The Secret Life of Dad

“Daddy, I just want to be with you now.” The Stygian depths of self-loathing resonate with the echo of hearing this from a hopeful seven year-old and desiring instead to plug your children into whatever insipid, appropriately verboten pabulum is most conveniently handy while you shut down the tumult of a long day’s chaos in your brain by shooting virtual terrorists, ogres or space aliens. Of course, because you are a good person and not at all the selfish, absentee parent that you sometimes sorta-kinda wish you were, what you actually do is close up your laptop, put on a stiff upper lip, and get ridden around the living room like a pony until the carpet burns your knees and palms into the rosy color of a crappy Seagrams wine cooler.

I suppose I always thought, somewhere deep inside, that having kids would flip the switch in my personality that had previously allowed me to be unrepentantly self-involved. But the me that used to rush home with the latest video game and play for six or seven consecutive hours as my wife read away happily on the couch has gone nowhere. He’s still there on the inside, knowing that his gratification is frustratingly delayed until the kids are played with, and dinner is made, and fights over toy cars are mediated, and the question “Why?” is answered 975 times, and tantrums are patiently yet sternly diverted, and baths are taken, and arguments about why baths have to be taken are had and resolved, and skepticisms about whether important parts were washed to an appropriate extent are eased, and negotiations about what is and is not an appropriate bedtime are adjourned and finally there is a house full of sleep and my God is it really 11:00 and I have an appointment in the morning so this game is just going to have to wait.

This is why Killzone 3 has sat on my entertainment center unopened for two days. This is the story of being a video gaming dad.

I always worry about being honest with people on how I interpret my role as a parent, because I fear I give off the vibe of being on a kind of personal Bataan Death March through child rearing. On the other hand, I also feel like parents who talk about being parents too often want to prove what great parents they are and so are quick to Brady Bunch it all up.

Few people ever really admit, “What I really want to do is put Dora the Explorer on a DVD loop, put the kids in a padded room where they can’t hurt themselves, and spend the afternoon in a sensory deprivation tank with a bottle of Southern Comfort and a mindless, Activision-made shooter.” The reason no one ever says that is because: a) It’s never going to happen in real life; b) it unmasks the selfish monster that I have to actively restrain in my head every single day; and c) who wants to admit to wanting to play Activision games these days? But those dark circles under the eyes of parents -- those are the festering bags where we store away our shameful lazy impulses, and don’t for a second believe anyone who says otherwise.

The hardest thing to come to terms with about being a parent has always been that I don’t just stop being me because my kids want me to be this other person. I have worked hard to create this Dad identity, who is at least occasionally fair, even-handed, patient and loving—an artificial construct of Mrs. Doubtfire, Mr. Rogers and a golden retriever wrapped into one. It’s not the real me, but it is the only me with the capacity to relate to people who will still make the questionable choice of sticking a pair of nail clippers all the way into their own mouth.

I see these nature shows where a pride of lions lounge lazily in the sun while some wayward cub comes recklessly into the frame, and you just know that by the end of the shot one of those daddy-lions is going to erupt into a brief but terrifying display of “If you bite my tail one more time, I am going to eat you like a gazelle.” Every time I see that, I think that basically describes the deep secret dark of every dad I know.

My best definition of humanity is not eating your children like gazelles, even if it seems like a good idea.

It would be one thing if these lazy lions were doing something useful like their taxes instead of sunning themselves on the Veld. It would be much easier to be on the lion-daddy’s side if he were wearing a green accountant’s visor and a pair of spectacles while scowling at a stack of papers. You could say, “Well, that cub should have known better than bother him while he’s deducting the interest on his student loans, or calculating his long-term dividends.” But, he’s not. He’s doing the lion equivalent of playing a video game.

Thing is, kids are smart, and from the outside they can make you look like a complete tool. They do this all the time in the supermarket, for example. All those assumptions you make about the terrible parent whose kid is having a tantrum in front of the exit door are exactly what that kid wants you to make assumptions about, because by 17 days of life they have learned that embarrassment is their leverage. What you don’t know is that when my son is saying, “I just want to spend time with you,” there is a reasonable chance that what he means is, “I want to do something I won’t otherwise be allowed to do except under the auspices of spending time together.”

It’s like when my 1 year old learned to respond to the word “no” by just repeating it. He would wander around, grab up the remote and start changing channels randomly. I’d leap to my feet, and explain to him in the most explain-y voice I have that doing that is a “no, no, no.” Then he’d look at me with genius brimming in his eyes, and repeat “no-no-no” to me while doing exactly what he’s not supposed to do, and just like that I’m beaten. He’s just marginalized the word “no,” taken it right out of my parents’ toolbag. Now what the hell am I supposed to do? There’s only “yes” left that he has chosen to understand. So that’s it. Game over, man.

I don’t want you to have the impression that I don’t like spending time with my kids. We do it all the time, and I love it. But, honest to God, sometimes you just want to come home and play some Killzone—but you know if you do that, then just like that you’re the guy who played a game called “Killzone” instead of being a good dad and playing with your offspring (which for all practical concerns means an hour of playing Thomas the Tank Engine, only you are given Toby, who is the crappiest tank engine of all time).

