I have known many a not-yet-parent who has told me, with complete sincerity, that they don't want their lives to change when they have kids.
"We're still going to travel," they say, knowingly and defiantly. "We're still going to go out to eat. We're not going to stop just because we have kids."
I respond "Good for you!" and I hold up my hands as if to say, "Finally, somebody gets it!"
Now, this is not because I endorse their idea, mind you.
No, I am encouraging them only because, having gone through it myself with my own two little ones, I figure "Why shouldn't they suffer as well?"
Why is it that the benchmark we set for our happiness when we have children is to ensure that our lives don't change?
It's a bit crazy, isn't it? Your life has changed completely! You have tiny little humans who can't do anything without your help except poop and yell and laugh. It's like being transported back to the Cretaceous period, suddenly being chased by an bunch of dinosaurs and stumbling through toxic flora and shouting, "I'm not changing my life one bit for this!"
Before we had children, my wife and I loved going out to eat. When our son Finn was an infant, he would often sleep peacefully next to us in a car seat at the restaurant. "We're doing it!" we'd whisper happily, clinking glasses of fine Sauvignon Blanc.
Then he got a little older. Let's call it a year and half. Then we had a second child, our precious Lucy. And by that time, we had to work a little harder at it. And things changed. Dramatically.
Through trial and error, I've found the best time to take your young children to a restaurant is this:
Never. Never is the best time.
I often find myself wishing that I could pay five times the price of our meal if they would just let us drop everything and run from the restaurant, my 16-month-old daughter still with a death-grip on a steak knife. ("Bill me for it!" I'd shout, throwing my credit card over my shoulder and setting off the alarm as I push out the emergency exit.)
If you are not blessed with children yourself or have forgotten this age, try to imagine going to a restaurant with your spouse and a deranged howler monkey, or a perhaps a dangerously malfunctioning, weaponized Roomba™. In either case, you are utterly at its mercy.
While babies can be eerily manageable, something happens around fifteen months that is akin to Adam and Eve chomping on the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Something awakens in them, telling them that they are not (as it turns out) compelled to sit still or be obedient. That they, too, can run around like grown-ups. And they can do it at that very moment, when the waiter has arrived to take drink orders.
They also discover, having become self-aware overnight, that they are actually built for the art of escape. Lucy, for example, will swivel her head around like an owl, working out the quickest route to open flame. Being an attentive father, I notice this behavior and go to pick her up. That's when her arms fly upwards and I'm suddenly holding nothing but a tiny shirt with some kind of bear on it, and Lucy, bare torso-ed, has landed on the floor, done a forward roll, and is already running at the forest of legs lined up at the salad bar, whooping with arms flailing like a Muppet.
Other parents smile sympathetically at me. Non-parents, whom Lucy will gravitate to in order to grab their legs and cling to them, look down at her, then up, curiously, as if looking for the feral cats that must have raised this beautiful little girl, because surely, no human parent would allow such madness.
Of course, there are times, however, when bringing a child to eat is unavoidable. Or when we haven't done it in a while and we utter to our spouses the five most dangerous words a parent can: "How bad can it be?"
When those times come, here are Seven Simple Rules to follow:
1. Get a booth. You can lock that down like a prison, and the kids can run along the benches a little bit. If the dividers are low, try to get a seat next to a sympathetic mother, some elderly women (who will coo at your toddler even when food is hurled in her direction, even in quantity), or kids young enough to be intimidated.
2. Only yellow crayons. Crayons are fine, but take all of them away and leave your youngest child only with the yellow crayon. That way if she eats it, it doesn't show up in her teeth and nobody will know that you let your children eat crayons. And she will eat it. Oh, yes, she will eat it...
3. Grab your drinks. When the waiter comes around with two brightly-colored margaritas and says, absent-mindedly, "Who are these for?" Make sure you say "The adults!" because he'll put the drinks down and your toddlers will grab 'em and try to suck 'em down and that's an image you don't want seared into the brain of your pastor and his wife, who I promise you will choose that moment to come over to say hello.
4. Keep all silverware at bay. Kids will always go for the forks, and use the hard edges of the baby toys you brought in order sharpen the tines before waving them at any eyeballs that come within spearing distance.
5. Beware of hot plates. Plates often arrive hot (why they need to cook the plates in restaurants is beyond me, but there you go). Little ones have a kind of infrared sensor that allows them to spot and grab anything over about 500 degrees. Put those plates on the other side of the table, and when you would like a bite of your own food, either walk around to the other end of the table or have the food immediately wrapped up in anticipation of a quick exit.
6. Learn to eat one-handed. Get food that you can eat with one hand and no silverware. Because that child will have about six minutes in that high chair before he needs to get into your lap, and at that point eating becomes, in ambulatory terms, something akin to a one-armed man wrestling an alligator.
7. Re-evaluate. When you first get to the restaurant, before getting out of the car, try this last simple trick: Make a U-turn, drive home and order take-out. You'll find it does wonders for your blood pressure.
In the moment, there is almost never a time when taking the kids out doesn't feel like a mistake. Taking them on a plane feels interminable when you're five minutes in and the kids are getting bored and you have six hours left. When the kids start crying in the hotel room in the middle of the night and there is no escape, you wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea.
But here's what my wife and I are discovering:
When we make the effort, when we bring the kids out to destroy a restaurant or throw themselves around in a seat on the airplane, our memories quickly filter out the bad stuff, the difficult parts. Instead, we remember the snapshots, of Lucy dipping chips into salsa and delicately putting them in her mouth. Of Finn staring out the window as we take off in a plane, asking if we're going into space. Of laughing and eating and making a mess and apologizing to everybody around us and the warm responses of strangers who smile at our children and tell them how cute they are.
Life changes with children, and thank God it does. It gets better, and richer, and bolder, and messier and at the end of each day, when we sneak into their rooms and watch them sleep, we wonder how we ever lived without them.
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