Excerpted from Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, which makes a great Father's Day gift for foul-mouthed dads everywhere.
I was on the phone with my dad and he happened to be home alone, which meant that he was more eager than usual to talk about whatever was on his mind. Window replacement was among the favored topics. We were five minutes into the conversation when my daughter started yelling at me from the stairs. Children HATE it when you talk on the phone to other people. When you're a parent, every conversation is a half conversation. I have conversations from five years ago that still need to be picked up. My wife was out running an errand, so I was the only one around for her to badger.
I ignored her and kept talking to my father. "That's what I told her! You don't have to replace the windows. They just need a good strip job—"
"Oh god dammit. Dad, can I call you back?"
"So that's it?" my dad said. "You're just gonna hang up on me and go do her bidding?"
It takes virtually nothing for your parents to get under your skin. My dad asked that one simple question and I could infer pages upon pages of subtext. You're a pussy because you're doing whatever your kids tell you to do. When I was raising you, we never gave in to you kids like that. Your generation is weak and you are an overly permissive slave to your offspring. You should hush that child up and teach her some goddamn manners. All of that was packed into the question. And the amazing thing was that I fell for it. Immediately. One question altered my entire parenting philosophy right there, on the spot. I was now torn between dealing with the girl and looking bad in front of my dad when he wasn't even in the house.
"Sweetheart," I told my daughter, "I'm talking to Papa on the phone. I'll be right with you."
"I wanna talk to you NOW!"
Then I got really stern because I knew my old man was listening. "Young lady, you sit there and you be quiet until I'm finished."
She did neither of those things. Instead, she screamed at me. No words, just a piercing scream that blew my Eustachian tubes apart. She held out her hand like it was a claw, like she wanted to rake my face off. Then she screamed again, as if she had experienced some kind of trauma that only allowed her to communicate through primal wails. Now I was fucking livid.
"Dad, I have to deal with this," I said. I wanted to emphasize that I was hanging up on him strictly so I could put my daughter in her place.
I stormed up to her. "WHAT? What is it that's so important that you have to scream?"
She screamed again. The screams had successfully gotten me to direct all of my attention toward her. The fact that it was negative attention—white-hot, furious attention— didn't matter to her. Kids don't give a shit. They're little trolls. If they've riled you up, they've done their job.
"Young lady, I want you to go to your room."
"NO! You go to YOUR room!"
"I'm going to count to three."
"Faka." And then she laughed.
"What is faka? Are you trying to say ... well, I can't say what I think you're trying to say—"
"Stop saying that. That sounds like a bad word and I don't like you using bad words."
"Okay, that's it. NO DESSERT."
"I hate you!" she screamed.
"Okay, no dessert for two nights."
"NO DESSERT EVER AGAIN. THAT IS THE END OF DESSERT. Kiss all the cupcakes and lollipops good-bye, missy. Because as of today, they are gone FOREVER."
She screamed again and I snapped. I picked her up and she thrashed against me, all elbows and knees. She wasn't light. I could feel my back acting up, and now I was pissed at her for making my back hurt even though I was the one who'd made the stupid decision to pick up a thrashing child. I bounded up the stairs with her to her room and put her on the floor. Then I walked out and locked the door from the outside (I'd switched the locks on the door specifically for this purpose, which is probably a violation of eight different fire codes). I started back down the stairs and she immediately began banging on the door, screaming her head off. Her rage seemed limitless, as if she could keep at it for days without needing sleep or food or air. Children will always have more stamina than you. I expected the door to come flying off its hinges at any moment. My son came up from the basement.
"Deddy, wud going on?" he asked.
"Stay there. Don't go near your sister right now."