As you're playing, Toby becomes a metaphor. I bet Toby never gets to play video games. I bet every time Toby gets back to the station house, just as he’s settling in to watch some TV, James, Thomas and Gordon all side up next to him and say, “Hey, Toby, let’s hang out together,” which Toby knows means that they all have something they want to watch on the television and it isn’t what he wants to watch.

My wife and I ran across some pictures of ourselves recently taken before we had kids, and those people in those pictures look about 27 years younger. We both kept commenting that we sure had grown older in the past six or seven years, and I kept trying to think of things besides having become a parent that influenced that. The only other guess I could make was, “Man, who knew the Bush years would take it out of us like that?”

I actually love being a dad. I don’t want you to imagine otherwise. The reality is that very often I do pack away the laptop or PS3, and have an amazing time with my kids. My desk at work is annoyingly littered with pictures of my boys, and when people ask me about my children I really end up making them regret asking or even knowing me in the first place. But like any work worth doing, the better a job you hope you do at it, the exponentially harder the job becomes. Parenting is, by definition, nearly constant marginalization of your own ego and impulses, and at least for me those voices in my head did not go quiet into that good night.

It’s certainly not that I never get to play games anymore. It’s just that often there is this nagging guilt associated with it. It’s time I’ve chosen not to spend with the people closest to me. I’m making a choice to invest in the unreal world instead of the one where I can have the most important impact, and I know that has consequences. So, even if I’m being totally manipulated by these miniature need-machines I’ve so recklessly helped create, I know my job is to put on this created Dad identity and go be a positive influence in a young life.

Except, of course, for those times where I’m close to finishing an important WoW quest. Then I just turn on an episode of Arthur for the kids so I can get that phat loot!

Comments

The timing of this and the child enabling thread is kinda funny.

Very interesting, I enjoyed it.

My head, please to be leaving now!!

Great thread, and I know exactly what you mean. It is still as struggle for me to mentally switch myself over from the self-indulgent man-child whose wife let him game every spare second, to the responsible dad who doesn't game until after the baby goes to bed. It is really hard to reorganize my priorities, but I certainly don't regret becoming a father. The selfish in me cringes when I think of what #2 is going to do to diminish my time further, but then I hear my daughter giggle and it is all worth it.

Kier wrote:
The timing of this and the child enabling thread is kinda funny.

Very interesting, I enjoyed it.

Yeah, this is not doing anything to alleviate the sense I have sometimes that the world revolves around me...:lol:

Anyway, I don't have time right now, but suffice it to say, I'll be reading this piece in its entirety as soon as I can!

Holy crap, Sean. It's like you reached in and stole a piece of my brain and now it is on display on the internet. Excellent article.

Very nice piece. Makes this dad feel less like a monster for his own selfish impulses to hear that other dads wrestle with it too (and make the sacrifices we know we should make).

Further proof of the genius of a child. My 3-year-old son's request is always phrased, "Do you want to play with me, Papa?" (add that cute child inflection too) It's the substitution of "Do you want to" for "Will you" that makes me quite certain that this sentence is a carefully, diabolically constructed instrument that will, every single time, defeat me. "Do you want to" indeed!

I just passed this on to a friend who is expecting.

It's not just for the dads, either. Get out of my head!

Nice article and you are right--Toby does suck.

Yes yes, a thousand times yes. My daughter started to talk about what she was going to give up for Lent this year, then proceeds to pipe up: "Daddy should give up video games!"

Stupid Catholicism.

I know where you are coming from in stereo. My wife and I have twin daughters (5 years old). Our workday evenings revolve around the following: 1. picking up the wife at the train, 2. picking up the twins from preschool. 3. feeding them 4. bathing them. 5. making sure they go to bed at a reasonable hour. 6. Free time! Time to....clean everything up and get ready for tomorrow.

Before the kids (or at least before they were sentient and aware of the PC), a good evening at home consisted of the wife on the TV or laptop, me on the desktop next to her. Nowadays, the desktop computer has 2 functions while the girls are awake: 1. Watch My Little Pony episodes on YouTube, 2. Play the cellular/creature levels of Spore (they're obsessed with it) with the occasional Peggle break. They're not always on the PC - they prefer to draw actually - but when they are in front of it, well, that's what's on.

By the time they're down for the night and I have real free time, it's 11pm at the earliest and I'm too tired to play anything. Combine that with the Steam sales, and I have a bona fide pile of unplayed games I used to blaze through.

...and yes, the guilt is there in spades.

I love this article because it so clearly expresses how I feel when I feel the need to "disappear into the office" for a while (as my wife puts it) to get some gaming time in before dinner. I've already found out that our lovely daughter loves to watch the colored rectangles scroll down the Rock Band soundtrack even more than drinking her Second Dinner.

(BTW, Does anyone else think Thomas the Train and Friends are the creepiest-looking anthropomorphized trains ever?)

Hah, yeah this is my life. I try to strike a balance, but it's always tough. Sometimes I do want to come home from work and just fire up my latest game - and you know, sometimes I do. I'm not above telling my son "not now, we'll play later" - because there are times when my own sanity is at stake.

