I am not one of those guys who complains about the time he spends with his kids. I know many such men, and I don't know whether they truly mean it. Perhaps they just feel self-conscious about admitting that they enjoy playing with dolls and having tea parties and doing kids' stuff. Perhaps they think the social expectation is that they must always want to go out with their friends and drink beer and talk about football. I have no idea why those men do what they do and complain about the time they spend with their children. I only know that I am not one of them.
I enjoy playing with my daughter and spending time with her. I enjoy reading to her, listening to music with her, playing the guitar for her. I enjoy teaching her new things and going to the playground with her. When she watches a movie, I like to sit on the couch with her; and if the cartoon movies she likes to watch hold little interest for me, I always have a book or a guitar nearby to hold my attention while we sit together. Invariably, she scoots her way right up next to me and either lays her head on my lap or holds my hand while she watches.
The contentment I feel at times like these cannot properly be described, but I'm certain that every loving parent knows what I'm referring to. There is a deep sense of love and satisfaction that comes with being loved by your own children, and it's among the best feelings in the whole human experience.
Familiar and wonderful as it is, it still managed to sneak up on me and surprise me this past weekend.
My wife has been traveling for work the last couple of weeks, leaving me alone to care for our daughter. Even before she left, my wife had a long list of things she wanted to get done before she traveled, so she was working late and going to late work functions, which left me even more responsible for giving our child the care she needs. For about three weeks, I had to take over many of the childcare responsibilities my wife and I typically split, and for two of those weeks it was just my daughter and I at home.
We made it, of course. It was a bit mentally exhausting for me, mostly because I had to keep in my mind a lot of new things associated with the tasks my wife usually takes care of. There's also another dynamic at work. When an adult spends lots of time with children, and not a lot of time interacting with adults, that adult starts to feel an odd sort of lack. It's a little bit like loneliness, but not quite. Mostly it's an unmet emotional need. Children, after all, cannot be adults for us and cannot offer us the kind of interaction that we get from adults. That's just how it is.
At long last, my wife came home from all her traveling and we all had a relaxing day together. I had promised my daughter that, the following day, we would walk to where I could buy her a doughnut. It's a two-mile walk to get there, so four miles round-trip, and my daughter is only four years old. Four miles is a long way to walk for a four-year-old! But she was willing to do it in order to get her doughnut, so we did. We walked the two miles, got a doughnut (I got a cup of coffee), we sat and enjoyed our snack, and then we walked home again. We played with our shadows on during the walk home, and we picked dandelions and blew the seeds into the air. We even stopped at a playground and played for a while. We spent the whole morning outside in the sunshine, playing together, walking, having a doughnut, and finally made it back home.
When we got home, my wife and daughter went to a baby shower, leaving me home alone for the rest of the day. They hadn't been gone more than thirty minutes when my emotions overtook me.
For the first time in about three weeks, I had no present or future obligation to my daughter. We weren't playing together or doing chores together, I didn't need to give her a bath or drive her to school. I didn't need to soothe her and comfort her for missing her mother. She was fine -- otherwise occupied -- out of sight -- being cared for by her mother. I was home, alone. For the first time in three weeks, I wasn't with my daughter, physically or mentally.
Where many men may have felt relieved, or tired, or finally free to get something done, I just felt a big hole in my heart. I missed my daughter so much, after having spent so much time with her.
Well, I spent the remainder of the day occupied by some weekly chores and a book, but I wasn't good for much else the rest of the day. I shifted around absent-mindedly as I tried to take my mind off the hole that was left when my daughter went off to a baby shower with her mother.
Eventually they came home, of course, and all was right with the world again. But the moral of this story is that children create a space in a parent's life that wasn't there before, and when they go, even for an afternoon, the void left in that space is very obvious.
This is just one of the seldom-articulated and difficultly described ways that children change a person's life for the better.
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