.

Participation in a community facilitates generosity (which probably means that a pent up desire to act generously goes hand-in-hand with a lack of community). When you know people, you know when they could use some help, and they have the ability to ask you for help when they need it. Membership in a community also means, by definition, that you share something in common, and when you share something in common, you’re more likely to be able to provide what someone else needs. Taking care of a two-year-old is a tallish order if you don’t have any kids; it’s pretty easy if you already have a playroom full of toys and little kids of your own.

We often get the image of the beleaguered parent who can barely get out of the house in the morning, let alone swing a shift at the soup kitchen. But there’s more than one way to do good things for other people. Two years later I’ve changed my tune: Raising Jay and Wally, and belonging to a community of parents, actually creates the possibility for far more generosity than it destroys.

A tale of two Wallys

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The other night at dinner Jay displayed some new math skills: “Two fives is 10, four fives is 20, six fives is 30,” he said, as Caroline and I finished the last of our goat cheese pasta. When he got to “20 fives is 100,” we beamed at him and clapped.

Across the table, Wally had been watching all of this. As soon as the applause died down he started in on a trick of his own, counting the squares on his checked placemat. “1, 2, 3, 4…14, 16, 19, 21 squares,” he proclaimed triumphantly—and, completely inaccurately.

Later that night I thought about these dueling math displays. Both boys were displaying skills appropriate to their ages, but they probably left the table feeling very differently about what they’d done. As far as Jay knows, he’s practicing mathematics at its highest form, while Wally can see quite clearly that whatever he knows, it’s less than his brother knows.

In so many ways, Wally’s behavior is refracted through Jay when the four of us are together. Easily 10 times a day we hear him wail in utter despair because Jay has taken the marker he wanted to use, or because Jay filled the water bottles for school when Wally wanted to do that job. And when I say despair I mean despair—in these situations you can almost see Wally collapsing on the inside as a person.

Which is striking because he is so completely full of personhood. Last week I got to spend more time than usual just with Wally, on account of the cold he and I both had. We played the card game War, ate peanut butter toast, made blanket tents in his bed. What struck me most about our time together was how consistent his mood was. He was excited but not hyper, happy, talkative, and reasonable.

This was striking because most of the time around the house, I think of him as either way up or way down. When he and Jay play together—which they do pretty much the entire time they’re awake and at home—Wally’s either tearing around the house in delight or crumpling in defeat. There’s not a lot of calm, self-composed middle ground.

We all change the way we behave in response to the people around us, and some people affect us in better or worse ways. I’m glad my friends see me so often with Caroline, because I like who I am with Caroline. There are other people who make me feel nervous, or insecure, or angry, and if you only ever saw me around those people, you might regard me in a way I don’t want to be regarded.

For Jay and Wally, and their relationship as brothers, this cuts both ways. Caroline remarked over the weekend that if Jay were an only child we’d think he was perfectly behaved, because pretty much the only trouble he gives us is when he’s going at Wally. And Wally, if he were an only child…well, the change is almost too dramatic to imagine, which suggests just how strongly his behavior—and our perceptions of it—is influenced by the fact that Jay is almost always in the room.

Soup saves the day

IMG_5724It’s been some kind of week. Wally was sick, of course, and home from school for two more days after trapping me for the duration of his long Tuesday nap. We arrived home at 4:30pm this afternoon to find we were out of milk, out of trash bags, and that some moron had decided the evening’s dinner should be “gourmet ramen,” which we’ve never made before.

Caroline and I started to chop shiitakes and Jay and Wally decided to compare the number of coins in their respective plastic treasure chests (which had been acquired as promotional giveaways at a minor league baseball game this summer). Comparing your bank account to your sibling’s turns out to be as bad an idea at age five as it is at thirty-five. Wally’s no financial genius, but he quickly noticed a gaping discrepancy between his pile of booty and his brother’s. There was some wailing, some grabbing for Jay’s coins, and finally some feverish promises from me that I’d get him a bigger stack of pennies. (Come to think of it, maybe Wally is a financial genius after all.)

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Anyway, the soup. As the chicken was broiling in its brown sugar and soy sauce marinade, I was preparing in my mind to write a post about the obvious disaster that unfolds when you venture outside of your culinary safe zone at the end of a week in which everyone’s been sick. But no! The soup was incredibly easy to make and turned out quite well. The broth simmers with a hearty amount of fresh ginger, which establishes a solid foundation of flavor, and then all the add-ins require little prep and taste good: the broiled chicken, chopped mushrooms, spinach, and rice noodles.

Jay and Wally liked the soup and were appropriate with their chopsticks, if not entirely effective, for much longer than expected. Afterward, Caroline gave the boys a bath while I cleaned up and listened to Pink on the hi-fi. All told, I’m ready to say we played this week to a draw.

Friends, reunited

James and Sammy II A few Sundays ago Jay and I took a ride to the playground. He usually talks a lot in the car, about the vehicles we pass, the speed we’re going, but on this trip he was quiet. Finally, as we made the last turn to the park, he spoke. “Do you think she’ll remember me?” he asked.

