I press myself up from the sensible mattress. The impression of my 42-year-old form marks a crime-scene chalk outline for a brief moment, until the NASA-designed foam releases that shade of Julian Murdoch into the ether. I can feel last night in my lower back — too many hours hunched over, sitting on the floor, wrapping presents and watching Dr. Who. By tradition, I head downstairs first while the kids sit on the stairwell, out of sight of the Christmas tree. I turn on the coffee maker. I turn on the tree lights.
“Santa came!” I cry out in my most enthusiastic dad-voice, a tone reserved not just for children, but specifically for my children in moments when I’m channeling Ward Cleaver.
Small feet rattle the house. I hug the kids as they race by. They’re warm in their matching pajamas, wide eyed and full of animal glee.
The coffee is sour.
By 10AM, all the presents are open, the garbage collected. It’s a good Christmas. I’ve had Nerf battles and played Lego Indiana Jones 2 for half an hour with my son. I’ve read the book of poems my daughter wrote. I’ve started work on a massive Lego TIE Fighter.
But sitting there on the old, tired, blue-and-white striped couch, as I start thinking about what to make the kids for lunch, I am filled with loss and resentment.
On this holiest of days, a day which holds genuine spiritual meaning for me, a day in which the secular world glorifies childhood, I am overwhelmed by Grinchian Scroogemongering.
Not because the day isn’t wonderful (it is). Not because it’s overly commercial (ours wasn’t). Not because I don’t love my family with every fiber of my being (I do, and do, and do).
But because Christmas is no longer mine — it’s theirs.
Here’s the dirty little secret of being a parent — it implies being a grownup. And being a grownup often sucks. I’m quite good at avoiding it, honestly. I’ve spent most of my life driving a not-too-hidden Peter Pan agenda, one in which I get to live where I want, how I want, doing work I want to do, playing games, buying toys and avoiding unnecessary responsibility. I’ve managed to raise my children, so far, in harmony with my own love for play. I have indeed managed to indoctrinate my children with those things I love so that I might fulfill my own childlike desires alongside them.
But increasingly, it seems I’m forced into a box. In the box, I experience vicarious pleasure, rather than being a collaborator in my children's play. In the box, I'm responsible for building and tweaking and otherwise owning the new computer on which my daughter will play Wizard 101, while I haven't made my weekly World of Warcraft group in a month. And yes, I am bitter.
It’s smelly and hard and uncomfortable in this box. I sit on the discarded pieces of a Lego X-Wing I built "for Peter" last year. The sharp bits dig into my skin, small and irretrievably separated from the awesome that was the completed Rebel fighter just 12 months ago. Its wings went to make dollhouse furniture last summer.
I don’t fit in this box. I don’t like it. But there's absolutely no question that I constructed it, piece by piece, out of willpower and furious intent. I've carefully molded my children's loves and desires to hew close to my own, and now that they're old enough to have filled out the edges of the world I've shown them, I am green-eyed and sore as they expand into it, leaving me with the mortgage and the taxes and the health insurance forms.
This is an ugly, selfish feeling. I imagine sitting in first-century Corinth, reading the Apostle Paul’s epistle, and shaking my fist, cursing Paul for telling me to behave like a grownup. It seems, at that moment, that Paul would do well to go suck an egg.
I keep this to myself, of course. I bury the id as I have so many times in my life. Not to do so is to walk down a path of personal anarchy, one which leads directly away from the man whom I've spent 42 years getting to know, and whose birthday I am celebrating.
Tomorrow will be another day. I will wake up, and I will revel in the good around me. I will love my kids, and my kids will love me back. I will share joy in their discoveries.
I will be a good father.
And if I ever insinuate that this is an easy choice, call me a liar.