Of course the best option is we play videogames together, which happens quite often, and everyone's happy. He's become quite good at FPS games - I'm sure some parents would be horrified to see a 6 year old playing games like Call of Duty, but it works for us.

Let me go into 1-year-old mode for a moment...

Let's see, adults pick up this thing and start pressing all the buttons to make that thing on the wall change... It works! Cool!

What's this? The guy on the couch is talking to me. Oh, I'm supposed to say "no" while I do that. Got it! "No no no..." Fun!

That daddy-lion description sounds pretty much like my dad if I tried to talk to him during a 49er game. Parenting was different back then.

I play video games for entirely selfish reasons. I enjoy them and am up-front about that with everyone, but every time I fire up Steam or the XBox there's a twinge of guilt, anyway.

Very, very nice article, Mr. Sands. The retention of my gaming time isn't a major factor in my trepidation over having children, but the general lack of time to regroup emotionally is--and I think the piece can certainly be interpreted to refer in a broader sense to exactly that.

TsuDhoNimh wrote:

(BTW, Does anyone else think Thomas the Train and Friends are the creepiest-looking anthropomorphized trains ever?)

Blaine is a pain...

Sean, you continue to amaze me with your laser-like insight into life's subtleties. I assure you this is universally felt -- not just by gamers, but by anyone with any hobby/interest -- and too seldom discussed. The transition from nearly-unlimited personal freedom to the responsibilities of fatherhood is among the most important -- perhaps the most important, if you're doing it properly -- rite of passage of a man's life. Before my children were born, I was warned "your life will change utterly and completely, forever"; clearly this was a massive understatement.

This goes quadruple for those of us going through a divorce. The prospect of losing that everyday time with them will put the fear of God into you, I assure you. The desire to set them aside and play the game of the moment is vaporized once there is a real risk of their absence from your life. Let's make sure to always -- always -- appreciate what we have, dads. Toby isn't so bad, at least for a little while.

Idris_Arslanian wrote:
Yes yes, a thousand times yes. My daughter started to talk about what she was going to give up for Lent this year, then proceeds to pipe up: "Daddy should give up video games!"

Stupid Catholicism.

Just do what I do and give up Asceticism.

michaelar wrote:
The prospect of losing that everyday time with them will put the fear of God into you, I assure you. The desire to set them aside and play the game of the moment is vaporized once there is a real risk of their absence from your life. Let's make sure to always -- always -- appreciate what we have, dads. Toby isn't so bad, at least for a little while.

Amen, brother! While I'm not faced with this issue in real life, I constantly have to remind myself of friends (and even my own father) who have been, so that I can value the time I have with my son. I want him to want to play all these game with me when he gets old enough, after all.

There will always be a game of the moment. There will never be another moment with your kids. This makes me drop what I'm doing and play with them. Also that Dead Island trailer didn't exactly help matter either.

Two posts. Because, you know. Twins.

It could be worse, you could be Birdie or Bertie. Who the f*ck wants to be a bus?

Awesomely perfect accounting of what it's like to be a gamer parent.

So far, in my just over three years of being a parent, there has yet to be an instance where I regretted playing with my daughter over playing a game (or doing something else).

But in the last 8 months, she has mastered the guilt infusing "Daddy, do you want to play with me?"

All that said--while the kids come first--you've got to find space for yourself too, for the sake of your mental health. You aren't much good to your kids if you go ballistic because its been a week since you had a moment to yourself (in which you murdered bad computer monsters). There's a balance to be struck.

Fredrik_S wrote:
Holy crap, Sean. It's like you reached in and stole a piece of my brain and now it is on display on the internet. Excellent article.

QFT.

Oh god, Sean. Don't get my hopes up for having kids of my own in the not-to-distant future, whatever you do.

Awesome piece. Just awesome.

This all sounds very, very familiar. Except replace Southern Comfort with a good scotch. I'm not a 17 year old girl, after all

Uggh, I'm in the "turn my back for a minute and the house is on fire" toddler stage and I was actually looking forward to the near future when my son could go play on his own while I get some daddy vs evil nazis/zombies/clown demons time.

That being said, why is the kid up till 10:30-11? I remember my mom and dad would always shuffle me off to bed by 9 on weekdays.

Also, wanted to say that there was a time I could work 14-hours in the Army and still come home and play Doom all night before reporting for PT at 4 A.M. I just can't do that nowadays.

jdzappa wrote:
That being said, why is the kid up till 10:30-11? I remember my mom and dad would always shuffle me off to bed by 9 on weekdays.

You seem to have been one of those blessed children that would go to bed and stay down, or at least play in your room quietly enough to not be discovered. : )

Hangdog wrote:
Further proof of the genius of a child. My 3-year-old son's request is always phrased, "Do you want to play with me, Papa?" (add that cute child inflection too) It's the substitution of "Do you want to" for "Will you" that makes me quite certain that this sentence is a carefully, diabolically constructed instrument that will, every single time, defeat me. "Do you want to" indeed!

My dad still likes to remind me how he was never fooled by my childhood question, "Do you want to play Lego?"—meaning, of course, "Do you want to find all the pieces while I put it together?"