There’s an idea that parallel universes exist simultaneously, and every possible outcome of every event in history is happening within them. If this is right, then somewhere in time and space, Dez Bryant made that catch, baby Donald Trump died of SIDS, 9/11 wasn’t an inside job and Rougned Odor still punched the shit out of Jose Bautista, but this time they were bipedal saber-toothed tigers.
Stephen Hawking believes in the multiverse, and so do I. I’ve been to a parallel universe. I hugged my kids goodbye, got on a plane, and landed in a world where children did not exist. I mean, it was a tiny world. Just a house, really. But it was enough.
Fellow parents, I’ve seen the promised land. Children of Men was a lie. A world without kids is calm and quiet. It never smells of diapers. Free time is a tangible thing you can see stretching away forever to the horizon like a desert road. None of the books have pictures. The restaurants serve delicious entrees that excite the palate. You can visit this parallel universe too, but like all fantastical trips through time and space, you need a friend to guide you.
Mine happened to be a guy I’ve known for over 20 years. We met in high school, stayed close in college, kept in touch through our mid twenties, and then I faded out, disappearing like Marty McFly’s brother and sister from that photograph. It’s because my wife and I had kids. He and his wife never did. So while he was working and striving and travelling and sleeping in on the weekends, I wasn’t. He kept doing all of the things we both used to do when we were younger. And I started doing all of the things I was obligated to do to raise babies in modern America.
Holy shit! What if my trip to the parallel universe at his house was actually a return trip to the one I lived in for 29 years, before my daughter was born?
That would go a long way to explaining why so much of my life these past eight years has been confusing, terrifying, enraging, depressing and overflowing with love—often within the span of half an hour. The physics of the universe I now inhabit emanate from a couple of dwarf stars that possess intense gravitational fields and a propensity for unpredictable solar flare eruptions that wash over their orbiting planets, obliterating all other inputs. In that other universe I travelled to, where I used to live, the compasses work. Watches don’t slow down and then run backward. Everything is in its right place.
Even though they are vastly different, it’s possible to move between these universes. Here now, a guidebook for interstellar travelers.
For starters, stop talking about your children all the damn time. Seriously. It’s totally great that little Timmy made a poo-poo in the potty yesterday. It’s gonna change his life—and yours, too! Maybe he won’t shit his pants again until college. Consider this, though: if Timmy craps in the commode and you don’t tell all your friends about it, did it make a plop? Yes, it did! You’re proud of your kids, and should share their achievements, but cherry pick the best stories and keep the telling of them tight, instead of a Joycian stream of consciousness brain dump. And for every my-kid-shits-rainbows story you tell, bring up two topics of conversation that have nothing to do with your kids. That idiot barista fucked up my triple shot macchiato again, can you believe it?!
This includes obvious situations, like weddings and funerals and hard-R movie premieres and glassblowing workshops. I’m talking specifically about places where you feel more comfortable—the workplace, for instance. Sure, you and the boys in the cube farm like to knock a few back at the end of the week. And, sure, it’s a snow day and the babysitter has pneumonia and your company has a zero tolerance policy for telecommuting. Your little Brayden can sit in the conference room with an iPad and some juice boxes and mainline Caillou through his eyeholes. But that’s Brayden’s visit for the year. Kids screw up office life, even when their visits are planned. Your coworkers will likely be too polite to come out and say it, but they dread your kids’ visits. They have deadlines, the market is shitting the bed, the VC guys are in town for a surprise check-in, and the servers just crashed. In none of those situations does the level of stress plummet with the introduction of a handsy preschooler. Don’t touch my stress ball, Brayden!
People reproduce or adopt, and immediately believe themselves to be experts in such matters as vaccinations, early childhood education, psychology, religion and toxins in our food supply. Oh lord, the toxins. If you were a dummy before you had kids, accept this fact: you are still a dummy. All that’s changed is that you’re now more dangerous to society. Idiotic parents are responsible for the return of measles, racial segregation of the school system, and gluten-free birthday cake. If your friend was smarter than you before you had a kid, she is still smarter than you. Your life is not fuller than hers. She too experiences Love and Truth and Beauty. Her days are marked by constructive introspection and fulfillment. She volunteers at the soup kitchen while you’re instagramming kitty cat pancakes. She could tell you a lot about the wonders of life, if you’d stop ranting about toxic baby food.
