I left work early a couple of Tuesdays ago. There wasn’t a whole lot going on at the office, so I figured I could better utilize my time around the house, watching DVR’d Simpsons episodes and vacuuming the spiderwebs out of my garage. Instead of using several vacation days at a time, I usually opt for the few-hours-at-a-time approach whenever I feel like a Mental Health Afternoon is necessary for my well-being (and the well-being of those within roundhouse kick range of me).
Before I got home, I drove through Sonic for a grilled cheese. This particular Sonic is about a mile from my home, and for the six weeks it’s been open, the place has been complete anarchy. The food is suspect at best, ordering mozzarella sticks takes three hours, and they’ll be dead in the cold ground before you can special order anything. I once asked for a sundae with chocolate ice cream, and they said they “couldn’t do that.” Whatever, dude. I stick with the grilled cheese because I’m still pretending to be a vegetarian and it’s the one item they screw up the least.
It still took around 10 minutes. Good thing I had nowhere to be.
It was around lunchtime as I sat in my car and waited for my food. As my mind began to wander, I realized that it was also lunchtime for the local school, which functioned as an ‘open campus’ for the hour. For those who grew up without such a luxury (like me), an ‘open campus’ allows you to leave the school grounds for lunchtime and eat wherever you want (fast food, gas station, landfill), provided that you’re back on time. This meant that Sonic, a restaurant about a block from the school, was crawling with children of all ages.
The Tuesday after Labor Day was also the first day of school, and the energy was in the air. When I had left my house that morning, I saw a group of kids in my subdivision waiting for the bus, and I nearly had a full-blown panic attack. When I think back to my first days of school, every memory is that of pure, unbridled terror. I was a fair student, had plenty of friends and only got my ass kicked when I deserved it, but the PTSD always hangs low in the air. I firmly empathize with any child who was dragged screaming and fear-peeing onto a school bus that morning. I’m at an age where I should be preparing my own child for another year of public school, but in reality, I still connect a lot more with the kid begging to stay home. I feel you, little homies.
On Facebook that day, my News Feed was flooded with friends’ photos of their children getting ready for their first day back. Most of the comments were positive and congratulatory, but it’s in my nature to privately scoff and scroll ahead as quickly as possible. I hated school, I don’t have kids, and I’m not interested in anyone else’s. I’ve…been pretty clear about this.
However, as I was sitting in my car, waiting for my grilled cheese, something happened. Something that had never happened to me before in my life. And frankly, it scared the shit out of me.
I looked out my window and saw an adorable, beaming little girl. Brand new pink shirt. Brand new matching skirt. Crispy pink backpack without a scratch on it. Holding her smiling mother’s hand as they both shared a milkshake and walked back to school for the afternoon. The weather was perfect. The sun was shining, and they both seemed extremely happy. I, on the other hand, was getting ready to eat a grilled cheese in front of the TV, and waste away the remainder of this perfect day by watching anime until my wife came home.
In that split second, I felt like my life had literally no purpose because I wasn’t the parent of a child, and that I was finally ready to become one. It was a thought I had never let deep enough into my brain to even analyze, so when I did, it shook me like an existential crisis.
Oh, goddamn. I thought about how I was going to explain this change of heart to my wife. I thought about all the plans we were going to have to make. All the plans we were going to have to change. All the money we’d need to start saving. All the money we didn’t have and never would have. We’d have to remodel the office, of course. Probably finish the basement. One of us would probably have to quit their job for awhile. We’d have to pick a good school. A great one. How much TV should a kid watch? None? How much should we limit their Internet usage? Who will watch them when we need a sitter? Will I need to throw all the liquor bottles away? Why did I waste all that money on a WiiU? I don’t even play it!
