On Wednesday morning, we decide to go for a hike. That is, the grownups decide: myself, the Grandparents, and my Aunt C all put on shoes and caps and sunblock. X is not having it. He’s already been dragged out on several hikes since we arrived here, so he knows exactly what to expect, and it’s not his idea of a good time.
This morning’s plan dropped on me somewhat abruptly, so I find myself rushing to prepare myself and X for the excursion. Packing is only part of it; we also have a lengthy process of mental preparation, which includes a countdown and a series of false dilemma choices—as in, “Do you want to wear your shoes or your sandals on the hike?” or “Do you want to take your tablet or your DS in the car on the way to the hike?” And so on.
But X is beyond false dilemmas. His response to all the questions is the same: “Not happening.” Eventually I cajole him into the car, but the clash of wills has left me exhausted before the trek has even begun. I find myself starting to resent the other grownups for springing the plan upon us. But then, I think: us? When did I become part of an “us” that includes only myself and a recalcitrant four-year-old?
The battle lines are drawn even more clearly during the hike. Almost immediately, X starts complaining of hunger and thirst, and I realize that none of us brought water with us. No matter, reassures Grandpa, we won’t be out here for long. But for X and I, who started clashing twenty minutes before the car ride, it already feels long. For once, X’s gripes seem completely justified: we should have brought water. And if we were only planning to hike for such a short time that we didn’t need to bring water, then was it really even worth it?
Midway through the hike, X drops onto the trail, despairing. The grownups are already quite a ways ahead. They stand in a cluster underneath the hot sun, weighing their impatience against the distracting loveliness of Kettle Valley. Somewhere beneath us, a waterfall churns, but the foliage is too dense to see it.
I crouch beside my sulking boy. “You’ve got a choice here,” I explain, loathing the condescension in my voice, “You can stay mad, and make everybody else mad, and ruin everybody’s morning. Or you can find a way to enjoy yourself, and make everybody happy.”
X comes around. He turns the walk into his latest video game obsession come to life, and natters cheerfully about laser mice and ghost cats while the hike wraps up. I am proud of him, but guilty at having leveraged other people’s feelings against him—the feelings of grownups, no less, people who should be 100% responsible for our own emotions. Finally, I feel like the alliances are irrevocably in place—it was X and I who weathered this nightmarish, water-less journey together, with no help from the heavies who force-marched us out there.
Yet over the next two days, the alliances switch, sometimes with no warning. X pulls some stunt designed to push our buttons, like opening the garage door while we’re all upstairs, and I’m back on Team Grownup, throwing down sanctions and hollow threats to keep him in line. When I get jealous of my writing time, or when I want to have a conversation with my relatives that isn’t interrupted every thirty seconds by demands for treats, I am absolutely the Enemy. But when I’m the only one in the room who notices why the kid is acting up (low blood sugar, past bedtime, nobody has acknowledged him for fifteen minutes, etc.), my sympathies make me switch sides again, and I often drop everything in favour of parenting. Sometimes I can’t resist a passive-aggressive dig at “those mean old grownups who never pay attention.” Double agents burn a lot of bridges.
On Thursday morning, X and I leave the others and drive one hour to Vernon, where we spend the day with friends who have three kids—2, 6, and 11. Everyone seems relaxed and laid back, evoking the elusive platonic ideal of the family vacation. The kids enthusiastically take X into their fold, and for one of the first times ever, I wonder if X (or if I) might be better off if he weren’t an only child. I disabuse myself of the notion soon enough, exhausting myself thoroughly just keeping up with the one kid. When I ask my friend how they juggle three, she cheerfully replies, “We’re always scheduling.”
Before lunch, the six-year-old brings out a boardgame called “Beat the Parents,” a lighthearted trivia game that pits big people against little people. It’s the boardgame version of the struggle I’ve been acting out inside my mind, and it makes me realize how much of my daily stress and self-doubt arises from a grownup inversion of what X did, back on the hike—instead of using games to escape, I’m waging war on the status quo. Mostly, the antagonism between us seems to come from him…but from whom is he modelling all that combativeness?
Every step of the way, I have resisted parenting, at some level or other. And yet—you’ve got a choice here. You can stay mad, and make everybody else mad. Or you can find a way to be happy, and make everybody happy.
Tonight, while putting X to bed, this morbid exchange:
X: I love you, Papa. And I will never let you die.
SS: Thanks, buddy.
X: Well, you will have to die eventually. But I will never let anybody kill you.
SS: You probably don’t need to worry about it.
X: Well, if somebody does kill you, then I will kill them back. And their whole town.
SS: Go to sleep, buddy.
Us versus them. On the one hand, I’m raising a sociopath and I’ve failed as a pacifist parent. On the other hand, it’s nice to know somebody’s got my back.