Then my daughter somehow managed to scream even louder, as if summoning a bullhorn from down inside her esophagus. I raced up the stairs two at a time and threw open the door. I'm not sure I cared if the swinging door would hit her or not. She slipped by me and ran down the stairs. When she saw the boy, she reared back and smacked his chest with her open hand. And the look he gave her after she did it made me want to cry forever. He looked so deeply hurt. A pure hurt, as if his whole world had been shattered. He couldn't fathom why anyone would ever want to hurt him like that, let alone his own sister, whom he adored. I could see the sense of betrayal in his eyes, and there arose in me a kind of anger that everyone possesses but that no one should ever unleash. I grabbed my daughter again as my son opened wide and howled in pain.
"WHY DID YOU HIT HIM?!"
"I hate him!" she said. "He's the worst brother in the whole world and I'm going to cut his head open!"
"You apologize to him right now."
She walked up and wrapped her arms tightly around him. For half a second, it was a loving gesture. Then she laughed maniacally. When my daughter was born, I got a nice card from my uncle saying that my child's laughter would be the sweetest sound I would ever hear. But that's a lie. Children have two kinds of laughter. The first is the genuine kind, the kind my uncle was talking about. The other is the I'M-ABOUT-TO-DO-EVIL-SHIT laugh. The criminal mastermind laugh. Mwahahahahaha. I dread that laugh because it means someone is about to cry or something is about to fucking break. By the time a child is 4 or 5, this is pretty much the only kind of laugh you hear out of them. The girl began squeezing her brother tighter and tighter. My son was now even more upset than when she first hit him.
"Will you let him go?" I demanded.
But she didn't. She picked him up off the floor, like a pro wrestler about to execute a belly-to-back suplex. I pried her little fingers apart and wrested her away from him, pushing her into the stairs. At this point, the boy was a sobbing mess.
I screamed at her, "What is wrong with you? Leave him alone, god dammit!"
She smiled and hugged me and said, "I love you." She didn't mean ANY of it, which only angered me further.
"Get off of me," I told her. "You're being insincere and I can't stand it."
But she wouldn't stop hugging me. She grabbed on tight and let her entire body sag, nearly snapping my spine. Children do this all the time. They just HANG on you, like you're a monkey bar. I shook her off and she began hitting me in the stomach. She was 5, so these were solid blows. She let out another horrible scream and filled the house with a thick, seemingly impenetrable kind of misery. I grabbed her and dragged her back up to her room and pinned her down on the carpet. She was laughing now. The angrier I got, the harder she laughed. I had to use every last ounce of willpower to restrain myself from kicking her ass because I very much wanted to. Inside me, there arose a voice—a voice so alien from my own that it seemed to belong to some other race of being. A terrifying, horrible voice. If my wife had heard that voice early in our relationship, she never would have married me. I grabbed the girl by the chin and blasted her with The Voice.
"WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?! YOU ARE NOT RESPECTFUL! YOU WILL STAY HERE ALL NIGHT OR I SWEAR TO GOD YOU'LL BE SORRY."
I wanted her to be frightened. I wanted her to cower before The Voice. I thought about my father yelling at me when I was a kid and, oh, how I hated it. One time, I tore down a shower curtain and he yelled so loud at me that I thought my hair was gonna fall out. It scared me to death. I would have done anything as a child to not get yelled at. Even now, though I'm much older and love my father dearly, I dread it when he raises his voice. It causes me to snap right back to adolescence. I looked at my daughter and expected her to crumble, just like I did. I expected her, at long last, to give me some goddamn RESPECT. That's what all parents desperately want, and that's what drives them batshit crazy when they don't get it. Surely The Voice would get me the respect I craved.
And she kept on laughing. I couldn't see her anymore. I couldn't see the beautiful, intelligent, funny little girl that I knew she was. All I could see was this horrible animal. And all I could think was, This is the moment. This is the moment when my relationship with my child turns permanently toxic. I had always believed that you could raise your child in any number of ways and, so long as you loved them unconditionally, you could always remain on relatively good terms. Children are born good, that's what I believed. They're born good and if you love them enough, they stay that way. You hope that love is all that is required to keep your son out of jail and your daughter out of the pornography industry. But now the girl was laughing like a demon and I was terrified that things would get no better than this, that this was where the permanent rift between us would begin, the five previous years of love and—let's face it—hard work that went into raising her rendered pointless. The idea that I could love her and do my best and still get it all terribly wrong was unbearable. I was scared that the fighting would never end, that she would never calm down and just be, that this would be the entirety of our relationship from now on.
