Krista and I will be the first to confess that we are far from perfect people. This humble column provides too little space to document all the ways I fall short (I’m not so stupid as to list in print my opinion about Krista’s shortcomings) on a daily basis—I snore, I probably tease too much, I’m intellectually dense, I read too little, I worry about things over which I have little or no control, etc.—yet for all our shortcomings we possess, I believe, at least a little self-awareness.
For example, after a particularly demanding stretch with the amigos we may find ourselves on the verge of raising the black flag, spitting on our hands, and chopping a few heads. But at least we are (usually) conscious of this attitude, this emotional witch’s brew of exhaustion, exasperation, and occasionally even disgust.
In other words, sometimes we need a time-out and we’re pretty savvy about when it’s necessary. I always know when we’re close to utilizing the “black flag” protocol because I direct the following statement silently to my children: “I love you. Please go away.” This indicates my DEFCON 2 level of parental stress. DEFCON 1 is marked by the same statement, absent the “please.”
In any case, we reached that point last week. Because we’re selfless and responsible adults we dumped the amigos on Grandma and high-tailed it out of town arranged for the kids to spend some quality time with Grandma and headed to a quiet hotel surrounded by nothing other than harvested corn fields, a couple of restaurants, and an outlet mall. I know, I know. We give and we give and we give.
As our 40-hour junket proceeded, I noticed something fascinating: Just as there are stages of a man’s life (young adulthood, middle age, and “my, you’re looking well!”) and stages of child-rearing (including the recurring “black flag” micro-stage cited above), there are stages to a parental getaway weekend. First comes the “thrill stage.” It begins with the exciting realization that you’re in an automobile alone with your spouse. No DVD playing. No interruptions to your adult conversation. No intermittent squabbling. It continues through your visit to a restaurant of your choosing, with no considerations whatever of children’s fare on the menu or the speediness of the service at said establishment. You can hardly believe your good fortune. You might even stare into your beloved’s eyes a while and—mirabile dictu!—hold hands across the table. This wondrous, halcyon period typically lasts until the next morning.
You’ve enjoyed an entire evening together—a pleasant and not-too-long drive to your hotel, an unimpeded meal, a blissful evening in a quiet room. It is awesome, but it must end. The human heart and head, sorry to say, can take only so much awesomeness. Failing to move on from this stage has been associated with all sorts of damaging thrill-seeking activities and addictions. So the wise among us bid adieu to “thrill” and enter the “satisfaction” stage. Your heart begins to beat at its normal rate. You return from the orbit you enjoyed the evening before and realize that your spouse is, indeed, human. He has stale morning breath, thinning hair, and expanding love handles (hypothetically speaking, of course), but you’re nevertheless pretty crazy about him. You spend roughly the next 24 hours in this stage, in my experience. You have a few more pleasant meals and catch up with each other. Perhaps you hike or see a movie or even (as we do) indulge in a little early Christmas shopping together. During this stage you also find yourself reflecting on your children a bit and expressing sentiments like “yes, they’re a hassle…and yes, they tick me off…and, yes, they’ve shaved a few years off my life…but they’re also entertaining (sometimes) and fun (sometimes) and interesting (usually) and they’ve helped me grow (always) and, God help me, I love them.”
You enter the final stage as you prepare to pack your bags and return home. I call it the “reality” stage. You’re grateful for your time away, feel a renewed appreciation for your long-suffering and patient better half, realize again what a spectacular and generous human being grandma is (and feel humbled by the prospect of trying to “pay it forward” as a grandparent yourself in a decade or two), and feel ready to meet the challenges and daily demands of being a parent without resorting to the black flag protocol any time soon. You feel rested, at least until the following morning, and your children are safe for the time being. You enter your home and unpack your bags and smile.
And you move the needle to “DEFCON 5” until further notice.