The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.
The guilt gets to me sometimes.
All those (allegedly) happy, (allegedly) well-adjusted kids on the sitcoms and my Facebook newsfeed, all those bubbly looking families in Cooking Light, splashing around in-ground pools, camping in elysian fields, playing touch-football in front of huge, white clapboard houses, even the one-year-old’s giggling like little heaven-kissed angels (instead of screaming their ever-lovin’ heads off per the uzhe) – it all makes me nauseous.
Every time I see a commercial, an ad, or an oh-so-cute-it-hurts Facebook pic with fun-filled kids in it, I think, “My family could do that!” But then I go grab another beer and put my feet back up. Sure, my familial triumvirate (Mom, son, and Dad/me) could – most middle-class families can – but there’s beer in the fridge and football on the tube, and, gosh, this couch is really, really comfy …
Screw you. I’ve earned it. I’ve earned the right to do nothing, to “recharge my battery,” as I like to say. I work full-time, and with my wife by my side I’m raising a 5-year-old. I barely have enough energy to walk to the fridge and back on weekends let alone go camping or toss the pigskin. Er, the Nerf-skin.
Well, I suppose we could play a little catch out back, but then I’d have to let him tackle me, and then the weed-killing chemicals on our lawn would make me itchy, and then I’d start acting annoyed, and then my wife would give me a look and my son would start whining, and then it would all be just one big mess. Might be better if I just keep sitting here and keep watching the game. *sip*
Don’t roll your eyes. I’m really big on love languages. They make a lot of sense.
But the guilt.
It’s a powerful motivator, this kind of naturally forming shame for our thoughts and actions (or, in the case of parenthood, inactions). It can help us improve our lives, inspire us to eat healthier, make more conscientious decisions at work, be kinder to everyone and to our loved ones especially.
Guilt can also warp our brains.
By playing catch with my son, or by taking my family camping or swimming, would I be doing something I truly wanted to do, or would I be acquiescing, like the good little lab rat that I am, to what the mainstream media apparatus relentlessly guilts me into doing (which is, typically, to buy something)?
The answer likely depends on how well you know yourself. I’m 45, and while I know that I know this Anthony Mariani character better now than I did when I was younger, I still have a lot of stuff left to figure out, starting with my role as a father. A great way to begin lurching toward some species of clarity, I’ve discovered, is by enumerating facts: that I am aware that time flies and that my son is not going to be his super-adorable little self forever, not even for a few more years, and that I am going to miss this precious little love muffin when we’re both older; that I do not want to be like my parents, who rarely ever spent time with me on my level when I was a child; and that, when I focus and engage The Now, I almost always have a ball with my special boy.
Are my “facts” based on the perceptions of a middle-aged, middle-class Westerner shaped by capitalism and the media? Probably, but I don’t need to sit through a dozen lectures in postmodern post colonialism or read any Foucault to know that I don’t want to be a dick, especially to my son and wife.
I’ve earned the right to do nothing, to “recharge my battery,” as I like to say.
As some smart people said a long time ago, “Moderation in all things.” If you’re anal-retentive, like me, use a watch. Play with your kid for 30 minutes; spend some time alone for 30. Or some time with your spouse. For longer. It all depends on your family’s love languages. Don’t roll your eyes. I’m really big on love languages. They make a lot of sense. As my wife and I figured out a long time ago, my love language is affection; hers, acts of service. With our son, the dynamic is slightly different.
The love language between him and me is imaginative play or simple engagement (making art together, reading, playing touch-football on our chemically enhanced lawn), and between him and my wife, it’s affection. Of course the overarching love language – the most important in any relationship or family, the one that inheres in all the others – is time, which includes just being together, just breathing the same air as one another, maybe with Dad watching football while enjoying a cold, frosty adult beverage (or 5), and with Mom cleaning (my wife cleans like a germophobe on crack), and with the kid playing independently or with his or her siblings. (The little ones need alone time, too.) As long as “nothing” isn’t all your family does, sometimes doing nothing is just fine.
And today just so happens to be one of those days when nothing is all I want to do. *sip* Ahhh.
Anthony Mariani, a former freelancer for The Village Voice, the Oxford American, and Paste magazine, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and the editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, recently finished writing a parenthood/adulthood/boozehood memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org