There’s an episode of the”The Wonder Years” which focuses on the hour after Kevin’s father arrives home.
The gist is, the family never knows what it’s going to get. Sometimes dad comes home chipper, ready to talk to the family, sometimes he comes home angry – he might grunt on the way through the door to his wife and kids. But ultimately, he pours himself a stiff drink, grabs something to read and retires to a chair where it’s clear he’s to be left alone.
The only hint Kevin, Norma and the kids have as to which dad will walk through the front door is the manner in which the car approaches, and the way he carries himself when he walks up the driveway.
My family doesn’t even have that luxury; our driveway is too short – to either alter the manner in which you pull into it, or to give anyone who might be peering through the windows a clue as to how you’re feeling.
So Heidi, I’m guessing, has to guess. I know that sometimes she warns the kids – dad’s had a long day; he might be tired; give him space when he comes home.
It dawned on me recently that this takes place quite often; that I’ve now become the dad whose mood is unpredictable.
How the hell did I get here? Where did this come from?
After some long solitary hours in the car this morning, I think I’ve found the answer.
I’m a whiny bitch.
* * *
This whole idea that we have numerous sides of ourselves; that we take on different personalities dependent upon the situation is no great revelation. You don’t behave the same way in a job interview as you do belled-up to the bar with you best pal.
But home life is something completely different. Home life strips you down to your rawest form.
The people who inhabit your home – your spouse, your children – they know you. There’s no hiding from them.
So there’s no point in playing the shell game. No point in putting up some facade they’ll be able to see right through.
So you – or, at least I, anyway- roll through the door with it all there on the surface. Pissed about the day? Not looking forward to tomorrow? Feeling tired? Or stressed? Or anxious?
Oh, emotions, how many ways can you manifest yourself?
Thinly-veiled barbs at Heidi? Check.
Irrational reactions to minor infractions by the children? Check.
Sullen retreat to the computer to do more work and answer one of the hundreds of e-mails that have piled up? Sure. Why not?
The thing that I struggle with most is: Where does this come from?
Any statistician or mathematician could tell you: my life is easy when looked at on a global scale. I make magazines for a living. I live in a squarely middle-class neighborhood with my bills paid and a roof over my head. My wife loves me. My kids are awesome. My social life includes a rich tapestry of friends and opportunities.
I don’t face the imminent threat of war, or of death. I’m not battling a major disease. I have time for leisure.
The only thing I know for sure is that these mood swings aren’t really fair. Not to the kids. Not to Heidi. Hell, not to me.
Sometimes, in moments of reflection, I look in the mirror and I imagine I’m Bones, aboard to Starship Enterprise, grabbing my ego – which conveniently, for illustration purposes, we will name Jim.
And to Jim, I say, “Get a hold of yourself, man. You’re the captain.”
* * *
I know where all this comes from. All this whiny-ness.
And if one is to have honest communication with their readers, they might as well lay it on the line. Regardless of how embarrassing, or petty, or silly it seems.
It’s the weight.
The weight of responsibility.
The weight of knowing that four mouths depend on me for food, four bodies depend on me for shelter.
It’s the knowledge that there is no conceivable way – at least not in my mind – of throwing your hands up in the air and saying, “Ah, screw it,” and packing up your bags and heading off to London or Cairo or some other far-flung place to write in cafes and get drunk watching bull fights (what up, Hemingway?).
I can see how people – many people, in fact – would view marriage and family as a trap. Because let’s not mince words, marriage and family are a trap.
If one is to be a devoted spouse, if one is to be a devoted mother or father, they must stay in one place – not physically (families certainly move and parents change jobs all the time), but most certainly spiritually.
Decisions must take an entire unit into account; and certain options are locked away. There are doors you can’t go through once you make this choice.
In this regard, the decision to enter into a marriage or have a family are not unlike many other decisions we make. The decision to serve in the military, for example, or to be a first-responder. When you take on those careers, you realize that you will be forced – at some point – to make a decision that might be for the benefit of others and not necessarily yourself.
But here’s the other thing: when you make those career choices, typically, you do so because it’s important to you. It speaks to something about your character – that desire to help others.
So let’s be clear, even if we were to say, speaking purely in terms of definition, that marriage and family are a “trap”, they’re a trap I very much wish to be in; they’re a trap I voluntarily placed myself inside.
My wife and children are the single most important thing in my life. I want them to be safe and healthy and well fed.
And because of that I work.
But, of course, it’s that very work that keeps me away for long periods of time from the things I love most – my wife and kids. It’s that very work that often drives my post-shift mood swings.
Can you see how maddening this cycle is?
We work hard so we can give our families the things they need and deserve; but our work complicates or relationships and strips away our time.
Oh, life’s dilemmas, “You spin me right round, baby/Right round like a record, baby/Right round, round, round”
* * *
There’s something I love about the wisdom of older people. Most of the older people in my life – their wisdom hasn’t come from some great one-liner like it does in the movies. They don’t kick back in their rocking chair, look up from their knitting needles and say, “Ed, you gotta’ focus on the things that matter.”
Instead, they tell you stories. And through the stories you come to realize the things that – with years of perspective – are important to them. Grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles rarely tell you about the condition of their roof while their kids were in high school, or how this one guy in 1987 was driving 35 in a 45 on Priest Drive and they were late to work by 2 minutes and their bossed reamed them out and it ruined their day.
They might tell you things were tough; but mostly they tell stories about the little things that happened simply because they were there: present with their family and in the moment: When dad ripped his pants right down the middle at his first baseball game or how your uncle and your father almost blew each other up when they got into some chemical samples grandpa had brought home from work.
That’s not to belittle all the important things that we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about – like shelter and food and bills. Psychologists will tell you older people don’t tell you stories about those things precisely because they spent so much time worrying about them; we remember, recount and retell the exceptional, rare things in our lives.
But it also serves as a reminder to me that I’ve got to do a better job of putting the whiny away; so that the memorable moments in my life don’t only come during vacations, but during average Wednesdays after work.
To be blunt – and to take the advice my mother has given me many times – I need to get over myself.
“Get over yourself” is sooooo your mother! Wise woman!