The phalanx of formidable earthmovers parked in front of the old Kipling cinema days before any demolition began. Whenever we passed the captivating sight, my children reminded me that they wanted to watch the deconstruction. So, each day, on the way—well, out of the way—to my son’s preschool, we’d check to see if the annihilation had begun. One much anticipated day we were treated to the start of the delightful dance of the excavators. We returned each weekday morning until the utterly charmless building became a Brattleboro memory.
Tyler Excavation’s exceedingly tidy, efficient work enthralled me. My own main day job—parenting—is never tidy, nor is it efficient. And unlike the drivers of these colossal machines, my talents are not nearly so readily apparent—at least to me. It’s tough being a parent when you tend towards perfectionism. You focus on daily defeats: My kids enjoy teasing each other so much that I feel like I’m watching Elizabethan bear baiting. You forget to celebrate victories: Both my children know the basics of making bread and cleaning a toilet—not simultaneously, of course. And although at times I feel like I live with miniature versions of Robert Mugabe and Ratco Mladić, they both can tell a joke and demonstrate love and empathy towards one another. Really, what more could I want? Turns out, a lot.
I want my daily parenting choreography to look more like the Russian Bolshoi Ballet—full of grace and inspiration—and less like Australia’s contemporary dance troupe called Chunky Move. In a Chunky Move piece, you are likely to see lights flashing incongruently while someone writhes on the floor—not unlike bedtime at our house. It is the surreal aspect of parenting that I did not anticipate. Exactly how does one maintain lucidity when your 2-year-old shrieks for no apparent reason while your 5-year-old flips out because you bought the wrong kind of oat cereal? (Never mind that this was the only brand he would eat for the last 5 months; now it is cereal non grata in the house.) I’m not alone in feeling like the sanity train left the station a long time ago.
A new Gallup poll—in which 60,000 U.S. women were interviewed—indicates that stay-at-home moms report more depression, anger, and sadness than moms employed outside the home. They are also more likely to describe themselves as “struggling” and less likely to say they are “thriving.” Stay-at-home moms are also less likely to report that they “learned something new today.” As a friend of mine, who holds a doctorate in psychology, says: “When I was at home with the kids, I felt like I was earning a PhD in poop. It was brutal.”
The poll only surveyed stay-at-home moms, but several candid conversations I’ve had with two stay-at-home dads suggest that they experience the same emotional struggles as their female counterparts. Parenting is arduous and often lonely. Despite our best efforts, many of us still feel like we’re not doing a very good job. When we’re not feeling guilty about that or wishing we had superhuman powers, we often feel like we’re trapped in an Edvard Munch tableau. We admonish ourselves for feeling what we feel; we ought to be ever grateful for the opportunity to be home with our children. And I am grateful; I recognize that for many families neither parent has the luxury of staying home. But there’s a certain weird quality to stay-at-home parenting that challenges rationality.
I once attended a friend’s modern dance performance in which the troupe engaged in a type of dance move that she called “sloughing.” Like a flake of dead skin peeling from a body, one dancer comes into contact with another one and then “sloughs” off onto the floor. The dance piece was, frankly, kind of weird. Although it made a big impression at the time—not entirely positive, mind you—I secreted it away in some nether region of the brain. There it stayed for 17 years. But recently I found myself mining this dormant memory when my incensed daughter adhered herself to my leg so that I couldn’t walk and then slid down my appendage as if it were a firefighter’s pole. I imagined us as participants in a modern dance performance—and not actually part of a frustrating and odd parenting moment. Somehow this made the whole incident more bearable.
We continue to watch the site preparation for the new Aldi supermarket. As we enjoy the dance of the excavators each day, I think of our own building project. My kids and I are constructing a home together in which my love for them and their interests must blend with my desperate need to learn something new. This is why I sit at the construction site for a few minutes each morning and ponder how the whole marvelous, orderly project fits together.
Our own choreography is often awkward and is anything but straightforward. It careens towards bizarre in its banal repetition and is often coupled with my kids’ unpredictable, frenzied outbursts of indignation. But this dance we do—full of chunky and clunky movements—has its own grace: an inimitable beauty found in the wonder of the ordinary.