Tuesday, March 9, 2010

165 days to Bar Mitzvah: the patience of a saint

Unlike hunting, fishing, holding a public event or, notably operating any kind of vehicle on a road or in airspace, you don't need a license to become a parent. Anyone with the proper equipment can do it, and does.

For the purposes of this argument, I'm not talking about teenage parents, those frightening girls we see on PBS documentaries directed by Rory Kennedy, living in trailers and accumulating offspring the way others collect curios or stamps. No one that I know was completely prepared for the paradigm shift the day their first kid arrived. It took awhile, and for some people, the role of "parent" just never took.

Which carries with it an unusual kind of guilt. Those of us who don't live in trailers surrounded by kudzu, or on the 11th floor of Cabrini-Green just sort of assumed that we were cut out to be parents. The more arrogant of us figured that it was our responsiblity, since "they" were going ahead and having little broods of their own. What other way was there to preserve an environment of culture than to fight back by procreating?

For us, pregnancy came as the result of a concerted effort. Some were lucky (like us, for whom three weeks of "trying" produced a Jawa, with the great upside being that we never had to walk around telling people we were "trying." It just happened.), while others depended on science to help move along the process.

One thing we knew was that we would be good parents. Lord knew we'd prepared enough. We spent the run-up months haunting IKEA, buying nursery furniture and reading "What to Expect When You're Expecting." We attended Lamaze and breast-feeding classes, even when we were the only prospective father there and had tickets for the Mariners game that day.

We toured the new maternity ward at Swedish Hospital, just down the street, whiled away afternoons at Baby GAP, got our beeper (in those pre-cell phone days, the beeper would alert the father if labor had begun) and settled in.

There's one key component to being a parent that you can't buy, however. It's just as available to the girls in the trailers as it is to the eighteen year-old college freshmen whose life, as they know it, has ended, and to the thirty year-old, two-income professionals who spent last Saturday painting the nursery. It's patience, and if they ever do require a license to parent, 75% of the questions on the written test should determine whether you have any. Because once you've had your kid, it's too late.

There are many ways a child can test his parents' patience. One is by misbehaving. It's the obvious test and perhaps the easiest for parents. After all, who can blame you for losing your patience with a misbehaving child? They are a test, aren't they?

But what about the times when you think if you hear "Hey, Dad?" one more time you'll jump out of your skin? What about when you ask your child to pick the clothes up off his floor and he picks up everything except one sock? Surely, you should be able to handle those situations with poise. They're everyday occurances. If you can't handle that, well...

Like my father before me, I have an erratic relationship with patience. Under the correct circumstances, I can be very patient. I can easily provide answers to life's big questions, taking the time to craft lucid explanations, welcoming questions and, as I learned while getting my (unused) Masters in Education, checking for understanding.

Unfortunately, when my patience goes, it goes all at once and without warning. So while the tenth "Hey, Dad?" may elicit a pleasant response, the eleventh might bring down thunder worthy of the Seven Plagues. Of this I am not proud.

Since there's no way I would have passed the "Patience" portion of the Parenting License exam, I take solace in knowing that we at least stopped at one kid. I shudder to think of how I would balance the "Hey, Dads" of multiple children, or what methods I would use to separate them when they're at each others' throats. No, I'm maxed out at one. I mean, I can usually handle it. Having lived in the adult world for awhile, I've gotten more used to swallowing anxiety and anger than I was 20 years ago. Me as a teenage dad? Forget about it.

Sandra Bullock, though more consistent than me, is also no virtue of patience. Of the many hackneyed phrases you might hear bandied about our house, "(He)(She) has the patience of a saint," will not be included.

And of course our reward for this is that we've passed it directly down to our Jawa, who can often be found pounding on his keyboard and/or yelling at his computer when our wireless connection fails, or producing a child-sized version of the "Grrrr" growl I often use descriptively when words are simply too pedestrian.

I would like to be more patient and in fact vow to be in the wake of every single disagreement I have, not just with the Jawa but with everyone in my world. At work, I tell myself I will not overreact the next time the sales people ask me to do something I hate. Next time, I say, I will just accept my fate. I'm going to have to do whatever they want anyway, so why waste energy getting mad?

Next time I will not get angry at the guy who waits in the middle of the intersection for an entire cycle of the traffic light before turning left. Years ago, I conquered the urge to run across busy streets as the "Walk" sign winds down. Maybe I can do that while behind the wheel, too.

As for parenting, it is a job that requires constant (and constantly-changing) patience. And just when you master one element, when you've figured out the most effective means of engaging with your Jawa, whatever his mood, well, that's when he changes the rules again, forcing you to hit reset on the whole thing.

And it's not like you have downtime for these constant adjustments. Between the constant changing and almost as constant challenges, I'm about ready to quit my gym membership. I'm getting all kinds of a workout just by walking through the front door every night.

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