37 years old, and I really don’t know what I think about having kids. My biological clock seems to be on snooze; this is not true of most of the women I date.
But the 2000 census reveals what I’d been thinking (hoping) all along: Single people living alone in Washington make up a higher percentage than Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver and the Beaver. Single households constitute 26 percent of all Evergreen State residents, compared with only 24 percent of households who are married with children. In Seattle alone, 105,542 singles live solo—that’s 40 percent of all residences, making Rainville second only to Washington, D.C., in the number of one-person households.
We’re rich, we’re hip, we’re selfish, we’re single!
As the youngest of three, I have no experience taking care of youngsters. In addition, none of my siblings have chosen to reproduce, so there aren’t nieces or nephews running about. My ideas on raising children come from The Brady Bunch, airline flights, and baby-themed movies.
But as I’m edging toward the big 4-0 with nary a mini-me in sight, I’m feeling more pressure about my lack of reproduction—as the end of the Stusser line and all that.
But am I ready? Is anyone? How could I find out?
Short of lurking around preschools, becoming a Big Brother, or hiring/abducting a kid for intensive interviews, I wanted to find a way to evaluate fatherhood without actually getting anyone pregnant. That’s where my friend Julie came in. Buddies since high school, we attended proms together, joked as class clowns, and kept in touch over the years. While I drifted into a life of writing and wild debauchery, Julie met her husband, lived in a cul-de-sac, and cranked out five kids—before her spouse of seven years told her at a Mariners game that he was gay and could no longer live the lie.
Given the Jerry Springer-like experience that forced her into single motherhood, she didn’t balk when I asked if she might loan her family for a little Father’s Day Test (“You want to take my kids off my hands? Here are the keys to the minivan”). Actually, she not only liked the concept of a test run but felt it should be mandatory before leaping into a family affair.
HONEY, I’M HOME!
Thursday, 4:50 p.m.: I arrive late. Julie treats me like the husband and plays the role to the hilt. “Where the hell have you been?” she yells over the rabble.
“Sorry, traffic fucking sucks.”
“FAWK!” repeats one of the twins.
Observation #1: I need to watch my language.
Julie is busy cutting apples, wiping goo off the little guy, and talking on the phone. “Go out there and make sure no one drowns,” is her only instruction.
The backyard resembles something out of Apocalypse Now: Objects fly overhead, wild animal sounds emanate from the brush, bizarre death rituals take place in the porta-pool, party bubbles drift like mustard gas, and tattoos—from bubblegum packs—adorn feet, forearms, and foreheads of the villagers.
“Hey, Stusser!” says orange-haired Asa, 5, swinging a hose within an eyelash of my retina. “Butthead!” yells Dane, the other half of the twin package.
Cole, 7, the oldest boy, hands me an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Well, that’s sweet. I snap the lid open, it sprays in my face—all shook up, the oldest trick in the book.
5 p.m.: I’ve been in this not-so-controlled environment for 10 minutes and am tattooed, stomped, sprayed, and body-slammed. “Boundaries!” Julie hollers from the kitchen.
5:30 p.m.: It’s 80 degrees, and we’re heading to Luther Burbank Park. Julie’s shouting instructions and organizing the picnic when I remind her that I’m supposed to do the bulk of the work.
“OK, then, go get the twins dressed for swimming, pack the cooler with drinks, put sunblock on all of ’em, grab the towels out of the laundry, and put the shovels and buckets in the car.”
The first thing that hits me is that I don’t have a clue what kids can DO at any particular age: Can a 5-year-old make his own sandwich? Were any of them still in diapers? Could the twins understand language? Was it OK to see the 9-year-old girl naked? Up to what age are you allowed to sunbathe pantsless?
I ask Rae where the garbage is. “In this house we don’t have garbage. We eat everything.” She’s supposed to be the helpful one.
6 p.m.: “OOWWW!” I’ve almost strangled Ty trying to put him in the car seat. Apparently the clasp goes between his legs, not into the regular buckle on the main seat.
We pick up Rae’s best friend on the way to the beach. “Another kid?” I whine. “You’ll see. It’s easier,” replies Julie. And it is: Rae and her pal amuse each other.
Observation: If I ever do this, I want a girl.
“No Lifeguard on Duty.” The Feds can stock the streets with meter maids and riot gear, but our public parks can’t get a few damn lifeguards? Where are the priorities, people!
6:30 p.m.: I’d love to jump in the lake, but realize I’d be leaving Julie alone in the watchtower position, so we sit and talk, counting off the kids (1-6), telling them “No” a lot, and reminiscing about jumping off docks, bee stings, and banging our heads.
