Of all the outrageous, embarrassing, painful and humbling conversations I expect that I will have with my three children, this was perhaps the least anticipated. And so far, the yuckiest -- and that includes my last three discussions about poop.
To clarify, I have said this very thing on three different occasions now: "Do not touch other people's daddies. You can touch your daddy. Not anyone else's." And then I add, sharply with a pointed finger, "Don't touch!"
A few months ago, my husband was working on a Saturday, which is not unusual. His hours keep him away from home a great deal. Our kids -- 3.5-year-old boy/girl twins and a 5-year-old girl -- adore him, and they miss him when he's not here.
It was raining, and I had brought the kids to an indoor play space so they wouldn't destroy our apartment. And so they'd be occupied while I attempted to catch up on a few work-related, smartphone-capable things.
The only other folks there were a neighbor I hadn't met and his toddler son. I only found out this man lives close by because I had to introduce myself after apologizing for my children hanging on him, following him, grabbing at him, chasing him like wolves and demanding he pick them up, twirl them and/or toss them into the gym mats. Because that's what he was doing with his own kid.
I admit it. I was absorbed in my reading and responding to emails. I could see the kids having a good time and heard a lot of laughing. And then I looked up from my phone. Horrified, I threw out mild warnings, hoping this poor guy would not catch on to my kids' inappropriate behavior.
"Guys, please leave that man alone. He doesn't want to pick you up."
But they were having fun, and this dad was too polite to ask to be left alone, although he repeatedly had to peel my children off of him so that he could concentrate on bonding with his son.
I demanded they come to me, where I quietly tried to explain that they cannot touch other people's daddies.
"It is not OK to jump on or touch other children's daddies. You can touch your daddy, but not anyone else." This is a rule, right?
"But why? And what about Uncle Scott?"
Right. "You can play with Uncle Scott. And maybe your friends' daddies -- some of them. But other daddies don't want people jumping on them. Your daddy likes you to jump on him. That's it."
And I made them -- the girls -- repeat this to me. "We won't touch other people's daddies." Because my son was examining his socks at this point.
Added to this absurdity is, of course, that I remind them regularly, in the context of keeping them safe, that "no one is to touch them, and they should not be touching other people." How likely is it they'll conflate these two discussions? Yeah, I thought so too.
Mortified, unexpectedly angry, and certain I had made 125 parenting mistakes in the space of an hour and a half, I recalled the incident to my husband, whom I expected to suffer greatly from embarrassment and guilt as a result. I mean, clearly, our children need someone to play with them more! I felt that this was a difficult situation we'd have to handle together. And that we'd grow as a family from this.
"Really?" He asked. "That's weird."
That's it? This behavior didn't indicate a deep and horrendous hole in our children's lives? We weren't driving them to physically assault other parents because one of us is unavailable and the other one is -- well, sort of unavailable too, I guess.
Had I been walking around with a bowling ball-sized knot in my stomach for nothing?
Well, if that's it, then that's it. Great! Business as usual, kids!
Until it happened again at the playground. And again.
My husband is the playful one. I don't think we are unique in that dynamic. They know mommy doesn't let them do backflips off her lap. But daddy does that and so much more. He is all about running beside their bikes, retrieving lost soccer balls and endless bedtime stories on the weekend. (Mommy lets them paint pumpkins once we put several bedsheets and layers of newspaper down on the floor first.)
These incidents -- when my kids zeroed in on the most fun and least suspecting dads in the playground -- hit me harder than I would have guessed. And brought up feelings of inadequacy I did not know I owned, in ways I did not expect. Seriously. I expect to feel bad about myself next to the mom who runs marathons, bakes cupcakes for the class for half birthdays and enjoys pushing the baby swing for 45 minutes straight without even a cup of coffee in the other hand. I've dealt with those demons.
But watching my three little kids desperately and repeatedly seek attention from another parent is too much "real" for me. It hits a nerve just below the surface. And in my head, every parent in that playground could see how bad I am at this. And they pitied my children for it.
Yes, I'm being dramatic. Isn't that what parenting does to us? It turns situations we might laugh at -- that perhaps we should laugh at -- into crises. Into a referendum on our ability to love and engage our children. In the midst of my panic, I neglected to see the varying shades of my own enjoyment of them.
My three kids -- Molly, Henry and Ellie -- are easily entertained. And they are loving and giving and want only to giggle and chase and be chased. And that is good. And I am responsible in caring for them. And serious about the work I've chosen that keeps me home with them. I am delighted to be with them as Ellie imitates a robot at the dinner table; as Henry counts every single lightbulb in the apartment; as I hold Molly's hand in the dark. But I dread feeling that again -- that there is even a small part of their openhearted spirit to which I do not contribute. I can be better at this.