And I was pissed. So fucking pissed. I tried my best to lower my voice.
"Please," I told her, "I'm very close to hurting you right now. Please don't make me hurt you. Why don't we, I dunno, talk about dinner? What would you like for dinner?"
The Voice returned. "GOD DAMMIT, NOT CANDY!" I smacked the floor hard enough to break my hand. Still no fear in her eyes.
"Fine," I said. "You want me to spank you? Here we go."
I jerked her up and sat down on one of the little kiddie chairs in her bedroom. I laid her across my lap as she alternated between laughing and shrieking. This was my first time performing an attempted spanking. I looked at her backside and tried to figure out a course of action. Do you pull the pants down? You don't pull the pants down, right? That would just be weird. How hard are you supposed to spank? Is it supposed to really hurt? It's gotta hurt, right? If it doesn't hurt, then they don't get the message. I gave a gentle test blow and nothing happened. Then I spanked a little bit harder and she kept on laughing.
I felt like a fucking idiot. I don't even know how spanking became the go-to method of corporal punishment. It's bizarre. All I could think about while spanking her was that it wasn't working, and that the only thing spanking does is set your child up for a life of sexual deviancy. The creepiness of the whole enterprise is right there, out in the open. I took my daughter off my lap and tried to play nice.
"Please, I don't wanna fight like this."
She laughed in my face, practically spitting into it. "Faka."
Again with that fucking word. I wished that she knew the real swearword so that we could simply get it over with. The anger bubbled up again and I could feel two shades of it. I was angry at my daughter for acting up, obviously. But the far greater anger came from my own self-loathing. I was failing as a parent. Miserably. And even though I was failing in private, it didn't feel that way. I felt as if the whole world was watching me fuck up. That was the real source of anger—that feeling of incompetence, of such obvious, visible powerlessness.
When I was single and saw parents losing it with their kids, I used to frown at them. I'll never be like that, I promised myself. But single people are pathetically naive. They don't know what it's like to spend fourteen consecutive hours with a child. They don't understand how that massive span of time allows for every single possible human emotion to be bared: anger, fear, jealousy, love ... all of it. More to the point, they don't realize what little assholes kids can be. They have no idea. When I was in middle school, they brought in a lady who had traveled to the South Pole to speak to us. She told us that, at one point during the trip, she became so cold and so desperate for food that she ate an entire stick of butter. We all were disgusted. But she was like, "Yeah, well, if you had been at the South Pole, you would have had butter for dinner too." Parenting is similar in that you end up acting in ways that your younger self would have found repellent because the circumstances overwhelm you. What I'm basically saying is that having kids is like being stuck in Antarctica.
I'm not sure any group of parents has ever been subjected to as much widespread derision as the current generation of American parents. We are told, constantly, how badly we are fucking our kids up. There are scores of books being sold every day that demonstrate how much better parents are in China, and in France, and in the Amazon River Basin. I keep waiting for a New York Times article about how leaders of the Cali drug cartel excel at teaching their children self-reliance.
And it's not just books shitting on us. We hear it from our own parents, who go to pathological lengths to remind us that we hover too much, or that we let the kids watch too much TV, or that we're letting our kids eat too much processed dogshit. We're SOFT. That's the stereotype. We're soft parents, and our kids will grow up to be free-range terrorists because of it. We see the stereotype in movies and ads and TV shows and on the news, in study after study that says our kids are getting dumber and fatter and angrier. We've ruined everything. Collectively, all this empirical evidence of our shittiness is destroying our confidence, our ability to handle our kids with any measure of assuredness.
