The first one makes for the most intense memories, but it’s much less fun while it’s happening. What child appreciates being a kid? Childhood as experienced is tedium, frustration, lack of control. It is haranguing, humiliating teachers. It is filthy chores assigned by clueless parents. The unrequited crush, the B+ on the paper that was clearly A- work, the stolen bicycle, the birthday spent crying in the bathroom of the bowling alley. I remember pooping my pants in school, longing for a little blonde in a yellow house, getting my forehead ripped open on the corner of a coffee table. I remember dull books, duller television shows, my poor escaped pet bunny. I can still taste the ghastly liverwurst sandwiches and the unspeakable Spam casseroles. I can still smell the weeks my father spent on a boiled-cabbage diet.
The humiliation to top all humiliations was baseball. All I wanted out of life was to hit the damn ball. I couldn’t hit the damn ball. I was tiny, so no one could find my strike zone and I got a lot of walks. I scored a lot of runs. But I could not hit the baseball, except on a bunt. Year after year I went out for Little League and they stuck me in left field. Since I could not throw or run, this was a terrible place to put me, and it’s where I discovered I had no depth perception either. A ball would be hit straight at me and I’d freeze, then run toward it (if it was going over my head) or back up (if it was dropping in front of me). Then I’d miss the cutoff man. By the time the ball made it to the catcher the batter could have circled the bases twice and eaten a sandwich.
In sixth grade, Coach was picking co-captains. He looked around and picked the two best players . . . and me. I was a pity captain. Coach knew I tried four times as hard as anyone else, but he would have done me a favor if he had simply refused to allow me to play. Malcolm Gladwell would marvel at how I managed to log 10,000 hours doing something and make no progress whatsoever.
I told everyone I planned to be 6’1” and 200 pounds because that’s how Tom Seaver turned out. But I didn’t want to just be a major-league baseball player. A kid wants, furiously, to be a grownup and master all of adulthood’s secret codes. I couldn’t wait to escape childhood.
Second childhood is the ironic one, the privileged one. You have to skip it if you go into the military at 18, or get a real job. But for the fortunate class, there is college. Why do you think college prices keep rocketing upwards? Because it’s so much fun. People will always shell out for fun, and college is kindergarten for young adults. We acquire grownup bodies, and the first thing we do with them is stay up all night playing video games and pigging out on snacks. We team up for ultimate frisbee and dress up for Halloween and have snowball fights on the quad and play Quidditch. At the top schools, we do all of this while complaining about how overworked we are. Compared to whom? We never ask ourselves.
Third childhood is the most deeply satisfying one: the one you go through with your own children, but it’s also darkened by melancholy. At 42 years of age, I was crawling around on the carpet again, making silly faces, singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” reading Goodnight Moon, and discovering that Sandra Boynton is far superior to Dr. Seuss. At 48 I was building dollhouses and Lego sets. At 54 I was playing I Doubt It and Go Fish and Battleship. Every December of my life as a parent, I’ve been watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. My kid license has been reissued. But every humiliation of first childhood is matched by an equally salient moment of heart-rending poignance. You realize how special these years are, and you want time to slow down so you can savor them, but you also want it to speed up because you can’t wait for your kid to get past the diaper stage, the screaming stage, the klutzy stage, the child stage.
Parenting is humiliating only if you choose to allow it to be. We’re aware of how ridiculous we look, chasing chubby legs churning across the Sheep Meadow so the little one can dash into the men’s room and stick her hands in the urinals again. But we stop minding how we look. When you’re a parent, you learn a secret unknown to non-parents. You discover that your entire life to this point took place in black-and-white. Parenting Oz may be weird and unpredictable and beset by witchcraft and flying monkeys. But a parent’s life is in color. The only part of it that is truly unbearable is when you start to realize it’s ending. My children are twelve and nine and spend their days on screens. One makes videos and the other writes presentations on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the basement there’s a graveyard of plastic: forsaken toys, dolls, costumes. A pretend cash register with a ringing bell that used to delight them. A little pink princess castle made of flimsy cloth that used to be a treasured hiding space for my younger girl. Being among these objects haunts me and hurts me and sometimes makes me cry. Every square inch of the basement is a reminder of flown years.
Fourth childhood is a cruel parody. My mother is 80, and fading. What my children have learned to do, she has forgotten. Getting up or down stairs is an adventure. She can’t turn on the TV without my assistance. She is baffled by the world. Her conversation consists of non sequiturs, and her answer to most questions is “I don’t know.” At Christmas dinner, I cut up my nine-year-old’s ham, then I cut up my 80-year-old’s ham. Mom belches with her mouth open. When she walks across the floor, I hold my breath. She’s as likely to fall as a toddler, but her bones are made of glass instead of rubber. She fell last summer, and one wrist still doesn’t feel right to her. She even drinks her hot chocolate like a child. She wraps both hands around the cup and applies all of her concentration to the task of sipping, never putting the cup down until it’s completely empty. With effort, as though solving a complex equation, she assembles a thought: “Do you know how much I love you?” she says. Spoken like a child — tender, honest, needy. It hurts: Time hurts. I hurt for her, I hurt for all of us. I suppose my fourth childhood awaits me: Someday, my children will become my parents.