It seems of late that wherever you turn, the phrase “in this economy” comes up. Glad to hear your busy “in this economy ”we say to the local merchant. We hear and see constant reminders of the high unemployment and uncertainty of the times. This focus on belt tightening and tough times got me to thinking about the first few years of marriage.
We waited a bit longer than some. I was 32. Seems so young now, looking back, but at the time it seemed I had waited till my life was half over to get started with marriage and kids.
Once we got married we didn’t wait long for kids and not only that, we had the first two, the girls, fourteen months apart. My wife worked part time so that she could spend a good amount of her time at home with the kids. Lean times back then. We really had to watch what we spent. I had no idea how expensive kids are. In the brief period of our marriage before the little ones arrived, we would go to a high end grocery store near us and buy all sorts of exotic goodies for a home made gourmet meal. Dining out was a regular habit.
Then things changed, drastically changed. The first thing to go is sleep, but that is a topic for another time. The second thing is money. Diapers wipes and formula were near the top of our list of monthly expenses. With one, it was a bit of an ouch, but of course as they grow, they eat more, hence, more formula and well, more diapers too and let’s not forget wipes, powder, zinc oxide and the clothes that last for 30-60 days. The worst of it was when we had two in diapers and drinking formula at the same time. The cost of diapers and formula for each was the equivalent of a four-pack-a-day smoker chuggin’ down a half a bottle of Black Jack a day. They grew, they ate more and more. It seemed as though you could almost hear the sucking sound as the money left my wallet each time I stepped into the infant aisle at Target to restock on formula and diapers. Let’s not forget you had to lug this stuff around with you all the time, everywhere you went. To the store, church, daycare, playdates. My life revolved around formula and diapers. Livin’ the dream man, livin’ the dream. As with all things, you adjust and become accustomed to circumstances and life goes on.
But then it happened, I knew it was coming, but I hadn’t thought about the impact, the import of this moment, this life changing event. Our first child weaned off formula! We had just gotten a raise! This was an epic moment and an epiphany all at the same time. Not only was this a sizeable raise (reduction of expense to be honest) but it was only the first of four. Remember, we had two on formula and in diapers at the same time. Two to wean off diapers, two to potty train! This drain on the budget, this devouring expense was going to end! I could see the light at the end of the tunnel! I didn’t hear choirs of angels but it was close. Sure enough, time passed and we got another raise, and another, and another. With these historic changes came other benefits. I no longer walked like a hunchback with two girls in my arms and a diaper bag over one shoulder. They walked, they talked, they ate the same food we ate. But alas, the raises were short lived. Soon we discovered sports, and dancing, and gymnastics. Sigh, it was good while it lasted but at least we were done with diapers and formula! Or so I thought. I’m Pregnant! She said. My fortieth birthday present.
First things first, being a Dad has one ultimate initial requirement. You must have a child. Duh. Pretty obvious, I know but this is the beginning of the whole thing. It is life changing and never ending. One day you’re just a guy, then you’re a guy whose wife has the proverbial bun in the oven, then bang….it happens. Your name has changed, it is now Dad. Well it’s actually Daddy for a good number of years, but at the core you are Dad and there is no turning back. There are a few other “no’s” that come with being a Dad (or Mom).No uninterrupted nights of sleep, no sleeping in on the weekend, no carefree weekends, no extra money and above all, no extra time. Now I am not whining here, these are just simple facts.
So first things first you either get married and decide to have children, then “get pregnant”. I love that one, when the guy says “we are going to get pregnant”. We? Really? WE DON’T’ THINK SO….. The woman in the equation surely doesn’t think so. Or without getting married you decide to “get pregnant” Okay, so the decision consciously made, or subconsciously (someone forgets to use protection just this one time) and life is about to change forever. The test is positive, OMG! What now???
I’m going to step back in time for a moment. I was 19 years old, in a might-be-heading-towards-marriage relationship. This alone was a frightening prospect for me. Heck, I had just moved out of my folk’s house. Wife? The thought sent chills down my spine, I was NOT READY. As with all couples, we each brought our own group of friends to the table. One evening we went to visit a newly-wed couple, friends of hers. My throat was tightening and I broke out in a cold sweat as she joyfully told me they were married less than a year and how she was eager to see their new baby. BABY?!?! I had gotten out of high school, a mere year ago…. WIFE? BABY? This couple was just over twenty as I remember, having gotten married when they were both nineteen. NINETEEN! Oh boy, not me man, no way! I could not even get my head around a household of children with a child.
My worst fears were realized. They lived in a small third floor walk up apartment in an older building with hardwood floors. Lots of nice hard surfaces to reverberate and amplify the NEVER ENDING CRYING AND FUSSING of their precious new baby. This young new Mom seemed to take it all in stride with peace and calm as most Moms do. The smile never left her face. He on the other hand never smiled, not once. He looked worn, tired, haggard and well, he had the pallor of an inmate that doesn’t get enough sun in the prison yard. Two jobs, no sleep, no money, bills piling up, no chance to go to college. A trap, a big, frightening trap. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I didn’t say a word on the way home. She on the other hand talked endlessly about “what a lovely baby” how happy “they” seem. Had we been to the same place? Seen the same people? She had it, the bug. The I want to get married and have a baby bug. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.
I sound like a real jerk just then don’t I? But ponder this: I was truly not ready, nor was he. I don’t know if their marriage lasted, but many don’t. Here is a tip if you haven’t taken the get married have a baby step: TAKE YOUR TIME!! You want to be completely sure you are ready! This is life changing stuff. Remember my comments above? Facts, real true facts. I knew it and I knew I wasn’t ready.