If your bachelor buddy invites you to lunch next Wednesday, and your kid wakes up with a fever that day—call the babysitter before you call your friend to cancel. I know how much of your daily decisions are ruled by a person who isn’t even tall enough for the Kiddie Koaster at the county fair, and how every time you leave the house, Harry Chapin runs through your head, singing “Cats in the Cradle.” Modern parents are under intense pressure to be present for every milestone, every sore throat, every boo-boo. We are consumed with anxiety about how much and in what ways we are failing our kids. Right now, for instance, as I write these words, Netflix is babysitting my son. Usually, we spend all day together, but I’m convinced that he’ll only remember the times I abandoned him to the loneliness of the television. Now matter how much time you put in, it’ll never be enough. So take some time for yourself. Don’t send your buddy a frowny face text. Go to lunch. If you make a habit of cancelling on your friends when they’re expecting to spend time with you, eventually they’ll stop calling. This is very bad for you. And for your kids! When grown ups don’t spend enough time away from their babies, they end up drowning those babies in the bathtub.
Are Kim and Kanye still a thing? How many albums has Beyonce dropped this year? Which superheroes are brawling at the multiplex? No, really, I’m asking. I watched part of the Oscars this year and realized I’d seen none of the movies and could not identify many of the people on camera. The world has passed me by, just like Grandpa Simpson. It happened while I was teaching my daughter to ride a bike, while I was playing Candyland with my son, while I was shuttling them around town for playdates and soccer practice. If you’re a parent, you’ll never know as much about pop culture as you once did, but you should retain a devotion to something that ties you to the outside world. Even if it’s an unhealthy devotion. I just can’t quit rooting for Cleveland sports teams, no matter how many times those fuckers Draymond me in the Adamses. But paying attention to sports gives me something to talk to my brother about that we both understand. He’s younger than me, and he and his wife don’t have kids. I keep asking him when that’s gonna change. He looks at my gray hair, and my creased forehead. He observes the red-faced, hollering toddler flailing his arms and legs beside me. Uh, I’m not sure bro…
Anyone who has a child younger than four is running a high-wire act without a net. If you’re late getting breakfast on the table, then the kids won’t be dressed in time, which means traffic will be bad when you drive to the grocery store, and you’ll be there when your kid should be in the crib at home napping, which means she’ll be cranky and wailing in the dairy aisle, end up overly tired, which means she won’t sleep, and then the entire day is fucked. Lunch will be thrown across the room in a rage, a missing toy will be a meltdown turned up to 11, the afternoon an ocean of tears. She might take a late nap, but then she’ll be awake too long into the evening and get up four times during the night. All because breakfast was late.
Even after the kids get older, each day’s house of cards is nearly as unstable. My kids can be playing quietly in their rooms, but once they hear that I’m talking on the phone with a friend, they initiate a UFC cage match. Even the good days are exhausting. Partly it’s the effort of keeping everything running smoothly, and partly it’s the steady torture of carrying on an endless conversation with a jovial three year old who never tires of the same three subjects. Recently, I drove to New Orleans to see an old friend. The six hours I spent alone in the car, there and back, were pure bliss. I didn’t say a word, and — more importantly — nobody said a word to me.
You are not forgotten, not really. Your friend with a kid longs for the beautiful comfort of your wisecracks, longs for the inside jokes you share, remembers often how you’d get loaded and sing off-key in the Orca. It’s just that right now, the shark is chewing through the transom and I think maybe he wants his Binkie. Have you seen Binkie? No, I don’t think he’s hungry, he had three breakfasts, just find Binkie — why are you looking under the couch?! Why the fuck would Binkie be under there?! Just fucking move, I’ll find the goddamned Binkie!
