I used to laugh at my mother.
It would begin with her getting on the phone with a customer service representative. (Keep in mind that this was back in Ye Good Olde Days before Al Gore singlehandedly invented the Internet, when instead of yelling at ambiguous, unhelpful websites or cussing at incompetent live-chat reps in all caps, the only game in town was to actually haggle with a real person about bills, warranties, and Hooked on Phonics.)
While my mother attempted to insult the intelligence of whatever dolt she was dealing with on the other line, some semblance of the following events would transpire.
My two younger sisters, who were a year apart and constant playmates, would be “Doing a Story,” their name for playing out an improvisational narrative with a star-studded cast of Barbies, My Little Ponies, and whichever Legos their brother failed to hide well enough. In choosing which playthings each of them would voice, the oldest of the two would always weasel her way into First Draft Pick.
“I’ll be Malibu Botox Barbie.”
“No! You got to be Malibu Botox Barbie last time we Did a Story!”
“But this is the sequel. I have to be Malibu Botox Barbie again or else we’ll tank at the box office. The fan base expects me, not some young, up-and-coming no-name. Here, you can be Especially Flamboyant Ken.”
“Girls!” my Mom would hiss. “I’m on the phone!”
Fully engrossed in their heated casting session, their battle would rage on without even acknowledging my mother.
“Then be Less-Exciting Sister With the Arm Missing Stacie!”
“Why can’t I be one of those 20 other Barbies?”
“Because I’m Barbie.”
“Girls!” persisted my mother from the other room, tethered to the wall by the phone cord. (Yes, this was also before cell phones, and while cordless phones existed, they were an unnecessary luxury for people like my parents, who to this day are still terrified of paying an additional $5 per month because the thought of learning to use a DVR inspires crippling anxiety.)
Meanwhile, I’d be at the kitchen table tuning most of this out, crafting comic books with my 64-pack of Crayola crayons, and just when Optimus Prime and Michelangelo were about to save Gotham City from the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, I’d run out of paper.
“Mom, do we have anymore paper?”
She’d stick a finger in her phoneless ear and pace to the other side of the kitchen. “I’m on the phone, Johnny.”
“But Mom, Optimus Prime and Michelangelo need to save Gotham City from the Stay Puft Ma–”
She’d hold up a single index finger.
“Mom, just tell me where it is. I’ll get it myself.”
The index finger re-jolted with violent gusto.
“Fine. I’ll find it myself.”
“No! That’s not fair! Mom! Tell her she has to let me be Malibu Botox Barbie!”
“Mom, she can’t! It’s the sequel! Nobody will like it if it’s a different actor, like in Teen Wolf Too!”
…which would then bring my attention to my sisters’ set dressings…
“Hey! Wait a minute! Those are my Legos! Mom, they stole my Legos again!”
“You weren’t using them! Why can’t we?”
“Why can’t I be Malibu Botox Barbie?”
…the noise from which prompted our dog to start barking…
“Give me back my Legos!”
“If you take those Legos, we’ll rip your comic book.”
“Then I’ll pull the other arm off Less Exciting Sister With the Arm Missing Stacie!”
…and my mother, who had already over-stretched the phone cord to the furthest corner of the room, would (despite the vein popping out of her forehead) calmly tell the customer service representative, “I’m sorry, can you just hold on for a second?” Then, she’d finally give her poor, neglected children the attention they so desperately needed.
“HEY!” she’d yip. It was only a split second in duration, yet simultaneously deafening and terrifying. The room fell instantly silent.
The dog would slink under the kitchen table. F*ck that. I’m choosing my battles.
However, my sisters and I would idiotically take this opportunity to attempt our burning questions one more time in an unintelligible barrage of queries.
“QUIET!” she’d roar. She was careful never to tell us to “shut up” because according to her it was a bad word (to which I’d invariably respond that it was actually two, unless maybe you hyphenate it), but we knew “QUIET” meant the same exact thing. “Will you just give me. One. Second. On the phone? My God, I can’t hear myself think!”
