Run, Daddy, Run

May 20, 2006 at 2:03 pm (Uncategorized)

There are days when I wish my son, Andrew, was more pliant. When I was pregnant with him, I had visions of our lives after he was born. I pictured myself typing away on my Pulitzer Prize-winning novel while Andrew happily lay in a wicker cradle at my feet, snoozing and chirping to himself.

I’ve heard that babies and toddlers like this exist. In fact, I’ve even seen some of these exotic creatures in their natural habitats. A while back, we went to dinner with people who had a three month-old son. This kid just sat in his bouncy chair while we ate, and then he sat some more. When Andrew was three months old, Jay and I resorted to wolfing our food down in shifts because Andrew treated his bouncy chair like it was a medieval torture rack. Same for his swing, his playpen, his crib, and pretty much anything else that confined him and allowed Jay or I to pay attention to something else.

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as parents so far is encouraging his mobility and verbal skills. Now he moves constantly while telling us exactly what we are doing wrong. For all you novice mothers and fathers, appreciate your child’s slug phase. It will pass, and someday you, too, will be cooking dinner and hear your little angel say, “Look, Mommy” (which Andrew only utters when he is engaged in something naughty), and you will turn around and see your child standing in the middle of the dining room table holding a fragile vase in one chubby fist.

The other major error we’ve committed is encouraging Andrew to do the things we love to do with us. In our pre-Andrew era – those halcyon days when getting up at 9:00 meant rising early – Jay and I spent a lot of time talking about what fabulous parents we would be. We would not have separate spheres for ourselves and our Hypothetical. If we went skiing, the Hypothetical would come along. If we hit the hiking trails, so would the Hypothetical. Same for traveling, cleaning the house, and all sorts of other things.

We’ve pretty much followed this plan for the past two years. We just got back from a family trip to Thailand. Andrew was an impressive traveler. He loved the seventeen hours of airplane time (perhaps because I gave him a new trinket every five minutes), navigated the streets of Bangkok like a pro, made friends wherever we went, and didn’t get sick once. My fondest memory of the trip is of Andrew sitting in the lap of a saffron-robed Buddhist monk at a remote, mountain monastery while the monk tied a prayer bracelet around Andrew’s wrist and cooed at him in Thai. Our son is also well-mannered at restaurants, thinks it is great fun to help me do yard work, is a good hiking companion, comes to get beer with us at the local tap room (as long as we let him stuff himself with popcorn), and likes nothing more than to sit on the counter and “help” me chop vegetables for dinner.

There are situations, though, where a two year old just gets in the way. Take the gym. It is simply not possible to watch a child and work out simultaneously. For Andrew’s entire life, Jay and I have been going to the gym separately, even though our health club provides free childcare. I have dropped him off at the gym daycare a few times in the past, but he picked up a virulent illness nearly every time. Since the prednisone I take leaves me with a severely compromised immune system, I too would get sick – and then sicker – within a couple of days. Since one joint workout could cost me a week of misery in bed, it was easier to juggle Andrew and go at different times.

But in Thailand, Jay and I realized how much we missed exercising together. Ever since the beginning of our relationship, we’ve hiked and skied, biked and stairmastered, taken spinning classes and kayaked, side by side. (I used to be able to kick his ass up and down the hills, by the way, but I’m trying to let that go. Really.) It’s not that we were fitness freaks (or not only, at any rate), but that we like sharing all aspects of our lives. We activate parts of ourselves out on the water or up on Mount Helena that are dormant during the routines of daily living. So we decided that my ridiculous illness has taken enough from us – like most of our money, vacation, and energy – and that it was time to stand up for ourselves.

Today, then, we made a childcare reservation for 10:00 and showed up with water bottles, headphones, and Andrew. Andrew knows that we go to the gym, and has even said, “one day, when I’m grown up, I’ll go to the gym, too.” Before we left this morning, we tried to hype what was ahead. “We’re all going to the gym together today, honey,” I said, my voice sliding up a few notes as it always does when I am trying to convince Andrew of something. “Won’t that be great?”

He strode into the daycare room with me on his heels. He was excited since he was finally getting to that mythical place, the gym, where exercise occurred. There was only one other kid there, a ten month old named Grace, and the facility had every imaginable toy truck and car, along with a three-story garage. I figured my little gear-head would think he had landed in paradise.

“OK, Andrew. I’m going to go get some exercise. I’ll be right out there, if you need me,” I said, pointing to the elliptical trainer five feet from the door. I should have just snuck out behind his back and gotten in five minutes next to Jay. But it always feels devious and cruel to just vanish on him.

His lip emerged, his voice quavered, and the water works began. “Noooooo, Mommy. Stay. Please.”

