Rebelle Harmony chases after her giant stuffed owl, Hedwig. She returns, pitter-pattering bare feet on the wood. I hoot several times and then toss the plush white bird into the kitchen. The 18 month-old runs after it with glee. This after I’ve been inundated with Elmo, Big Bird, Snuffy, Big Panda, Emilio kitty, and Excuse Me, Penguin. I’m a human pile of soft stuff with bright colors and eyes. Sometimes this happens immediately after the morning ritual. Pick up my daughter and sing her the ABC song while calming her from her crib-imprisoned fuss. Let the dogs out. Feed the dogs. Make the coffee. Warm the milk. Change the diaper. Use the bathroom myself. Sit down and give her the warm milk while listening to the BBC News and then NPR news. The couch-milk-wake-up time used to last for twenty glorious minutes. Now it’s about five. I’m holding several stuffed animals by about ten minutes in. Fortunately, today we waited until 7:30. The rain helps.
We’ve been outside for the last hour. The older dog, Boumie, digs in the mud while JoJo, the younger one, sniffs for worms but keeps her little paws out of the soggy flora. The toddler and I rake leaves into piles. Or should I say I rake and she stomps through them. At one point, the mud surprises her and she lands stomach down, splayed out, one hand up in the air cinematically frozen, as if for effect. She’s become sure-footed within the last few months, but the slimy mud took her out. Thankfully, she didn’t lose it. I helped her up and wiped the mud off her hands.
It was a moment that might have caused a pang of frustration, or had a domino effect on my temperament, on another morning. If I’m not cleaning up after the dogs and the yard and the endless small items that get tossed around throughout the day, it’s the piles of dishes, the tower of over-stuffed recycling to compact, or the trash. A domestic life means cleaning up. If you’ve ever lived in a shared college dorm, or with single men under the age of 35, or if you grew up in a messy home, you understand how an unclean place can wear a person down. I grew up in an obsessively clean home, which causes its own neuroses.
Clutter slowly eats away at sanity. Those who demand control at all times struggle to handle the disorder of life. Sometimes they become minimalists, living with white walls and few noticeable objects, except for conceptual art, sculptures or the like. A family life means accepting some level of disorder, unless you’re bound to develop your own. I can’t imagine how great the need for order must be among households with three or four kids. Some of my adult students grew up with eight or nine siblings. My guess is they were called in for dinner. To point out the obvious, rural life is much different than urban or suburban life. Psychologists are concerned about modern parenting patterns for various reasons but a significant one is a child’s freedom to explore. Exploring is messy and requires a parent to let out a longer leash.
In the last year, I’ve had some serious issues dealing with the chaos of it all. The need for quiet at nap time turns the frequent Keeshond bark into a jarring, rage-inducing alarm. The need for sleep becomes desperate and difficult in the late afternoon when dealing with the prospect of teaching an evening class Monday to Thursday. We balance the parenting life with tag-team efficiency while Natasha works her demanding job and I head off for school at six. We squeeze in time for the park, stroller walks, and dinner in the late afternoons. Winter means early sunsets. Except for occasional visits, we don’t have family help. We don’t have a full-time nanny, or a landscaper, or a house cleaner, but to complain about any of these facts would make me ungrateful and entitled.
This is the paradox of parenting. We aren’t supposed to be honest about how hard it is. We’re supposed to “love every moment,” and see rainbows where others see storm clouds. I am not complaining, only contextualizing. We sing about rainbows, after bath time, but we don’t conjure them or ignore the majesty of the actual storm clouds that sometimes gather.
This last year has been the most important of my adult life. I love nurturing, teaching, singing, guiding, and generally goofing around with my daughter. Her giggle is pure and contagious. I love watching her with her mama, as they read, play, laugh, and learn together. At the same time, the cost to our relationship is real. At times, I’ve gotten short-fused, irritable, and unbalanced, not zooming out enough to see how my exhaustion affects my behavior. Switching from various modes is tricky. When Natasha comes home, I’ve had to learn how to step back, but maintain support. When the vast majority of our time at home is spent juggling the needs of our daughter and dogs, it often clouds the relationship.
We try to keep in mind that this is all temporary and we acknowledge each other as often as we can. We decided years ago to try and have one biological child and now that she’s here, we are devoting ourselves fully to this universe. I realize this is a modern privilege: the choice to have a baby, and share all the duties, when you are as ready as possible for all that comes with it. Nobody’s ever actually ready, but the best preparation is multi-layered: emotional, physical, mental, and of course, financial. And actually wading in to the everyday life of parenting challenges all of those aspects.
Back to our muddy morning. Finally, it was time for ecstatic ball-chasing in the driveway (he usually gets the outfield grass before dinner). Rebelle becomes equally enthralled as he wags his tail and barks. JoJo won’t chase the ball on her own, but is an instinctive cornerback, clutching and grabbing at Boumie as he attempts to receive. In order not get muddy boots all over me while holding my daughter, and in order for her not to get throttled in the stampede of gray fur, I removed her little black boots. I take off her socks and let her feel the wet concrete under her toes. After ten minutes, we’ve gotten some of the crazy out of the fur beasts.
We walk back inside to the warmth of the kitchen. I soap little hands that are suddenly less baby-like and more kid-like. One at a time, under the faucet at the sink. She giggles when I move on to the bottoms of her feet.
Hedwig the stuffed owl goes on one last flight, while Boumie humps a soft gray pillow.
Jonah Hall lives in California. He’s written a collection of poems on the first year of fatherhood. On Twitter @darkoindex