The funny thing is that I think the evidence is probably wrong. Fifty years ago, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment were far more widespread. Fathers were distant and uncommunicative. Everyone smoked in front of their kids. Seat belts were for pussies. And if parents had any kind of problem with their child, they didn't have the Internet on hand to help find a solution, or at least a sympathetic ear. We have that now, and it makes us better. No parents I know suffer a kid's shitty eating habits for long. They're willing to look for help right away, and they can find it, and that matters. That counts for something. We're not that bad, I swear. But the stereotype shrouds all of that.
We even hear the stereotype from fellow parents. We're constantly judging and grading other parents, just to make sure that they aren't any better than us. I'm as guilty as anyone. I see some lady hand her kid a Nintendo DS at the supermarket and I instantly downgrade that lady to Shitty Parent status. I feel pressure to live up to a parental ideal that no one probably has ever achieved. I feel pressure to raise a group of human beings that will help America kick the shit out of Finland and South Korea in the world math rankings. I feel pressure to shield my kids from the trillion pages of hentai donkey porn out there on the Internet. I feel pressure to make the insane amounts of money needed for a supposedly "middle-class" upbringing for the kids, an upbringing that includes a house and college tuition and health care and so many other expenses that you have to be a multimillionaire to afford it. PRESSURE PRESSURE PRESSURE.
And the worst part is that none of those external forces can begin to match the pressure I bring to bear on myself. The fact that I had resorted to grabbing and spanking and willfully inflicting harm on my own child made me feel like a criminal. I felt like, if someone had videotaped the whole episode, I would have been thrown in jail forever. Maybe I deserved to be there. Maybe everyone else was good at keeping their shit together and I wasn't. I alone was the Worst Dad on Earth—the kind of dad that gets entire memoirs written about him by his kids, about living with him and his horrible demons. Maybe I was an abuser. Even telling you this story now, I feel like I'm edging off the details because I'm terrified of admitting how hard I grabbed my daughter's arm. As a matter of fact, I smacked her once. I can't tell you where or why because it makes me feel ugly and I don't want you reading it and demanding that my kids be taken from me. I don't remember my dad ever smacking me. He may have yelled a few times, but nothing that dramatic. Why was I so much worse of a parent? Why didn't my kid respect and fear me the way I respected and feared my old man? Why did my children always require one more minute of patience than I had? And why was I losing my shit at a 5-year-old for acting like a 5-year-old?
The girl was still screaming and driving me to the precipice of madness, and I searched around in my mind for some kind of creative solution. I definitely wanted to punish her. I couldn't even recall what we were fighting about, which happens a lot when you fight with a child. The fight becomes its own reason for being. I wanted to prove my dominance over the household, to regain control. I wanted to WIN, which is foolish because there's no prize for defeating a fucking 5-year-old at something.
Then I thought, a shower. A cold shower. That's humane, right? It doesn't hurt the child. It just offers a dose of surprise refreshment. The more I mulled it over, the more I was convinced it was a good idea, which is NOT TRUE.
"Listen to me," I said to the girl. "I need you to calm down and I need you to promise me you'll never hit your brother again. Or else, you're getting a cold shower." Secretly, I think I wanted her to make me do it. Seemed like a worthy experiment.
"All right, then."
I grabbed her and brought her to the bathroom and undressed her. I turned on the shower as she tried to slip out of my grasp.
"No, Daddy! NONONONONO!" she said.
"You will have to learn."
I put her in and when the cold water smashed against her body, the tone of her screaming changed from anger to sadness. I could hear the shift. I could feel it splitting me open, leaking all the poisonous anger out of me. Her skin went taut with cold and she tried desperately to get away from the water, as if it were attacking her. The fuck am I doing? I pulled her out and she clung to me, crying her eyes out. She was heartbroken.
"Sweetheart, I just wanted you to listen."