7 p.m.: Driving home is nice—we blare the stereo and the flock are strapped in where they can’t do a whole helluva lot of damage.
7:30 p.m.: “Eating dinner” is really standing and helping. Macaroni, chips, a box of Hi-C, and an orange wedge are about my cooking limit. Every time I see one of them with a fork in hand, I say, “Don’t stab yourself with that,” and they look at me funny. Fact is, you COULD poke an eye out.
Cole comes into the living room wearing a hemp necklace. This is my big chance to lay out the legalization effort for the next generation. I begin my Rasta tale by telling him about George Washington’s crop, how people should be able to grow what they want, and how he has a right to challenge authority. “Whatever. My mom bought it for me.”
7:45 p.m.: Julie rewards me by letting me give the twins a bath, and they are cute as buttons, giggling, farting, and splish-splashing away.
8-8:30 p.m.: Bedtime stories. This is how it should be: I’ve got the twins cuddling on either side and Asa is on my lap as I read Green Eggs and Ham. Just as the little guys are nodding off, Cole runs in, rips the book from my hands, and smacks his little brother, and pandemonium reigns. The twins run screaming, Asa is bleeding, and I need to scold someone but am not sure how harsh to be. How quickly a Kodak moment can turn to a slasher film.
9 p.m.: Julie has settled the crew by threatening to take away “points” that are amassed and exchanged for roller blades and other merchandise. I’m pouring stiff vodka lemonades when the twins leap out the window.
I look in on Rae. “You’re doin’ good,” she says, sounding like an oldest sibling.
10 p.m.: Cole keeps coming out of his room even though he’s had most of his mileage points taken away. “It’s just so hot in there,” he snivels. Rather than spare the last few ice cubes, we give him some frozen hamburger patties and send him on his way.
We drink later than we should, sharing stories of choices made and promises broken. I find myself giving Julie advice on rearing her kids (“I’d plan everything and have strict schedules!”). A loud crash in one of the bedrooms interrupts my lecture.
11:30 p.m.: I’m exhausted and fall asleep with the newspaper on my chest (flashback to fathers everywhere). Now I know why someone would work an 80-hour week: It’s much less taxing than being a full-time parent.
3 a.m.: I toss and turn all night, anxious about the day ahead. I hear the kids talking in their sleep, taking pees, and recharging their batteries. Cole comes into my room to say hi on his way to get some water.
Friday, 6:30 a.m.: Julie (bless her soul) wakes me with a cup of coffee and a smile. She’s already showered, drawn up detailed instructions, and made Rae lunch. Feeling jet-lagged and melancholy, I tell her how much I appreciate her will and how beautifully she’s handled her lot. “It’s my life. I really don’t have a choice.” She’s off to work at Starbucks, and the nanny and I are to hold down the fort.
7 a.m.: I stumble into the kitchen and here comes Ty rambling down the hall. “Make me some breakfast.” I’m not a morning person.
Rae’s on the phone most of the morn, Cole sleeps in (thank god), and the nanny turns on every TV in the house as a sort of hypnotic smoke screen, then disappears. Julie should fire her lazy ass.
8 a.m.: The whole crew gets involved in a pagoda-drawing contest (Cole is studying architecture in school), and I find myself trying to explain the Japanese culture, Buddhism, sushi, and Pearl Harbor. Why couldn’t we have drawn cars or funny faces? I ask Asa if Dane can cut himself with the scissors he’s using. “If he wants to.”
8:15 a.m.: Cheerios roll (off the table and onto the floor). “No feet on the table!” It dawns on me I won’t be getting a nap any time soon. Should have given them Sleepytime tea or big glasses of NyQuil.
Dressing the twins takes forever; it would have been easier if I’d made them take off the boxing gloves. “I have pull-ups,” says Ty. I can see that.
Cole enters, bouncing a large green rubber ball, as usual. For some reason I thought he’d stop doing that.
8:30 a.m.: Rae draws me a crayon map of how to get to the school, and she and Cole jump into my car, somehow convincing me to take the top down on a freezing day.
9 a.m.: Rather than go straight home, I cruise by the Starbucks where Julie works as a barista and take a study break. Over a triple cappuccino and her 10-minute break, I tell her what a loser her nanny is. She knows.
9:30 a.m.: I think the twins are fucking with me. I can never remember which one I told something to, and they’re getting away with murder.
Every object in my pocket is the size of a child’s windpipe (coins, hard candies, paper clips). I am not child-proof.
