observations and opinion
I use the men’s change room now. The days of watching Junior like a hawk, to see she didn’t disappear at the pool, are long gone.
At a busy public pool, the men’s change room is a human crossroads. There are antique Chinese men sitting together on the benches, firing clipped song-like sentences. Random young guys are always brooding or bellowing like big dogs; everything is a laugh, apparently. Men there alone approach the whole matter in a business-like way, choosing the best locker available and assembling their clothes in it methodically, as if packing a steamer trunk for a boat ride to Istanbul.
And then there are the dads. They are a blurry bunch, true “thirtysomethings.” Most of the guys are white and the white guys are kind of pasty, even a touch grey around the gills. These are the least relaxed people in the room. What they are is worried, and they’re worried because they have the kid with them.
In here, the kid is a boy. A little one, old enough to follow dad around. Not big enough to decide to go to the pool, however. That decision, like almost every other decision, was probably made by mom. It being Saturday, dad is on duty. And man, is he on duty.
One of the traits of men, you may notice if you listen to them, is that most often they talk about stuff. Stuff as in things, activities or places. Male public conversation is usually a trading post, a mildly frantic exchange of information and opinions, punctuated with wise-ass humour or, if things go seriously awry, the dull thump of a deadening “sure” or “yeah” or “okay.” Chat over.
The dads, as I have heard them in recent weeks, are in a different conversation with their little companions. Whether compelled by an earnest wish to make everything a learning experience or, perhaps, to coax little Mathias into displaying his specialness, the dads engage in a gentle, TV-host kind of lecturing.
“What language is this on the sign, can you tell?” Silence. “Is it French?” Silence. “Do you speak French?” Long silence. Right now the little dude isn’t even speaking English, mister. He wants to play in the pool.
I have heard many variations on this conversation recently. It is always the same, trying to jam information into the kid’s head or cultivate new skills with every turn of the combination lock, every flip-flop into the shower, every “do you want to try to pee standing up?” And all the little Noahs, Ethans, Jacksons and Liams do is stare up at dad, or stare off at something fascinating like someone’s gym bag, failing utterly to cooperate with the educational agenda.
We are here to swim, man. To splash really. There is no sign on the wall that says “Please do not have fun.”
It is easy to mock these overly-earnest fathers, trying gamely to steer their three year-olds towards med school or Steven Job-hood. And it is excruciating to hear my own voice in theirs’, echoing all the “can you read that sign, Nina?” “do you know how to spell DANGER?” Did I ever give the kid a break? Jeez, I think I was worse than these guys in the change room.
Seemingly from the day she came home, she was always watching. Always absorbing everything. It felt like she could see around to the back of my head. This led me to think that she wanted to know everything. Being a know-it-all, we were perfectly matched. I would stuff her brain with new words and information incessantly. For the most part, she dutifully repeated it all back and, it appears, remembered a good deal of it too. We burdened her with a ridiculously long first name, so I made up a song which spelled-out the letters. On vacation, I drew the name in the sand and we hop-scotched our way along it, over and over, singing the song. It is thanks only to this neural implant, I am sure, that my teenaged daughter can spell her name.
What is it like to be constantly informed of everything? What is it like to live under a constant cloud of expectation to spit it all back? I thought I was giving my girl the keys to the kingdom, but listening to the Dads in the Locker Room now, it seems to me more likely, that I was often just a pain in the ass.
Not that she complained. She is more subtle than that, slowly tuning me out, politely. Her head is in the game, but it’s another game. Try as I did to educate her at the pool, at the store, at the beach, at the… everywhere, well now, she appears to be educating herself, thank you very much. No, she is not interested in watching the films which I consider essential to be literate, they’re b-o-r-i-n-g. Not all of them, not To Kill a Mockingbird, okay, but MOST of them. This kills me, of course.
In one of her recent PowerPoint presentations for middle school (that’s what they do now, new moms and dads – PowerPoints) she did a talk called “Teenagers” which included this information:
Teens don’t try to be self-centred, there is just so much going on in our heads, it feels like there is no time for anyone else.
Yes, parents who are processing jobs, commutes, insurance, mortgages, school fees, car payments and ten thousand other things might indulge in their own eye-roll, muttering “kid, you think you’ve got a lot on your plate!” But of course, kids do have a lot on their plates. Everything is new, and that’s pretty damned tiring. And everything feels BIG, according to my local expert on the topic. She explains:
As well as being rather focused on ourselves, we are also very hard on ourselves.
What you perceive as sheer vanity is probably actually us staring endlessly at every imperfection. We’re honestly not trying to muster up sympathy from you. Parents can raise their teens’ self-esteem by telling them how wonderful they are, at every given time!
Did she feel wonderful every time she was educated and implicitly tested? Doubtful. Not that I’ve let up, either: I still feel the urge to explain everything. Hence, a recent “verbal powerpoint” of my own on the political unrest in Thailand. “Really? Hmm…” Junior said, feigning interest and nodding sagely between fork fulls of sticky rice. Until Taylor Swift writes a song about it, I expect the Thai political schism will probably not fascinate the girl.
This frustrates me. When will she ever watch “Little Women”? Is there a map-reading app that looks like Instagram? Was that March Break trip to Colonial Williamsburg, that “dad insisted on”, really fodder for ten thousand eye rolls? Another dystopian novel? (trend almost over, I am told), how about… any other writer? No, not that one.
The days of force-feeding information into my kid are over. What concerns me, looking back, is whether I turned too many happy occasions, too many swims and park visits and car rides, into brain-curdling torture. Do you see that field out there, it is used to farm….the reason the water smells like this is a chemical called chlorine, which….these tubes are made from steel, which is very strong but can be surprisingly brittle…This song is called “I am Woman”, you should listen to the words… God help her, what a pain.
Listening to the locker room dads, I don’t envy their constant pulsating anxiety over what little Connor knows, or how high Aiden can count. I can’t really expect them to let up on the kids – they’re worried, because it’s a worrisome world. But from the vantage point of a decade on, as I meticulously pack my lonely gym bag, I wish the dads could hear the advice of a very wise woman, on what to say to your kids.
Tell them how wonderful they are, at every given time!
Consider yourself told, miss.