The Mermaid Question

Nate and Sam. My sons. My narcissistic legacy I’m imparting to the world. I already birthed them and fed them breakfast. Isn’t that enough? Am I finished my job? No. Nope, I still need to educate them. I need to nurture their creativity. I must cultivate their abilities to construct, design, plan, and organize. I need to stimulate their intellects, further challenge their genius, enlighten them with worldly truths. Then there’s the physical training. We have to drill in push-ups, seventeen types of crunches, militant jump-roping, and their daily timed one-thirtieth of a mile — which is basically a lap around our house. And let’s not forget the brainwashing!


Without my guidance and instruction, how will they ever survive in the world? How will they earn their fortunes? Gain fame? Accomplish anything? Thrive? Achieve? Flourish? Prosper? They won’t. They need me. Without my help, Nate and Sam will fail, and I will have failed the world, denying it the gift of Nate’s and Sam’s groomed talents. Perhaps they will solve all the problems that I couldn’t get to — hunger, poverty, climate change, alien invasions, congressional term limits, and a salary cap in Major League Baseball — but only with my tutelage.


And that’s a lot of pressure. I’m reminded of the quote from the book, The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn, which I highly recommend, especially if you’re a mom or dad, and especially if you’re the stay-at-home type. “How many hours a day did we have to actively cultivate the children’s sense of wonder before we earned a few hours to ignore them?” It’s the mermaid question. 


Yes, my point exactly! I’m inherently lazy, so what exactly is the ratio of “active” engagement of our kids to “earned” neglect? If I do a puzzle with a kid for twenty minutes in the morning, can I go soak in the tub for forty? If we read books together at bedtime, can I at least finish my cereal uninterrupted in the morning? Is it wrong to go sit in the car in the garage, where they can’t find me, after I dump out some crayons and paper on the dining room table and tell them to “art?” Can I get away with curling up in bed with my book after I serve them lunch? 


Because listen: constant engagement and entertainment and education and encouragement and any other “e” word is exhausting. I’m exhausted. We’re all exhausted.


And really, isn’t this the question that everyone asks about everything in their lives? I don’t even think that’s a hyperbolic, rhetorical question. Like, “if I stay late at work today, can I leave early tomorrow and go to happy hour?” Or, “if I go really hard in this part of my workout, can I take a longer water break later?” “If I eat a salad for lunch, can I have Boston Cream Pie for dinner?” “If I listen to my friend’s super-boring story about her childhood trauma and ask an on-point follow-up question now, can I zone out during her answer?”


And the answer is “yes!” To all of the above. It’s called delayed gratification, and it’s a concept that kids need to learn anyway, so why not model if for them? Often.


And be upfront and honest about it. Just tell him: “Son, I’m going to sit here with you and patiently refrain from clawing my eyes out while you color and then later, I’m going to reward myself with some hot cocoa and some Facebook-skimming time while you veg out in front of Ninjago. By the way, your drawing is terrible. But I’ll smile at you and praise you for your hard work, not for your God-given talent because, clearly, you have none.”


This is the only way your kids can possibly learn the lesson that good things can come to those who wait. So, Nate, stop asking me repeatedly to serve you your breakfast in the morning. Bagels take longer than 0.034 seconds to toast. Then it takes a few moments to add cream cheese, pour your orange juice, and fish a Flintstones vitamin from the jar in the cabinet above the sink — on the other side of the kitchen. Instead of growing increasingly irritated as I can’t speed up the toasting process, why don’t you dream about the bagel. How good will it taste then? The smooth, velvety cream cheese that melts in your mouth…The soft bagel with the crispy, slightly charred edges…Mmm….How much better will that combination taste after you’ve waited a whole four minutes? Meanwhile I’m forgoing my own breakfast pleasures by prioritizing yours. My bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with half of a banana and 1% milk while I skim the New York Times will feel like a spa treatment at the end of a marathon.


The best scenario is when you can multi-task. For example, you can drive to the grocery store, a necessary operation in most households, and turn around repeatedly to the baby in the backseat and make him shriek with laughter each time with a goofy face, like you actually might be funny. It’s even better when you don’t crash the car while doing it. You’re bonding, teaching social cognition skills, and being moderately productive. Or, while in the grocery store, talk to them, teach them lessons about discounts and coupons, and when they’re old enough to walk, send them on errands in the store. “Go pick out the leanest ground beef, please.” Or, “please go find the cereal that maximizes fiber and protein while minimizing sugar content. I’ve never been able to do that myself, but hey, you’re three now. Wow me.”


And, sometimes, my “delayed gratification” activity is — brace yourselves — something really worthwhile, which is almost equally satisfying. Like folding laundry. Or scrubbing the toilets or the shower. Or making dinner. Or sweeping the dust bunnies out of Nate’s room. Those little guys are getting so big now that they have actual personalities. Nate says good-bye to them when he leaves for school in the morning. Sam kisses them goodnight at bedtime. I read them stories. But they’re paying rent now, so I can’t really complain. 


Now, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’m going to go read the “food page” from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Sam for the 5,632,934th time in hopes of having a clear conscience when I try and close my eyes for twenty seconds after lunch to dream about my life in eighteen years. I’m really starting to despise you, Eric Carle.