I know better than to reason with him, but I tried anyway. I would be right there. This was a kids-only room, so I wasn’t even allowed to hang out here. Look how nice the sitter is. Wow – check out that garage and that yellow taxi. He would have none of it. He shadowed me so closely, I could feel his hot breath on my calves. As long as I was sitting next to him, he was fine. The minute I even stood up, the crying began again. The worst aspect was how betrayed he looked. I could hear him thinking, “This is not what you promised.”

Jay took a turn back there with the same result. I tried again. We attempted to wait out the crying, but the sound of plaintive shrieking wasn’t enhancing anyone’s workout, including our own. “Geez, it sounds like they’re burning him with cigarettes back there,” the guy staffing the front desk said after a few minutes of this. It truly did.

“Enough,” Jay finally announced, and vanished back into kiddy-land. He reappeared with Andrew at his side. Now that we had taken him away from the inner circle of hell, the boy was fine, even chipper.

“I want to exercise,” Andrew said. Since the place was mostly empty and since, for a lawyer, Jay has a very nebulous sense of liability, Jay set Andrew up one treadmill while he started jogging on the other. I was directly behind Andrew on an elliptical trainer. Jay made Andrew’s treadmill go as slow as it could, but it was still a workout for our three-footer. He plodded along, his head barely reaching the handholds. His little sandals slapped against the machine. He was ecstatic. “Look at me, Mommy,” he shrieked. “I’m exercising.”

Andrew, being who he is, needed to oversee our workouts along with his own. “Don’t slip, Mommy,” he kept telling me, repeating the admonition his father had given him. When Jay slowed down to a walk, Andrew yelled, “Run, Daddy, Run.” Fortunately, our version was better than that pretentious German movie without dialogue. He stayed on the treadmill for a good fifteen minutes and then went off to “help” Jay do abs on the stability balls – which mainly involved kicking a giant blue ball into his father’s torso.

All told, Jay got in fifteen interrupted minutes of exercise – none of it next to me. When we returned home, I pondered our thwarted workout. A piece of me was disappointed that I didn’t get some time alone with my husband doing something we love. A piece of me was annoyed with my son, who seems to be more stubborn than Jay and I combined, and who can be thoroughly unhelpful when he sets his mind to it. A piece of me rebels against any situation that doesn’t resolve as perfectly as I have envisioned it.

The bottom line, though, is that we all had fun. I can’t blame (at least not too much) Andrew for not wanting to be stuck in some back room with a baby and a babysitter he’d never seen before, while we go off to engage in this mysterious concept of “exercise.” We’d told him this was an exercise outing, and he’s too smart to fall for ploys to convince him that his experience in the back was the same as ours up front. He is immensely strong-willed, and we’d promised him a trip to the gym, so he was going to get a trip to the gym, damn it.

I don’t think he necessarily views himself as a child, in the sense that he should inhabit a distinct sphere–a “kiddie zone”– that involves absurd cartoons, mediocre food, and adults talking to him like he’s an idiot. I’m not saying that he rules the roost. He listens to us and frequently obeys us, but he truly seems to see himself as an equal partner in our lives. In key ways, he reminds me of our beloved dog, Calypso, who is now residing at my parents’ ranch (story for another day there). Calypso never could acknowledge that she was a dog and we were humans, and that, as humans, we were entitled to do things like leave the house without her. This was an affront to Calypso’s sensibility, and she made this clear to us in ways that generally involved significant property damage. After years of dog training and expert advice, we just ended up taking the dog with us everywhere and you could see the relief in her eyes: “Finally, these morons got it.” There was a similar gleam in Andrew’s eyes today, when he wound up on the treadmill at last, exercising.

Our outing was a success in other ways as well. Too often, Jay and I let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If we can’t do something just the way we’ve always done it, then we might as well stay home and sulk. You’d think that after two years with a toddler (not to mention two years with a chronic illness, which constantly causes us to change our plans or just not make them in the first place), we’d have learned better. Maybe we’re slow on the uptake or maybe we’re just extra rigid. But something finally clicked in me today – sometimes it is just enough to show up to your life and leave the orchestrating for another day.

I have a difficult time with this. To say that I am a perfectionist is like pointing out that Joan of Arc was religious. The label just doesn’t catch the insane nuances. Unfortunately, the dark side of perfectionism isn’t that I accomplish a few things perfectly; it’s that I never finish a project because the results can never live up to my impossible standards. This has led me to delete entire drafts of college papers because the “words just won’t come our right.” It means I rarely clean my bathroom, because I’ll never be able to clean it thoroughly enough, and it used to mean that I shouldn’t even bother to start working out if I couldn’t complete at least 40 minutes in my zone. But apparently I’m getting better. Hopefully this personal growth won’t extend to include scrubbing my toilet.

We’re trying the whole daycare adventure again, by the way. But next time we’re going to use the branch of our gym that has the childcare room in the basement – far away from the workout machines and our ears. Andrew’s not the only stubborn one around here.

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