Trust me, it gets better.
My wife took Brigid to the doctor this afternoon and bad news came back. Chicken Pox! Yeah, I know, you plan for it; you pray for it ("... better to get it when you’re young ..."); you even get philosophical about it ("... everyone’s got to go through it ..."). But when it comes your heart beats a bit faster and your stomach does a little flip. Maybe, if you’re clean shaven, a bead of sweat will appear on your upper lip. You’re facing sleepless nights, oatmeal baths and calamine lotion.
By day six or seven (or twelve or eighteen – we’ve got three kids, after all, and who knows how they’re going to stagger their incubation times), I can see a pretty hairy situation. You can’t even take them to McDonald’s when they’ve got Chicken Pox.
Still, it’s not the worst.
Along with the diagnosis, my wife brought back a tale from the doctor’s office. The doctor’s husband, it turns out, is a Stay-at-Home Dad.
"Really?" I say. That’s me, always probing, always delving.
"Yeah," says my wife, "But he’s having a really hard time."
"How old is their kid?" I ask.
Involuntarily, I shuddered. I hoped my wife didn’t notice.
"What was that?" asks my wife.
"That ... shudder?"
"You are nuts. I didn’t shudder."
"Hm." Then she says, "Their daughter is fifteen months old."
I shudder. Undeniably. Irrevocably. Not some little, ickie-tasting-medicine shiver, but a full, butt-to-hairline, arctic chill, hair-standing-on-end, goose-walking-over-your-grave shudder.
I know everyone in the child-rearing dodge has got different strengths and weaknesses. They each respond to the various stages of child development differently. For example, I know a guy who is, emphatically, "not an infant person." And I know a guy who insists that the Pre-Crawling Era was the only time in his life when God, as they say, was in His Heaven and all was right with the world.
But fifteen months ...
I can always tell the guy who’s got fifteen month olds in his house. Most obvious is the rabbit-in-the-headlights cast to his face. He’s tired in an epic sort of way. Beyond the sleep deprivation of zero to six months, fifteen months plays his last nerve like a scratchy bow on rusty fiddle strings. He can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because he is flat on his psychological back. If you ask him how he’s doing he’ll either tell you, "Oh, fine" in an empty sort of way, or he’ll tell you the Truth, and it will ruin your day. If you are stupid enough to tell him, "Don’t worry, it will get better." He will say, with an edge, "I know it gets better!" Then he’ll give you a withering stare that is the least of what you deserve.
How can one describe the turmoil of being utterly responsible for some little person who seems utterly determined to utterly destroy both herself and her environment? Fifteen month olds aren’t "children" or "little people" – they’re forces of nature, and I don’t mean nature in the sense of Sierra Club calendars and gift shop ceramics. I mean nature like earthquakes or hurricanes. The same gods who gave us mud slides, tornadoes, flash floods and forest fires gave us the fifteen month old.
I remember when the twins, Brigid and Emma, were fifteen months (I’ve almost succeeded in blacking it out, but not quite). I would watch them the way I used to watch lightning storms or National Geographic specials about volcanos or some such. I was mesmerized by their ability to turn "child proofing" into a sad joke. Mind you, they were very evenhanded in their mayhem. They were just as willing to destroy themselves, each other, their brother, the cats, our car, the foundation to the house ... you name it. Like two little tectonic plates shifting through the house, they rolled over everything that got in their way.
In a way, it was quite wonderful. It really is fascinating. But when it’s your job, and your job alone, to stem this tide, to make something developmentally positive out of it, to try and work it so that, perhaps by the time they leave college, it will become a force for good – well, exhaustion is just the start of it.
I love my kids. Yup, I do. But fifteen Months is, to me, the empirical proof of the commonplace that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Before fifteen months, you are still a New Parent, afterwards, count yourself a blooded veteran (grizzled veterans are parents who make it through adolescence).
So I think I’ll call this doctor’s husband. I don’t know what I’ll say, though I know what I won’t say. It will get better ... but he doesn’t have to hear it from me.