And she looked me dead in the eye and shouted out, "BUT I LOVE YOU!"
That was all she needed to say to leave me utterly defeated. She loved me and I had just done something that made it seem like I didn't love her back. The regret was instant and total. I loved her. I loved her more than anything in the world and I didn't even know how we got to this point and now that we were here I felt so dumb, so unbelievably fucking dumb. I took a towel and I wrapped it around her and I wept on her shoulder as I dried her off. "I'm sorry," I said to her. "I'm so sorry. I love you too. I just ... I hate fighting. I don't wanna fight with you. Am I a bad father? I feel like I'm doing a horrible job."
I wanted her to say, "No." I wanted one of those little movie moments where the child turns all precocious and offers words of wisdom to a failing parent. But the girl just ignored me instead. I dried her off and sent her back to her room to get dressed, which she did quietly. I came back downstairs and lay facedown on the floor, crying and pounding the carpet in frustration. My son came out of the play- room and walked up to me, like a dog walking up to sniff a dead body.
"Deddy, are woo oat-kay?"
"I'm okay. Thank you. Thank you so much for asking. I love you guys. I just wish I knew how to figure this out."
He ran away and I scraped myself off the floor. Every time I have a fight with my kids, I feel like I have to start from scratch. I feel like I've tumbled back down the mountain, as if all the good effort I've put in before has gone to waste and I've fucked everything up permanently. All I want are streaks—little runs of good parenting days. I have a vision in my head of a never-ending streak—a time when I have a perfect relationship with my children that involves mutual respect and lots of outward affection. I don't know if that's a real thing or just some pipe dream that only adds to the pressure. Getting up off the floor, I felt like that mythical tipping point was even further away from me now. All I wanted was to get there, and I wasn't gonna give up. It's so easy to turn your child into a villain and let yourself hate your life, but you can't. You can't let misery win out because it will destroy everything.
I composed myself and swore I would never again throw gas on the fire to escalate the conflict. All I had to do was walk away from the girl and the fight would have been over before all this horrible shit happened, but I didn't. My wife came through the door and I shuddered to tell her everything that had happened: The Voice, the arm grab, the spanking, the shower. I didn't want her to know any of it. But I have a big mouth. Nothing stays inside this vault for very long.
"Everything okay?" she asked.
"She hit him and I lost my shit," I said.
"It's all right."
"I spanked her. I'm so fucking sorry. I spanked her and I tried giving her a cold shower to get her to stop being horrible and it was all so stupid."
"It's all right. It's all right. I've spanked her too."
"Oh, yeah," she said. "It does nothing."
"Why doesn't it do anything? I want it to WORK."
"I know! I wish it would."
"Why don't they listen to us? What's wrong with them? I did whatever my dad told me to. In fact, I did what he told me to do just now. And I'm 35, for shit's sake."
"I dunno. Just don't spank her again. It makes everything worse."
"I made it so much worse, you have no idea."
"It's all right."
My daughter came down the stairs and there was no more screaming or evil laughter. She had been replaced with an actual girl, the one I'd kill for. She didn't seem to have any hard feelings about our power struggle. Kids affect a kind of multiple personality disorder—they become entirely different people for a bit and then have no recollection of that identity once the storm has passed.
"Can I get you something to eat?" I asked her.
"Shells and cheese," she said.
At last, a sincere answer. That was all I ever wanted. Plain, mature sincerity. I hugged her and told her I loved her and she pushed me away with a laugh. A nice laugh.
She went to go draw a picture and I began climbing the mountain all over again, hoping to string together enough good days of parenting until I got to the point where there were no more bad days, until the day when I could stand proud in front of stern newscasters and judgmental foreigners and overbearing grandparents and anyone else who thought I sucked at this and tell them that I was a good father and have them believe it.
Excerpted from Someone Could Get Hurt by Drew Magary. Copyright (c) 2013 by Drew Magary. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Image by Jim Cooke.