It’s fascinating how you start to see people differently when you have kids. And I say that loosely, as I haven’t exactly spawned minions of my own – my experience stems from fulfilling a stepfather role, years ago, which came quicker than I expected. I mean sure, I had certainly thought of a hypothetical future that might involve kids, but there’s no way I thought that would happen in my 20s. In my mind, I wasn’t yet good enough at managing multiple aspects of my life, such as my finances, certain aspects of my business, etc. It wasn’t that I was bad at these things, but more so, I didn’t feel I was good enough. It thus felt ridiculous to even consider raising additional human beings… I wasn’t, in my opinion, even a great example for them to follow, at least not as much as I wanted.
Certainly, I can see now that perhaps my obsession with being the perfect example was a little extreme, an endless pursuit of machine-like efficiency. Over time, in other areas of my life, I calmed this aspect of my personality, and instead started believing in the idea of reasonable perfectionism.
You can drive yourself batty trying to do the absolute best job possible, or, you can do a very good job based on your experience, but not obsess to an unhealthy, unreasonable level.
This was a great milestone to reach psychologically-speaking, but it didn’t quite soothe my belief that I didn’t have the required amount of self-management prowess to take on the challenge of raising kids. But that, altogether, represented a whole lot of rational thought, and while that generally drove me quite well, emotion was another factor that couldn’t quite be controlled as easily.
And so I found myself living with a girlfriend and her two kids, a boy, 2, and a girl, 5. Not only had I not expected to take on a parental role so soon, but my background was one where I basically had a total lack of experience with children in general. While I had a bunch of family and cousins, my parents would often skip family gatherings – and as such, I would rarely see the younger generation of our family while growing up. This lack of exposure to kids made it challenging for me to feel confident in how I approached and interacted with them.
I had also gotten used to having total control over my environment and its associated levels of cleanliness and order. I can’t say I was a germophobe, but I was conscious of germs and was pretty careful to keep things clean and orderly, at least to a reasonable degree. As you might imagine, when I came face-to-face with the two-year-old, who often had a drool and bits of food on his face during key moments in his meal, I quickly realized that the world I knew was going to be very different. Soon enough I was sharing drinks with these kids at amusement parks and the food and drool mix during mealtime was just another element of life.
And then, there were the diapers. Can you imagine what it was like for a sort-of germophobe to change diapers? I would be lying if I said the possibility of wearing a full Hazmat suit never crossed my mind. But, ultimately, I found a procedure that worked for me.
I’d carry the child to a suitable location, mostly clear of external objects, to minimize collateral damage. I’d have two plastic bags with me (one in the other), and a container of wipes. I would then open the diaper, and use wipes to progressively clean up the waste, while depositing them in the bag as I went along. While I could have technically done this with just one bag, I knew that there was always a chance that one bag might have an undetected hole in it, potentially allowing the poop to escape. Suffice it to say that my method was in no way environmentally friendly, as I would over time go through a ridiculous bunch of bags and wipes cleaning up the child from his own excrement over time. But, I did it, in the end, despite having my own weird approach. His mother, on the other hand, had unquestionable diaper-changing skills – she had the ability to change a child’s diaper in such a way that she barely needed any wipes, and ended up with this wrapped up ball of a diaper, mostly safe for handling.
Of course, there was far more to the step-father experience than learning to purge the concentrated evil that was regularly produced in a child’s diaper. For example, I learned to appreciate aspects of human life that I had ignored before. I took note of things like parks and playgrounds, and recognized their potential at helping raise the kids. I made use of restaurants where the kids could eat free, or paid, but with nice features for kids. And, in a similar but yet different way, I learned to fully appreciate the grocery store shopping carts in that had toddler seats built-in. The 5-year-old was well behaved, for the most part, but the “issue” was really the 2-3 year old, and containing his inevitable abundance of energy and semi-frequent mischief. I say issue in quotes because at that age, there’s only so much order you can expect. That said, at times, the prospect of entering a store without such a cart was too much to bear – it really depended on the day. Other times, I could pick up the two-year-old and walk around with him as I did some shopping, interacting with him as I went along. These were some of my favorite moments with him, actually – because it was a fun, cooperative kind of experience that I knew I could only have with him at that moment of his life – he would soon grow bigger, and seek more autonomy.
And that’s the thing – there were always good moments, even if for the most part things weren’t necessarily easy – and not just because of the kids. In the midst of relationship troubles with their mother, I still have very fond memories, some of which I know I will never forget. I remember, for example, one particular day when I noticed it had started hailing all of a sudden, and I immediately ran to get the daughter, to show her something I always found so fascinating, despite it being a simple aspect of our world. She shared that enthusiasm, and the resulting experience of us catching hail in our hands, will forever remain burned in my mind.
So despite my lack of exposure to children and my somewhat abrupt immersion into a parental role, I have to say that it was an extremely enriching experience. And when my relationship with their mother met its unfortunate but necessary end, the sad reality was that it also meant a severance from the two kids that I helped raise. I can imagine in the future that it might be possible to see them again, but in my mind that can only occur if I can guarantee the absence of hostility and turbulence – the last thing I’d want to do to them is inadvertently introduce another stressful moment in their lives.
Before this entire experience, I would walk around treating people as they appeared at the moment I encountered them – that is, I based myself on their current age – they were either a child, an adult, a senior, whatever the case. This was, of course, the most literal interpretation of reality – but it was Joe Rogan, of all people, who ultimately uttered words that would cause a significant shift in my perspective, via his podcast. Put simply, he explained that having kids helped him realize that the people he encountered on a day-to-day basis were babies once, and he was just meeting grown-up versions of those babies. This, he suggested, helped foster empathy and compassion right off the bat. Everyone faces their own paths and challenges in life, but they are still a version of that baby from the very beginning… innocence as an origin. What happened to that little one to make them into the person you’re seeing today? Perhaps more empathy is in order?
And furthermore, if you had any kind of quarrel with a person, would you regret anything if they died the next day? I recently had to face the harsh reality of losing my father. And, given our general tendency of avoiding family gatherings, as you might imagine, there was no one else (other than my mother) that I knew quite so well and for so long. Though undeniably horrific and painful, it still brought crucial realizations to my mind – both sobering and transformative. I realized how so many things were completely not worth arguing about – because when a person is gone, none of it matters. My list of regrets surpassed anything I’d ever listed before. And yet, my rational mind knew that I had done reasonably well considering the circumstances – and that ultimately, nothing could be changed but my path forward.
If I had more deeply understood these ideas in the past, I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes in my overall interactions with other human beings. I would have had more empathy, patience, appreciation. It wouldn’t have necessarily changed the outcomes, but the overall journey would have likely been more rewarding, enjoyable. However, in the end, there’s no re-writes. There’s just an abundance of memories and a whole lot of lessons to be derived from them. And though it’s really unpleasant to affirm, it’s often after being completely destroyed that we can rebuild ourselves, and do better moving forward. And in between these so-called moments of destruction, that, is where the finest moments of life can be had, only enhanced by the knowledge that they are fleeting.