My 2-year-old daughter is growing faster and stronger every day. Whenever I’m obliged to chase after her, I, like all older parents in similar moments, find myself wishing I had had children a long time ago. After all, I’m competing on the playground and in the daycare parking lot with other first-time fathers who are more than 15 years younger on average. Like all older fathers who’ve lost a step, I console myself with the notion that graying hair and stiff joints are merely the physical manifestations of greater wisdom and insight.
Unfortunately, I don’t have anything profound to offer yet. But while I wait for wisdom and insight to flow to me like the special deals on Viagra in my spam folder, I can offer a reminiscence about an insight lost to all who become parents: Our kids can be very annoying to other people. And the otherwise sensible parents of annoying children are often completely and sincerely oblivious of this fact. It’s like perfectly normal people have children and then drink some sort of Kool-Aid, which makes it impossible for them to understand why allowing their kids to, say, go into your kitchen and start running their filthy hands through your food could be annoying.
In my mid-20s I was thoroughly traumatized by a toddler on a transatlantic flight, an experience so awful that I resolved, long before the prospect of fatherhood even appealed to me, I would never become that type of parent. On the flight in question, I was literally jolted awake by a toddler enthusiastically kicking the back of my seat. I tried to wait it out, but 30 minutes or so later the toddler escalated by punching the top of my headrest and, as collateral damage, my head. Being thoroughly annoyed, I turned around in my seat to cast a baleful glance at my tormenter. I was greeted by a smiley German boy who seemed absolutely delighted to have gotten my attention and who proceeded to kick and punch my seat with renewed enthusiasm as soon as I turned back around.
Incredulous, I tried again, this time redirecting my scowl to the boy’s parents who deflected my glower with smiles so sweet and blissful that it honestly occurred to me they might not be getting enough oxygen. No, the doting parents were merely happy—happy for me—that I would get to share in the enjoyment of the beauty and perfection that was their child. After a lengthy interval with no let-up in the barrage against my seat back, I turned around a third time and tried to talk to the parents but they were either too high on parenthood or didn’t speak a word of English. After a while, I gave up.
I didn’t get it. The parents seemed like nice, well-meaning people. A scowl should be able to transcend language barriers as the universal sign for annoyance. Experiencing similar—but not nearly as acute—frustrations in the years since, I gradually realized there is an enormous gulf that separates doting parents of small children from everyone else in the world. When our turn came, my wife and I swore we would never be that kind of parent.
We took the promise seriously. We don’t attempt to take our daughter to plays or movies or lectures. We’re pretty good about restaurants, avoiding closed spaces that amplify crying, taking her outside if she’s crying or being too rambunctious, and tipping extra to try to offset the inevitable mess we leave behind.
The first big breakdown occurred just shy of my daughter’s first birthday when she screamed and cried inconsolably for half of an hour-long flight. The guy in front of us turned around to give a world-weary look of disgust while I muttered inadequate apologies all around. The crying was followed by the meet-and-greet portion of the flight in which my daughter insisted on getting the individual attention of everyone sitting nearby. As we made our way through the airport I was thinking how lucky we were to have not yet been accosted by angry fellow passengers when I overheard my wife say into her cellphone, “The flight went very well! She was great! People turned around to see her because she looked really cute in the way she was connecting with people on the plane. Everyone loved her!” I knew then that my wife had drunk the Kool-Aid, and I was on my own.
I maintained my stubborn attempt at being a sensitive parent for almost another year. But just a couple of weeks ago while sipping my first cup of Kool-Aid—er, coffee—at Charlottesville City Market I noticed a father pulling his three children in a train-like stroller through a large crowd of clearly displeased shoppers and I had an epiphany: I’d been worrying too much—just because other parents and children could be very annoying, that didn’t mean anything about me and my daughter. My wife was right: Everyone loves her!
While our own stroller is larger than many European cars and might appear at first glance to be a bit too large to be pushed through a large number of people confined to very narrow corridors, I realized that the grim-faced early morning shoppers who impatiently maneuvered around us just hadn’t yet benefited from the sight of my daughter in her adorable flowery (reversible!) hat (from France!) or new bunny-themed socks. Seeing her, obviously, would cheer them right up. As a public service, I pulled back the top of the stroller so everyone could get a better look. I noticed then that my daughter was wearing a shirt full of kale that she had managed to pull from the adjacent vendor stall. I chuckled at her delightful antics and took a big swig of my coffee-flavored Kool-Aid. I couldn’t quite hear what the vendor was yelling to me from the back of her stall, but she was probably upset because she was too far away to get a good view of my perfect daughter in this perfectly delightful moment. Unfortunately, we had to press on—the next vendor had a large display of baked goods that needed a baby’s saliva-soaked touch.