Parenthood is like a rocket voyage: Most of your ship consists of material designed to be dumpable. Huge chunks fall off in stages, continuously lightening your load until all that’s left is the nubbin, zinging along unencumbered. Last month we removed a child car seat from the back of the station wagon, having discovered that our ten-year-old daughter is no longer required to use one. (Our six-year-old, still involuntarily enthroned, is grouchy about this development: “No fair!”) Clearing the house for renters while we go on vacation, I lugged a hectare or three of kiddie gear into the basement. I uprooted fairy-princess castles and toy chests and translucent plastic cubes heaving with candy-colored bricks and remote-controlled racing cars and something called a “starlight bower” — a not-really-all-that-magical purple veil with an occasionally functional light overhead and a pillow beneath, designed for fairy contemplation. It cost me 50 bucks. Want it? You can have it for a dollar.
Prior to this cleanup mission, the house’s décor could fairly be described as “after the earthquake struck Toys ‘R’ Us.” Two out of eight rooms were entirely conquered by the child-toy army, with significant incursions into several others. The garage is a riot of hula hoops, tricycles, squirt guns, sand buckets, bubble-making gear, and inflatable pool toys. None of this stuff has been used this summer. I can’t lure the kids to the playground or the beach anymore. My ten-year-old, who is now spending the bulk of her free time on her computer and her phone, is too cool to participate in real, non-virtual play. Movement seems to have become beneath her. The last time I (laboriously) set up the wading pool and her little sister eagerly got in for a splash war, she kept her distance. I believe she’s writing a Harry Potter–style fantasy story on her computer. But she won’t give me any details. “I like writing,” she says, simply. Odd duck, this one. Doesn’t she know that writing is an activity to be done grudgingly, at the whip crack of an imperious editor, amid much histrionic complaining, and exclusively in exchange for money?
My six-year-old, meanwhile, can still occasionally be nudged out into the yard to kick a soccer ball or chase fireflies, but she increasingly takes her coolness cues from her big sister. She prefers to play games on an iPad that belongs to Daddy, and when I say “prefers,” I mean, “will cause Hezbollah-level unrest if not obliged.” In those hours when Mom and Dad yield and children are allowed to slip into their screens, the house recedes into cathedral silence. Tranquility reigns. This is new.
Somewhere there is a picture of me (nine years ago) holding a wailing baby and a large stein of beer. This was more or less the defining tableau of my decade: beer, bairn. The one was the vital antidote to the other. Make this moment go away was a ruling thought. Just to be amusing, the Almighty arranged things so that the more unruly and tantrummy child was the second to arrive. Never a dull moment! The spills; the stains; the wails; the projectile vomiting on flights; the sudden alterations in planning caused by tragically lost toys; the boiling sibling blood feuds; the awaiting-meal-in-restaurant breakdowns; the trail of crumbs and puzzle pieces and busted crayons; the mysterious sticky stuff rendering hair unbrushable; the exhausting battles based in refusals to eat, sleep, get dressed, or go wee-wee. I’ve had a child aged six or younger in my household since 2008, which is to say I’ve been an unpaid orderly at a mini-bedlam. Finally the storm has passed. I can relax.
Instead, what do I do? I fret. No more children will be forthcoming. Fun time is over. On a closet door hangs an adorable wood-framed calendar with magnets that can be moved around each month. Not long ago, this object was the site of fierce jockeying for position at the start of each month, when the right to rearrange numbers and icons was contested with Lancaster-vs.-York fervor. Now the calendar sits forlorn and undisturbed. The ten-year-old lost interest in adjusting tiles labeled “birthday” or “camp” or “4th of July,” so the six-year-old no longer had anyone with whom to fight over them. Both kids have even outgrown My Little Pony, for heaven’s sake, which is a shame because My Little Pony is clever and fun, unlike the rancid live-action Disney Junior sitcoms about texting teens into whose clutches they have fallen.
Two childhoods are getting ditched. I feel ditched along with them. Dad’s check-writing hand will always be well regarded, but moment-to-moment interaction with him is no longer urgently needed. Certainly his playtime services are starting to seem surplus to requirements. Being cast aside by one’s children is not unlike losing a job: the disorientation, the nostalgia.
My younger daughter, bless her, still play-acts dramatic scenarios with figurines of Disney princesses; sometimes I hear her whispering improvised dialogue about kidnappings and magic. But just this weekend she demanded, for the first time, to take a shower by herself, as is the custom of her big sister, instead of luxuriating in the bath with the assistance of Daddy and a toy flotilla. Soon she’ll be outgrowing the many extravagantly grueling physical games she alone still plays with Daddy — James Bond, Fly Like an Eagle, Flip, Smushinator. A few moments from now and I’ll start to hear, “What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys / See you later, can I have them, please?” This is my life as a parent: Merry bedlam became terrifying Lite FM.