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!