9:45 a.m.: One bag of Skittles can ruin an entire couch. My anal tendency to clean up has been broken. Order gives way to chaos.
Note to self: Buy stock in Toys “R” Us, Coke, Tyco, Disney, General Mills.
9:50 a.m.: Asa (“You’re my best friend!”) snaps off a large rhododendron branch with giant pink flowers to give me as a present.
I have not eaten, showered, or gone to the bathroom in 17 hours.
10-11 a.m.: Barney isn’t so bad.
11:15 a.m.: Unlike my efforts at yoga lessons, Candy Land, and Ring Around the Rosie, Sesame Street holds the three tykes’ attention: Songs! Dancing! Cartoons! The Sesame Street kids create an entire city out of crumpled paper and duct tape, making our Lego castle look lame. (The only difference between the new Sesame Street and when I watched is that they’ve added a handicapped boy to the melting pot. What’s next? A blind, obese, homeless transsexual?)
11:30 a.m.: You get used to seeing the strangest things: plastic bags on their heads, orange-peel mouth guards, peeing in the yard, my journal in a teapot.
Observation: “Why?” is a tough question to answer succinctly.
Noon: Asa runs in from some worm-digging project and hands me a large butcher knife. “We took this knife but didn’t hurt ourselves.”
12:30 p.m.: I’m burning out. I understand Nintendo, Nickelodeon, baloney sandwiches, and day care.
Odd Ragamuffin Theories: “The hair on your stomach is from ice cream.” “Beer makes the hiccups go away.” “Monkeys don’t fart.”
Future Jobs of America: Asa, a grossologist (studying gross things) or a waitress; Dane, a chef; and Ty, sadly, wants to be Michael Stusser.
1:30 p.m.: Julie’s home. Thank God. One of the twins has a huge gash under his chin from face-planting while handcuffed. It’s not my fault.
2:30 p.m.: More convertible rides. Hauling them round and round a parking lot has made ME carsick.
3 p.m.: I really thought this experience would be about simple tasks: making PB&J sandwiches, tying shoelaces, and patting babes on the head. But it’s the mental side that’s draining. “Why do people shoot each other?” “How come you don’t marry Mommy?”
3:30 p.m.: Time to head to McDonald’s for the budgeting portion of the exam. I’m to feed the entire crew for $15 or less. Two Happy Meals, two Quarter Pounders, small fries (“SUPERSIZE IT!” chants Asa, but I hold firm), and it looks like I’m gonna be under budget—but it’s Cole, wanting to eat healthy, and his #7 Chicken Burger that breaks the bank. Total: $22.17.
4:30 p.m.: Julie thinks it would be a good idea for me to go shopping at QFC with the gang. We run roughshod down the aisles. A day ago, I would have been concerned “our” kids were bothering other folks in the store, slamming carts into their shins, putting their filthy hands on deli meats, tossing fruit, and hitting innocent bystanders. Now I don’t care. I buy two minutes of silence with a box of pink sugar cookies.
5 p.m.: Even though these kids are wonderful, affectionate, and good-natured, the thought of sitting in rush-hour traffic has never seemed so appealing. It takes me half an hour to slip out, as each child has a positively manipulative way of keeping me on the premises (“One more game of tetherball!” “Can I show you something?” “I just need you to help me find my pet slug. Please?”).
IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, I realize I had not studied for the exam. I had not read the primers on parenting, fostering self-esteem, disciplinary techniques, early childhood development, or management skills of the Third Reich. I hadn’t crammed Freud, Dr. Spock, or Betty Crocker. Most importantly, I hadn’t looked into the biggest case study of them all: my own upbringing. What did my folks do right? What improvements could have been made?
Like most exams, the test wasn’t fair. The kids weren’t mine, I observed five subjects simultaneously (as I understand it, they usually come one at a time), and the lab conditions—more sleep-over than reality—didn’t simulate normal behavior. Removing bias and emotion from my observations was also problematic. Perhaps a future partner’s desire for a child would overcome my longing for space, solitude, calm, order, financial stability, and personal freedom. Other variables might also alter the basic equation (winning the lotto, maturity, an offer from Pamela Anderson). But I doubt it.
Currently I am fruitful, but do not multiply. Without time for laundry, balancing the checkbook, or proper hygiene, throwing a rug rat into the mix might not be the best idea. I’m able to live—just barely—as a freelancer, scribing late into the evenings, smoking weed, sleeping in, rotating partners, and living a life that is all mine. The Father’s Day Test bolted my learning curve upright in a hurry. Given what I know, I’m not ready—or interested—in a passing grade.