My sisters, stunned from the verbal blow, wouldn’t move a muscle. However, as the oldest, I’d developed an immunity over the years, and instead could never help chuckling, “Mom, that’s silly. You can always hear yourself think…Oh, and Mom? Where’s the paper? Because right now Optimus Prime and Michelangelo need to save Gotham City from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”
. . .
Well guess what, Mom?
After all these years of laughing at you, I finally get it.
Because while the Twins and the Canine Crusader typically understand that I can’t give all three of them my undivided attention, all bets are suddenly off whenever I just need a freaking moment to get something done.
It’s not like I ask for much. The whole day is all about the Twins (chopping three meals into bite-sized chunks, revitalizing tushees in the event of a pair of deuces, reading board books with Oscar-worthy gusto) and secondarily our K-9 Unit (chasing down stuffed animals she’s pillaged, opening the sliding door at least 100 times because maybe there’s someone walking by to bark at while the Twins nap, and cussing her out for it with even more awe-inspiring Oscar-worthy gusto).
I realize my life is no longer my own. I am okay with cramming chores, schoolwork, and writing into dead sprints once naptime hits. I have embraced taking dumps while six eyes marvel from the other side of the baby-gated bathroom threshold.
Really, all I want is those few moments required to coordinate a study with fellow students or straighten out a research assistantship payroll issue via email; to respond when my wife texts, thus reassuring her that my stay-at-home fathering is not just an elaborate sham; or most importantly, to be hilarious on Twitter.
But by the time my phone is out of my pocket and I’ve managed to generate four characters of writing, it starts.
My son, having just rekindled his love-hate relationship with the stacking cups, will suddenly and violently launch into yet another knock-down, drag-out break-up. Once I talk him down from the bathroom stepstool and get him to promise never to stack them again until tomorrow, I’ll get about a word and a half more typed before my daughter intentionally hurls her beloved stuffed Piglet over the baby gate and out of reach, prompting a daughter-flavored meltdown, but before I even get this little piggie all the way home, my son is back on the cups, throwing tiny fists and baby cusses. This is the very moment–while the loinfruit decibels rise–that my dog decides she desperately needs me to pet her, adding a pathetic, whimpery undertone to the mix.
I put out fires, fulfill requests, heroically refocus my household dependents back to stasis.
Surely I can now finish writing that sentence.
But wait, my son has now mimicked his sister, graciously throwing Piglet overboard for her. The dog seizes the opportunity for more attention, taking off running with it. My daughter is beside herself. I tell my son, “No,” and hear him crumble despondently as I corner and tackle my dog, recovering P-P-Poor P-P-Piglet.
I put the dog out and buy a round of juices to break the tension. All is quiet except for the gurgle of Sippy Cups.
Sighing in relief, I again unsheathe my phone.
Seven characters later, my son screams.
Those damn stacking cups.
I remove them from the premises and decide to just power through, to finish my thought while I actually remember it and get it sent while my son winds himself down.
But he doesn’t. And as I try to formulate a coherent thought, all that exists in the entire world is that whine and me. It burrows into my psyche, throwing up the Microsoft Windows Blue Screen of Death and forcing shutdown. There is no hope for me.
I pick him up and tickle his armpits. He doesn’t want to, but can’t help cackling with glee. My daughter takes off running, the cue for us to chase her around the ottoman until we all fall down giggling.
Feeling a vibration in my pocket, I sneak a peek at my phone. It’s my wife:
Are you doing okay? I haven’t heard from you all morning.
I then glance up at the two weasels now rounding the mulberry bush, looking expectantly at Daddy to be their monkey. You’re not really getting back on that thing, are you, Daddy?
It goes in the pocket and I’m on my feet.
Mommy can wait a minute more. Daddy needs to make some weasels go “pop.”
. . .
So I guess the moral to the story is this: if you call, email, text, Tweet, Facebook, or carrier pigeon me when I’m on the SAHD clock and you don’t hear back from me right away, I want you to know that I most certainly received it and fully intend to reply.
It’s just that at the moment, I can’t hear myself think.
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