The single most difficult moment in parenting happens right after your kid draws the gingerbread man card in Candy Land. When my son was little he would sob uncontrollably, and I would have to spend my entire afternoon rocking him to calm him down. My daughter just screams and then sweeps everything off the board like she is Godzilla terrorizing a sleepy fishing village. I have considered removing that card, but then I feel like I would be cheating them of a valuable lesson. Also, it keeps me from dying of boredom while playing. As my kids near the candy castle, I wince each time they draw a new card, and then let out a sigh of relief when the card is a single orange square. When I draw the gingerbread man, I exaggerate how accepting I am of my fate. I shrug my shoulders and say that it is just part of the game, “Oh well. I can still catch up, or whatever, King Kandy is not really my type.” It is very similar to the way I act when someone dumps me. “I totally understand. Good decision. There are still a few good years left before I just give up, move to Florida, and become a crack whore.”
A similar parenting danger zone is when we play a game and I win. This happens all the time because I am smart and great at games. Also I am 39. When my son was little I took him to a child therapist because he was so competitive and would get crazy mad whenever he lost. She played a game of Uno with him while I watched. She let him win. “Oh,” I said.
When I was growing up my mom never let me win, and we weren’t playing games like Candy Land or Uno. We were playing Spades and Gin. She knew every card that had been played and what was still left in both of our hands. “You know the Ace hasn’t been played yet, right?” She would say. No, I did not know that because I was five. After my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I played a game of Gin Rummy with her and my mom. It was my mom’s idea, and I was not sure it was a great idea because my grandmother had spent most of the afternoon telling me to get the baby out of the bathtub, which was terrifying until I remembered we did not have a baby. My grandmother won, and then she lit a cigarette and fell asleep in her chair.
After you have survived watching your children deal with the pain of being a loser, everything else in parenting is easy, as long as you can get a good night’s sleep, which is never going to happen. Before you have a baby, people warn you about the sleep deprivation. I don’t blame them. It is sort of like if your friend survives climbing Mount Everest, and you mention that you are planning to attempt a similar quest, he doesn’t just say, “Meh. No biggie.” He shares his experience to prepare you for the physical and mental challenges. Maybe the impetus to share is based a little more on bragging than sincere concern for your well-being, and maybe he is a little bit of a condescending asshole, but he survived, and he earned it. However, what people do not tell you is that you may never actually sleep through the night again, the way someone who recently climbed Everest might not mention that there is not actually a bar with tank top wearing models serving ice cold Coors Light at the top.
Yes, sleeping with a newborn is tough, but as kids grow they just continually reach new milestones that interrupt your sleep. There is the crawling out of the crib stage, the bed-wetting stage, the scared of the dark phase, and then there is the stage after your kid learns about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, and she is too terrified to sleep, or you really slip in the parental control department and your kid watches The Hangover 2 and has nightmares about one crazy night in Bangkok. Then apparently there is the stage where you don’t sleep because your kid is out driving around doing all the things you definitely did while driving around as a teenager, and you question how you could get that lucky twice.
In my house, we are currently in the nightmares and fear of abandonment stage. Earlier this week both my kids were in my bed in the middle of the night, like a couple of 50-pound newborn babies. My son had a bad dream. He said, “You know the conductor from Dinosaur Train?”
“Say no more,” I said.
My daughter whimpered in the background, “I can only sleep if I am with someone.”
“Say no more.”
I led them back to their rooms and spent time passed out in each of their beds. We all switched places multiple times, our three paths crossing up and down the hall like our own little disoriented trail of tears—mainly mine. Finally, as my daughter stood in the hallway holding her blanket, sucking her thumb, I just got up and shut my door. In her face. I found her the next morning in her brother’s room. There will come a time when I am no longer around, and they will have to take care of each other, and maybe that time is 3 a.m.
The next day I was tired, but that is just the parenting new normal. Maybe we will get through this stage soon, but there is just another one gearing up right behind it. I remember when my daughter used to bite people, mainly adorable little babies. She would grab their cheeks and then just go in for the kill. When she was in preschool they moved her up to an older age group class because those kids were better able to defend themselves. I told everyone she was just really advanced. I tried a lot of different methods to get her to stop: I removed her from the situation, I bit her back, and then I even resorted to something I like to call “deliberate ignoring.” This is my favorite style of parenting where I just pretend like nothing is happening. I like to think that it keeps the kids from getting attention from bad behavior, but also I am pretty lazy. Eventually she stopped biting, and we moved into a new difficult phase. I know that eventually my kids will not care about winning Candy Land. They will move onto bigger and better games, and it will be even more exhilarating for me when I win.