In the past, this flood of logistical planning and strategic forecasting would be enough to stop the thought of having a baby dead in its tracks. Whenever I thought about it for longer than a second, I eventually convinced myself that it was a terrible idea, that I wasn’t ready and we shouldn’t even think about it for another five years. Unfortunately, this didn’t work. As I watched this mother and daughter skip happily away, I longed to experience that moment. I wanted it more than anything I have ever wanted in my life. I thought about walking my daughter to school, freshly sporting the supplies we had picked out together the week before, and in the moment it seemed like the most heavenly experience in the world.
“Shit,” I said out loud to myself. “I think I want to have a baby.”
I was shaking in the car. I felt like I was going to throw up. This was a genuine moment.
I’m not a religious man, but this was a serious precipice in my evolution here, and I sincerely could have used a little guidance from Above. I didn’t have any friends or relatives I could call at noon on a Tuesday for perspective, and the drive-thru of a Sonic wasn’t exactly the sort of place where a spark of divine intervention would typically shine though. Although I was planning to check my grilled cheese to see if the Virgin Mary’s face was visible in the grill marks. Wouldn’t hurt, I figured.
But then, it hit me. Inspiration from above, and not a moment too soon.
Off in the distance, atop a pile of decorative landscaping surrounding the perimeter of Sonic, I saw him. A little boy, about 7 or 8. By himself, ruthlessly ripping out the plants, cattails and foliage, and throwing them haphazardly into the street in huge clumps.
He was basically feral. Dirt on his face. Sticky hands. He didn’t look like he was headed back to school, or anywhere that didn’t involve a padlock and water dish, frankly. He seemed plenty occupied with destroying the plant life like it was his profession. When he would uproot a cattail, he would wield it at passing cars like a samurai sword, kicking up soil with each mighty stomp. He was almost hit and killed a good three or four times. Horns were honking relentlessly. I had to think that one of them called the cops.
He was an asshole. He was unsupervised. He was me, and he was the living embodiment of every reason I’ve ever talked myself out of having children. That would be the one I get. No question about it.
Finally, his mother emerged from the Sonic with a large soda, which he snapped from her hands without so much as a Thank You. The mother looked like she wanted to scold him, but was too exhausted and busy with the infant she was balancing with her other arm, all while holding more food, a phone and her purse. Once she managed to stuff everything into her undersized car, the boy proceeded to kick the side panel of the passenger seat until she opened the door for him and sped off. He wasn’t buckled.
Just then, my grilled cheese arrived, and I decided that I wasn’t ready to have a baby just yet. My earlier feelings had dissipated after seeing a far more realistic projection of what my life as a Father would truly entail.
The beaming girl with her mother was the best-case scenario. It was a scenario that could happen to my wife and I, through hard work and a shitload of genetic luck (I can’t really tell my sperm what to do). And I would love and cherish her as much as I hypothesized I would…but the boy throwing plants into the street was probably a better snapshot of what my future would hold. The Missus and I were beyond difficult children to deal with, and even though we’d parent the hell out of whatever kid we ended up with, I knew that fate wasn’t in our favor.
Win or lose, I’ve always played the odds when it came to big decisions, and between the Missus and I, we sort of selfishly assumed that there was a fairly good chance we’d have a baby we didn’t like and it would ruin our marriage and lives, spiraling us straight into the gutter until one of us shanked the other with the lid of a baby formula can. I know people always say that you’re in control of what your child is to become, and you’ll love them unconditionally regardless, but I call 100% bullshit to that noise. You’re not always in control of what your child is to become. Not even close. That’s an argument so ridiculous it isn’t worth arguing. Plenty of great parents have awful children, and it’s not their fault (unless it is, which also totally happens).
Look, I know that if you want a kid, you’ll have a kid and work with whatever you’re given; that’s what good people do. My wife and I strive to be good people, and when the time comes where we truly feel ready for the responsibility of parenting a child, we will stop at absolutely nothing to push every last chip into the center of the table to ensure their future success (even if it does end up being a boy).
But as I drove from Sonic with a grilled cheese in my hand, I was looking forward to an empty house.
If only for the time being.