Find out when lunch time is, order take-out, and bring it over to your friend’s place. You’re doing the same things you regularly do, just at his house. He’ll be so grateful. Then he’ll kick you out because Dakota has to take a nap. This will have to be good enough for you on some days. Come over in the evening with a bucket of fried chicken and a DVD. It can be a movie from the bargain bin— he won’t have seen anything released in the last eight months. When he falls asleep ten minutes in, stick around so that when wakes up during the credits, you can tell him who the killer turned out to be. Buy some tickets to a basketball game, or insist on an hour at the driving range. The point is, take control and don’t take no for an answer—after you’ve done the due diligence to learn about the kid’s schedule. You can’t blow that up. See above.
This scenario is unfulfilling, it’s true. But it gets better! Pay in a few acts of compassion now, and when your friend’s free time returns as his kid gets older, he’ll repay you. It might take a little playful joshing to get him to realize he should take a little initiative. Hey dickface, you owe me some tickets! And make it a decent game! If he gets a little indignant, remind him about the time you brought him fried chicken. Cue the sitcom wrap-up music.
First-time parents are fresh meat for the Modern Child Rearing Industry. There are dozens of books to buy, and several competing methodologies. All of these schools of thought have one thing in common: they are each, through and through, complete and total bullshit. When our first kid was born, we tried to follow the books. We swaddled and shushed and no one within a 1,000 foot radius was allowed to emit a noise above 3 decibels at naptime, lest my wife rip out his throat like a Mama Grizzly. The baby was miserable, and so were we. Eventually, those parenting books got tossed in the trash where they belonged, and we became better parents.
You, an adult person with the gift of deduction and no children, will immediately realize the rules your new-parent friend is following will only lead to insanity. No rational person finds comfort in a baby-raising checklist. Parents are not rational people, however. So you must grin and bear it as you pat your friend’s baby on the back exactly 57 times before tilting her 23 degrees to the left so as to expel her baby burps completely. In due time, your friend will let this kind of hyper precision fall away, and you will cheerlead her new, laissez-faire approach. Little Evangeline seems so much happier now that’s she’s able to use her arms!
Once a person has children, it’s easy for him to forget about the person he used to be. There’s no going back to that guy—at least not completely. I never used to cry at movies. Dead kids on TV shows weren’t a problem. Now I can’t handle any of that shit. I get choked up reading picture books, for pete’s sake. (Another thing: I hardly swear anymore, except in print.) But I need people like that friend I visited last fall to remind me that I’m not just a dad.
So when you catch your buddy getting weepy during an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, point and laugh at him just like you did during the final reel of Titanic. Bust out some classic video games and shoot him in the back of the head repeatedly. Argue about who’s going to make the 53-man roster of the Browns while he pushes a stroller through the park. And maybe more important than that, call him out when he starts to sound like his own parents. He might not even realize that he’s saying Because I said so! or I swear I’ll turn this car around! or You ruined my life! but you—good buddy that you are—will realize it, and flashback to those awkward moments of his childhood when his parents were going nuclear. And then you can say, Dude, you sound just like your Dad! Get a grip! And then your buddy will be filled with self-loathing and weep, and you can point and laugh.
Not every time. Only as much as you can stand. Once your friends’ kid is three or four, she can do fun things. She can play pretend games and help in the garden. She can go out for ice cream and play soccer in the park. Early grade school is even better. She’ll be able to talk about books she likes and songs she heard on the radio. She’ll have opinions about Anna and Elsa and whether Belle should have been so nice to that dickhead Beast. She’ll be a little person, who you can begin to befriend. You might even end up a full-fledged Auntie or Uncle.
Here’s why you want that status: parenting is a life sentence. Your pal is never going to not be a parent. You’ll have a much more fulfilling friendship if you develop your own relationship with her kids. And you’ll get to enjoy some really nice moments of childhood. Even better, when the kids get crabby, you can smile and wave and head home to the quiet splendor of your child-free house. You asshole.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
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