By she, Jay meant Saidy, his best friend from preschool the previous year. Saidy and Jay were not fast friends. Caroline and I didn’t hear her name until December, but after that, Saidy was practically the only person Jay spoke of when we asked him each night at dinner: Who did you sit with at lunch? Who’d you play with on the playground? They were always scheming. He told us how they’d made plans to sneak out at night to the airport, with a stop at Lowes to get equipment, so they could fly and see Santa. One morning he said he needed to bring our headlamps to school, because today was the day he and Saidy were going to dig to China.

Then summer came and we were away, and in the fall, Saidy started kindergarten at a different school. Caroline and I were sad for Jay, and also worried about how he’d fare without his best friend around. But on the first day of school, Jay skipped off happily. If he wasn’t going to mention Saidy’s absence, Caroline and I weren’t, either. I did wonder, though, where a best friend lives on in the mind of a boy just stepping out into the social world.

It took a few weeks to arrange a playdate. I told Jay on a Thursday that we were going to see Saidy that weekend. A grin flashed across his face and he looked shyly toward his shoulder. It was a rare kind of expression for Jay, and I knew right away that he had not forgotten her. Each day after that he asked me how many more days until they were going to play together.

Now it was Sunday, and Saidy was late. Jay and I parked and walked onto the playground. Jay pointed to the picnic table where we’d sat last time we’d met Saidy here, and spoke of the time between then and now as though it were ages. I told Jay he could sit next to me while we waited, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he took up a position on the lowered end of a teeter-totter, and asked me, “What direction do you think she’ll come from?”

We focused on an intersection at the southwest corner of the park. A few cars rolled by. Each time, Jay strained to see if it was the right one. Finally, Saidy’s car pulled up to the stop sign, turned left, and parked, about three hundred feet across an open grassy space from where we were sitting. Jay got off the teeter-totter, walked to the edge of the playground, and stopped. “Go say hi,” I told him, and he was off.

Saidy emerged eagerly out of the back of her car, and the two of them ran fast toward each other across the grass. It was like watching a fairy tale unfold, and as they drew nearer to each other, I expected them to hug and twirl as a storm of daisies fluttered down upon them.

But that wasn’t what Jay had in mind. At the last second he cut right and looked back over his shoulder with a wicked grin. “Catch me if you can,” he seemed to say. Over the next two hours, she did.

Trapped with Wally

_MG_5704 On Monday Wally got progressively sicker through the afternoon and fell off a cliff in the hours after we put him to bed. He was too miserable to sleep, a pitiful, hacking, moaning, puddle. By the time morning rolled around, Caroline and I were battered. It’s kind of stunning how much damage a single, disrupted night can do.

In the morning, through slit eyes, we began to triage. Caroline had to teach that afternoon; I had a story to file by lunchtime. Everything else, we figured, could wait until tomorrow if need be.

And need did be. Wally can usually tolerate a fair amount of television on his sick days, but yesterday he was too far gone to do anything on his own. He and Caroline napped together through the morning while I wrote. At 10am he awoke with just enough energy to sit on her lap and eat a few spoonfuls of raisin bran. At noon it was back down to sleep, in the guest room with the blinds half open, curled up against my chest.

I slept, too, and woke up a little while later to find my left arm pinned beneath Wally’s waist. He’d fallen into a deep sleep. His breathing was sharp and quick on the exhale. On every inhale I could hear the congestion crackle in his nose.

It had been awhile since I’d found myself trapped by a sleeping child. As I stared up at the ceiling, I confronted a list of regrets, familiar from the years when Caroline and I had been more instrumental in the boys’ sleep: regret that I hadn’t fallen asleep in a more comfortable position; regret that I’d left my book in the living room; regret that I hadn’t gone pee before we’d started our nap.

Wally moaned a few times and shifted slightly before settling back down on my arm. I tried to get a look at my watch, but I couldn’t raise my wrist high enough to see it. Across the room the screen on my computer had long since gone black. In the room around us, there was an intense quiet, the kind you get in the middle of the day when everyone is off doing something else.

Under other circumstances, I might have chanced pulling my arm from beneath Wally, but he was so tired and so pathetic, I didn’t want to risk depriving him of any more sleep. As I lay there, I recalled the story of a hiker who’d gotten his arm pinned beneath a boulder, and eventually resorted to cutting it off himself. I thought about the container of leftover empanadas in the refrigerator, and how I’d be happy to eat one cold.

Wally slept on and I started to make some calculations. What were the odds he’d wake if I tried to move my arm? How much marginal value did he get from each extra minute of sleep? How long until my fingers started to die from lack of blood flow? I’d almost worked it all out when outside I heard the whine of a large vehicle braking, and then a chorus of chattering kids. Was it that late already? The sound, I knew, was a school bus, releasing kids to the afterschool program at the park across the street from our house.

I thought about how as a kid, home sick from school, I’d picture my friends moving through their days: now they’re in math class, now they’re at lunch, now they’re getting ready for gym. I’d loved that sense of suspension from the world. And on those days, I’d never liked it when the school day actually finished. I’d hear kids walking home outside my house and be reminded that the reverie of a sick day doesn’t last forever.