Father-of-the-Year! (Won’t Be Me…)

So today’s been fine. Up until nap time. Jon fell asleep early and then woke up a couple of times crying for Rachel. Considering I was really hoping for a small nap myself, I was not the least bit happy with his sudden onset of “mommy-sickness.” I found myself grumbling as I rocked him, and had to remind myself to not be a full-blown jerk to a 2 year-old boy who’s missing his mother. It was a tough conversation.

What added to the grumpiness was the fact that Ella decided that she didn’t want to be in her room today for quiet time. She wanted to watch a movie, even though I’d told her no. So she switched into The Negotiator mode, and began bargaining. I shut her down faster than a barbecued hamster stand. This did not please my strong-willed daughter, who stomped into her pink-quarium and flopped onto the floor like a British soccer player. I told her to stay in her room while I took a nap, and everything was fine, until I made the fatal mistake that only rookie parents make:

I told her I would get her up around 4:00.

For all of you first-time parents out there, here’s a tip – never give a kid a hard deadline for getting up. Sure, it sounds like a practical thing to do, setting expectations and communicating them clearly so the child understands and knows what is acceptable behavior. You’d think that would work.

But the problem is, kids don’t know certain things – like the concept of time. Life to them is just one big meatball rolling along at the breakneck pace of a glacier. I mean, never forget, when you’ve only been on the planet for 1,825 days (and change), a day still feels like a looooooong time. When you’re 35, a day is over in about a minute and a half, but when you’re five, you experience a day in the same way God does: it’s a thousand years long.

So I screwed up. I gave her a fixed time of release. And like all inmates, she began marking time in the only way she knew how: coming and asking me how much longer she would have to rest. Now, I’ll give her credit – the first three asks were spaced well apart at 6-8 minute intervals and she wasn’t whiny at all. Just curious about the time. But the 347 follow-up queries were what got my blood boiling. Not that she was curious to know when she could get up; containing Ella’s curiosity is like trying to curb the Federal deficit – sounds good in theory but is a mess to deal with in practice. What got my goat and tied it to the fence was her insistence – INSISTENCE – on leaving her room to ask me.

You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? What’d you want her to do, yell and wake up the baby? She’s just being a good sister.”

And you’re right – she was doing what she thought was best in approaching me privately rather than bellowing down the hall and setting Jon off. But it misses the point.

The point is, after making my mistake and realizing what I’d set in motion, I further clarified for her the rules of engagement: go to room; play quietly until daddy comes for you; do not leave room unless it is on fire or a small rabid mammal attempts to gnaw through the sheetrock. So she knew that all I really wanted from her was for her to just stay in her room for a while and play, and that I would come get her.

She knew that.

And yet she chose to persistently leave her room and bug the living snot out of me. On principle.

“Principle!” you say. “You’re being ridiculous. She just wanted to know when she could get up.”

Nope, she wanted to bug me. I know.

“Why do you keep getting up and coming out of your room after I told you to stay there til I came and got you?” I asked.

“Because,” she said. “I wanted to you to just let me get up. And to watch a movie.”

See?

I got upset with her. I raised my voice (which, for me, means I was talking very, very sternly, like a mildly hemorrhoidal Ward Beaver) and sent her to her room with a look that would wither a diamond. She turned, sadly, and slinked back to her room, head low, shoulders sagging.

I felt like worm poo. Lower than worm poo, actually.

I knew in my heart that I’d only snapped at her because I wanted something and wasn’t getting it. And in so doing, I realized that we were behaving in the exact same way – only I’m old enough to know better. I felt my heart sizzle from the acid build-up in my stomach; hard core conviction does not sit well on the sinner’s belly. I tossed and turned on my bed. I got a text message from Rachel and snapped at her too (really, REALLY unwise. The reply text was vintage Rachel though. “Well. Excuse me.” And if you know my wife, you know exactly what tone and facial expression were attached to those words.). I got up. I putted around on the computer. I stared down the hall when I heard her singing sweetly to herself that, yes, Jesus loves me. Daddy, not so much.

I got up and went into her room. I laid down next to her and cradled her head in my arm. She immediately began sobbing, and I twiddled her hair. We talked, me explaining my frustration at not being able to rest, she explaining that she was just too excited about her itinerary (dinner, birthday party, sleepover with my parents) to rest. I was texting Rachel through all of this, and Ella asked me what I was typing.

“I’m telling Mommy about how you weren’t listening to me and kept getting up out of bed instead of resting.”

“Uh-oh,” she said. “I’m going to get ‘The Face’.”

Two seconds later my phone buzzes and it’s a picture text from Rachel, and Mommy is indeed giving Ella “The Face.” We laughed our butts off. I hugged her and told her how much I love her. She hugged me and told me she was ready for Mommy to come home.

That’s how we worked it out. With hugs and laughter and mutual understanding of needs. And now, we sit, me typing this blog, Ella getting to watch a movie on the couch, snacking on strawberries and asking me when it’s going to be time for us to leave.

In other words, exactly what she wanted in the first place. Another victory for The Negotiator.

And one more reason why I’m not winning any Father of the Year awards anytime soon.

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