Now let’s fast forward a bunch of years. I have sown my wild oats (read: wasted years having too much self centered fun) and now I am ready. Marriage then baby. It is quite different when you are ready. Now was I (were we) fully prepared? No, you just can’t grasp the life change until you live it. But we wanted a family, we wanted children, plural. We had lived enough life and seen enough young familes succeed to know that it can work. Work, now that is the correct word. Being Dad or Mom is WORK. Hard work, never ending, but with more reward than you can gain in any other way. In my youth I looked at the double-income-no-kids crowd as the smart ones, the lucky ones. Then SHE arrived, our first born.
She was not eager to enter this world. No, Anika has always been a very self determined individual and that rigid will and stubbornness was apparent on the day of her birth. TWENTY-TWO-HOURS-OF-LABOR… It wearies me to read those words, twenty two hours of labor. And all I had to do was stay awake and be a good “coach”. We had taken the birthing course together:bring the soft music, keep the lights dim, and quietly coach your partner as you approach the blessed moment. The birth of a child. Sounds all sweet warm and idyllic. NOT!! Three shifts of mid-wives used all their skills before the end. Mom was beyond exhausted, way beyond. The weaker sex…wow, that is way, way off. Most men would be begging to be put out of their misery to end this kind of suffering. At long, long last the moment arrived. Baby was born; Mom held her new baby smiling at her with a grin that wouldn’t end. All was right with the world. As to that weaker sex thing, Mom recovered in short order, I mean like less than an hour! Are women really machines? Nope, they are just that strong, that resilient. Men we should all be in awe. Then it was my turn. I held MY BABY, my precious first born for the first time. So small, so fragile. Welcome to the world Anika! Welcome. Life would never be the same..
As a man in this modern world of ours, we all tend to define ourselves by our profession: Hey Tom, this is my friend Bill the (welder, doctor, mechanic, lawyer etc.). Yup, good old career, that is what defines us. Well not really. Over the years we have all heard the studies that men that are married with kids earn more, work more hours etc. It isn’t out of love for the job. Believe me, I spent a large part of my adult life hating the job and watching the clock. But still, whenever it was available, I was the first to jump on the over time. Three kids, mortgage, two cars, sports, gymnastics, dance lessons the list goes on, never enough time, never enough money.
How do I define myself? Regardless of how I answer when asked, in my heart it goes in this order: Husband/Father, Friend and Neighbor and oh yeah, the career stuff. In reality the number one job is Dad (for my wife it’s Mom).Full time job no doubt. We are driver, maid, mechanic, educator, coach, cheer leader, guidance counselor, purveyor of truth wisdom and morals and at the worst of times that tender shoulder to cry on. It is from us Moms and Dads that our children learn to be who they are, who they can best be. For a moment let’s examine the logical reasons for being a parent: Hard work, huge responsibility, even larger expense, blood, sweat, tears, anger, exasperation, heartache and no pay. Doesn’t sound like such a good proposition does it? Ah, but you have to look at the payback: Joy, pride, wonder and that incredible feeling when you have done something that really matters to your child. The very greatest reward is of course what they achieve. You can’t put a price on it other than to say what would my life be without the children?
On to the whole World’s Greatest Dad / number one Dad thing. You probably think I am being some kind of arrogant guy. Wrong, way wrong. The title World’s Greatest Dad is what none of us deserve, what none of us could hope to achieve and yet when we have been there to fill the need and we receive that look of relief, joy or thanks for something we have done, we feel like nothing else in this world can make us feel. Every Birthday and Father’s Day we are showered with gifts that invariably include something that says: World’s Greatest Dad, Number One Dad, Best Dad or some other equally unearned accolade. It always comes with laughs, smiles and warmth that only our children can give us. It is only through my children that I can honestly measure my own worth and success.
My dad always told my siblings and me that we were special, that we were above average. He made us believe it. He made us appreciate everything we had, every day of health, food on the table and a roof over our heads. My Father in law had a saying he told everyone. LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT. Simple honest words that mean so much: You get what you work for, you can find joy in the darkest moment if you look for it, if you make it so. Pretty tough shoes to fill, these two guys. I don’t know that I will, but I will do my best to try.
I had the honor of attending the 50th wedding anniversary of my in-laws Art and Edy. It was a wonderful event with more than a hundred guests from all over the country. At one point, Art and Edy were put on the spot. They were brought up on stage and interviewed on a range of topics. “Who were your favorite neighbors?” was the question. “Oh they were all wonderful” said Edy. Art grabbed the microphone from her hand and bellowed “DICK and CONNIE LARSON!” Art was not a man to mince words. Anika’s mom and I had been married for little more than a year then and she was pregnant with our second child. I had not met the Larsons until that evening and had precious little time to get to know them. I did get that chance over the years and found them to be warm and friendly folks. Many years later when Dick passed away we attended his funeral. One of his son’s had found a small printed piece of paper in his pocket. It was yellow, wrinkled and worn with age having apparently spent many years in his pocket. It said simply this:
“The true measure of a man is not how much money he has or success in business, but rather what his children say about him when he is not there.”
A chill ran through me the first time I heard those words. Wow. So that’s how it is. I have gone back to those words hundreds of times since. I don’t need the paper, just the memory. A tough job this dad thing. Greatest? Best? Number One? Not likely, but I can and will surely try.