Fantasy: A communal gathering in front of a lovingly prepared meal. On each plate, a rainbow of hues. The kids explore new flavors. Fresh veggies, sturdy grains, meat killed in a prayerful way by a hunter who is a family friend and Level 5 Druid. Witty banter all around. Your eldest speaks in funny profundities. And clap for baby: she’s starting to feed herself!
Reality: Calling this “eating” is not accurate. It’s more like jamming globs of sustenance as a timer ticks down the minutes. Oh wait, that’s no timer, that’s baby tapping and then launching a spoon. The mac n’ cheese is low-key harmful — you read that in the Times. The meat is dinosaur-shaped. Blowing on hot food helps you from hyperventilating a little. Talk is fragmented, like a dropped call. Various screens play unboxing videos. Baby is on someone’s lap or the floor. Let’s face it: a lot of things are on the floor.
Fantasy: A warm, steamy lovefest. Giggles and sudsy beards. One of the most intimate bonding experiences known to parenting. Germs are being eradicated, butts thoroughly scrubbed. Dr. Spock smiles from the heavens. Your eldest isn’t afraid of shampoo anymore. As for baby, you do not think of the ending of Rabbit, Run. Not for one second. This bath is one hundred percent safe.
Reality: The kids sip bathwater like you sip wine. Your pants are damp. Don’t squirt that dolphin outside the tub. Not at baby. Not in her eyes… not in her eyes! Looking up from your phone, you realize one kid dunked the other for a second and now you’re googling dry drowning. Which you didn’t even know was a thing until you watched The Affair, that fucking show. Despite the NO TEARS label, your eldest cries, pulling at his foreskin in a disturbing way.
Fantasy: Rapt gazes. Favorite tales. Cuddles. Developing neurons firing with primordial narrative delight. Reading now will get them into Harvard later. From the aesthetic questions raised by Harold and the Purple Crayon to the metaphysical lull of Goodnight, Moon, classic children’s books deliver pure pleasure for both adult and child. And let’s not forget the trove of modern classics. Who couldn’t love Dragons Love Tacos? What a delight when the kids memorize passages and recite them in their adorable consonant-challenged voices. Goodbye, omnipresent screens. This family going on a shared imaginative adventure where the printed page is still king!
Reality: You’re eyeing the clock harder than Bill Belichick, and your sweatsuit looks just as ragged. Your eldest paces in and out of the room, demanding more milk. An aunt bought a cartoon tie-in book that is really too long for their age group and you’re speed reading the thing, skimming so hard the text is starting to go postmodern. Plus the book has a sticker pack and the kids are really more into sticking them on your face. You rest on the floor for a moment, let someone else drive this train. Your mind wanders. Does Dragons Love Tacos teach the right message? Or is it fundamentally about food aversion? Did the bigger fish eat the smaller one at the end of This is Not My Hat? Is Sandra Boynton rich from the Pookie series? You’ve had several ideas for kid’s books. How badass would it be make money by writing kid’s books. Pretty badass, you think, lying there on the floor until your eldest sits on your head and pretends to fart on you.
Fantasy: Ah, sleep itself. As essential to mankind as water. Baby “blows out” the light, her precious little body settling into repose. The swaddle blanket is tucked in a way that would impress Japanese origami masters. Your eldest shuts his eyes without a fuss, says some mind-blowingly cute thing about some robot dinosaur he’s going to paint in the morning. The sound machine swishes, the nightlight comforts. Your throat catches as you stop at the doorway, your heart brimming with love. You created these fascinating beings! And now you get an hour or so to yourself. To relax with your spouse. To unwind and watch a show or read a book, the reward at the end of a well-lived day.
Reality: Baby acts as if you laid her on a bed of hot coals. Five months into sleep training, and nothing has worked. Ferber makes you feel like a weirdo, sitting there silently while she wails and wails. Cry it out broke your soul. Once baby finally goes down, you tiptoe backwards out of the room, playing Twister with the floorboards, avoiding creaks at all costs. Your breasts feel numb, tweaked. Your eldest wants you to sing one more “la la.” When you go in for a kiss, he pulls the cover over his head, giggling, and you’re hit with this thought: I will never fully know you. The lovely mystery of the moment is shattered when he squeals that you closed his door too much. You adjust it. You clean some things but not all the things because that would be impossible. In the living room, you doze to peak TV. Once nestled in your own bed, you turn off the light, giving your spouse a halfhearted cuddle. And just when you’re about to fall asleep, timed perfectly to that exact moment when brain waves begin to slow, the cries begin anew.