You can't always be a good parent, and right now I'm not being a good parent. I'm not actively being a bad parent; I'm just not actively being a good parent, either.
Two days ago, while we were watching some show upstairs, probably marveling at how HD has allowed us to see Ryan Seacrest's pores where once he was a smooth swatch of flawless skin, the Jawa emerged from his room, stood in front of the TV, grabbed the remote and hit "mute."
Snapped out of our HD-generated bliss, Sandra Bullock and I flew into a cojoined rage. "Hey!" we said, in unison. "What are you doing?"
"Okay," said the take-charge Jawa. I just read an article that said that children of depressed parents are more likely to end up abusing drugs and alcohol as adults."
We waited for the punch line.
"So when you start yelling at me, that shows you're depressed."
"Which might lead to you abusing drugs and alcohol as an adult?"
First of all, you've got to admire the logic. Its direct applicability to our particular situation was a little murkier. Given that the Jawa had a full head of steam (he wouldn't have muted the TV had he not. If he'd had only a half-full head of steam, he would have stayed in his room listening to Jay-Z, perhaps cursing us under his breath but keeping it in-house), we had to consider his point of view.
If I had been a better father, the kind of man who began his career as a parent by stroking his wife's hair and murmuring, "You're doing great, honey; I'm so proud of you," during labor, I might have turned off the TV and used this as a teaching moment. You are heard, child. We will respond.
Conversely, I could have been a worse father, yelling, "Get out form in front of the TV!" calling forth the challenges and frustrations of the day to use as rationale for choosing Seacrest over my child. If I were one of either of these parents, I wouldn't be writing about it several days later. The incident would have passed, I would have been satisfied with our response, whichever it was, and forgotten about it immediately.
There is a third way, in which you dismiss your child, then, in the space of five seconds, remember that you're supposed to be using this as a teaching moment, so engage your child, hopefully soon enough that the teaching moment has not passed.
Surely, it must be pointed out that yelling at your child may not be a telltale sign of depression, and in fact that severe depression might as easily lead to total withdrawal from your child, marked by the total absence of yelling. So, too, could you emphasize that regardless of the condition of the parent, the child can still have the strength to avoid drug and alcohol abuse. Finally, the child might also be reminded that any yelling he is absorbing might be at least partially the result of his own aberrant behavoir.
Naturally, I chose the last option.
"So," I said. "Do you think a parent must be depressed to, say, yell at their kid for having a messy room?"
Jawa: (very small voice) "No."
"And the other morning, when you told me all I do is yell at you, and I responded by asking if you would have cleaned up your room had I not yelled at you, would you have cleaned up your room without me yelling at you?"
Jawa: (smiling now) "No."
"Alright, then. Turn the TV back on."
But there is something to what he was saying. Though his example was extreme, there are moments when your own baggage is heavy enough that you would collapse under any added parental weight. You had a bad and/or overwhelming day at work. A disagreement with someone you know that you could have nipped in the bud before it got out of hand. You made the mistake of reading the San Francisco Bay Guardian and are convinced that the world stridently makes no sense. You were trapped in a cloud of patchouli on BART.
Today, I had such a day, and so, left on my own with the Jawa while Sandra Bullock attended the 21st century version of a Tupperware party, where a bunch of people get together to buy jewelry from undiscovered designers, chose to bury myself under the white noise of the NCAA Tournament rather than engage with my child. He placed himself in front of the electronic babysitter, nee Roller Coaster Tycoon III, and without complaint went to work creating a virtual theme park.
He must have called on his supernatural pre-teen perception powers when putting together his action plan for the evening. Because even though I've been doing my best to appear chipper and perky, he's been bending over backwards to behave like the greatest child to ever walk the earth. His mind is working furiously and obviously to create connections between us, whether that means enthusiastically showing me his virtual theme park (and pointing out the rides that would make me sick) or checking with me every five minutes to make sure I'm enjoying the On Demand episode of "Mythbusters" that we're now watching together.
So even though I'm not up to the task of battling the world and then being an available parent, the Jawa, fresh off several hours of acting as ringleader/supervisor of the half-dozen little kids on the block while his parents stood nearby downing Margaritas, has decided that part of his evening's responsibilities include trying to cheer up his dad, who isn't much cheerier but at least is reminded of what author Kelly Corrigan refers to as "the most devine gift of your life."
"Because the divine gift has not brushed their teeth, and they just lost their retainer, and they only have one of their two shoes," says Corrigan, who wrote her new book, "Lift," so her daughters would have a record of what it was like to be their mother> According to Kelly Corrigan, remembering the divinity of that gift is "the hard thing about parenting."
I'll need that reminder at about 7:45 on Monday. For tonight, I'm good.