The nine-year-old is in fourth grade. There is nothing remarkable about this. Most fourth-graders are nine at some point during the school year. What is extraordinary, however, is that he's never shown up to school without his pants. Or his shirt. Or shoes.
I say this partly because I'm responsible for getting him up and out the door in the morning -- and let's be honest, I'm ill-suited for that job -- but mostly because for as smart as he is, he'd get halfway down the driveway in the middle of winter before he realized he was barefoot. His head is firmly in the clouds, a phenomenon that is impervious to time, temperament or the constant reminders that now seem to dominate our conversations.
And it's at these moments that I'm taken back some 30 years (related: Jesus, I'm old), to when I'd be doing something my parents probably considered incredibly stupid and my only defense was that I forgot. My mom would be so beside herself that she would implore me to "formember." I thought this was funny but it had no lasting effect on my behavior.
That was because I was in middle school, a fact I have to often remind myself, often while in mid-lecture to the nine-year-old about why he needs to do this or that. It's a tired, predictable routine at this point, like the final few seasons of the American Office. I'll bark some sentiment he's heard countless times before, and he'll stare blankly, usually just over my shoulder (but not always!) pretending like he's paying attention when he clearly is not.
The million-mile stare is a dead giveaway though his reflexive, post-speech "uh huh" is also a sure sign he has no idea what I just said. Invariably, that leads to this exchange:
Me: So, you got it, right?
Me: Okay, what did I just say.
Him: (stammers) I didn't hear all of it.
Me: (bangs head against nearest wall)
Of course, this is as much about me as it is him.
First, he's a great kid. He's smart and curious, and he's also goofy as hell -- because he's nine.
(I can see you rolling your eyes. "Everybody thinks their kid is great!" you're thinking. Fair enough. I roll my eyes when I hear people say that too, but here's the thing: Because I work from home, I'm exposed to way more kids than I would be if I went to some office building everyday. As such, I've seen my fair share of terrible kids and I don't even recognize those monsters. Also: He's the same kid who once told his mom about hearing the s-word at school. When pressed, he explained that someone said "stupid" within earshot.)
Second, I can be overbearing and my expectations can be unreasonable. I know this. But my biggest fear is that we'll raise a jerk (see the paragraph above) so my parenting instincts are to overcompensate. To his credit, he's extremely patient about all this, a quality that I certainly lack. That said, his biggest worry is whether he'll spend his afternoons building with LEGOs or Bioncles.
My days are slightly more stressful.
Most of that stress is a function of being an adult, but a non-trivial piece of that is because the nine-year-old is oblivious about, well, most things. A brief history:
- He lost three jackets in a week. This isn't hyperbole. THREE. JACKETS. He left one at tennis practice and then forgot to ask his coach about it for two weeks. Two other jackets disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Instead of freaking out, which is my go-to response, I gave the straight-faced, "Well, you're just gonna freeze at the bus stop" speech. He seemed fine with that, which I of course found infuriating. Footnote: The jackets -- both of them -- were LITERALLY next to his backpack in the family room. You can't make this stuff up.
- Here's a fun conversation I have at least 15 times a week: "Hey, when you take off your jeans, if they're clean, can you put them in your drawer?" Good news: The nine-year-old obliges. Bad news: Because I didn't offer detailed directions -- and didn't repeat said directions multiple times -- here's what I'll find when I open the drawer: Jeans, with just ONE leg inside-out, balled up in the corner of the drawer. Added bonus: He looks like a hobo when he puts them on. (By the way, the one-leg-inside-out affair is far more egregious in my mind because you can visualize him taking them off. It's a hands-free. feet-only proposition, and that means he's dragging the jeans all over the floor in the process of removing them. Moving on...)
- There's a hamper upstairs. All I ask is that the nine-year-old let me know when it's full. He doesn't have to drag it downstairs, or throw the clothes in the washing machine. He just has to say these six words: "Dad, the hamper is now full." Also acceptable: "Hamper's full," and at this point, I'd settle for "Hamper." In the two years or so that I've asked him to do this, never once have I been informed of the hamper situation prior to so many clothes being jammed in there that not only is closing the lid a pipe dream, some of those clothes are now on the floor. Of course they are.
- In other clothes-related news, the nine-year-old is a bean pole. This isn't unique, but it does mean that he sometimes needs a belt. Last count he had three of them. We also had a conversation recently that he couldn't find any of them. A few days later, I found all three -- in the hamper. He had taken off his pants -- they were inside-out, of course -- and didn't think to take off his belt before chucking the whole setup in the general vicinity of the hamper. He did that on three separate occasions! -- with no memory of it!! -- before realizing he needed a belt. So now I remind him to remove his belt before putting his pants in the hamper. I'll let you guess how that's going.
- When do kids start brushing their teeth? I ask because I've suppress those early years, most likely as a coping mechanism. I also bring it up because whatever the correct answer is, subtract that from nine and that's how long the nine-year-old has been tasked with brushing his teeth. It's also the same amount of time I've had to remind him, every morning and without fail, to brush his teeth. I do not know how this is possible.
In the scheme of things, this is hardly a big deal. But then again, everything is relative.
And there's a silver lining! Apparently, it's only going to get worse. I know this from experience -- I was in my own world as a teenager -- but I was also reminded of my future during a conversation I had a few years ago. I was at the neighborhood dog park and talking to one of the regulars, who had three adult sons, all successful. He was probably tired of my bellyaching about my fate and succinctly put it all into perspective: "Listen, here's the deal: The bigger the kid, the bigger the problem."
It has since dawned on me that this is why we -- me, you, everybody you know -- eventually morphs into what we said we'd never become: Our parents. It's child-rearing motivated by equal parts desperation, exasperation and fear. Put another way, it's all I can do to stay one step ahead of the inmates trying to overtake the asylum. In related news: I feel like I have a Shawshank situation on my hands.