I am sure, of course, that I was utterly clueless about the joys (… etc.) to come, and I am sure, like most every other parent-to-be, that I had dreamt up a fairly idealized version of how my existence would change after Young Jack arrived. But as for the details of that idealized world? I have to admit: they have vanished.
I mean, I can barely remember what my reality was like back in 2004—if I try hard enough, I can conjure blurry/hazy/happy memories of rowhomes in South Baltimore, and walking to work along the Inner Harbor, and going to bars, and being able to drink into the wee hours of the morning with absolutely no repercussions whatsoever—much less my imagined life.
I am certain of this much, however: There is absolutely no way I had any idea how utterly, relentlessly, crushingly and enduringly stressful fatherhood would be.
Because if I did, well, I may have pushed back the whole “let’s have kids” thing for a while.
Like, until I was extremely wealthy.
Or deeply medicated.
It would not be entirely true to say that I spend every waking moment of every single day worrying about something. Indeed, there are some precious and ephemeral moments of living-in-the-moment-ish bliss where I can, for a second or a minute or maybe even an hour (if there’s something really exciting going on, or the girls are giggling and carrying on, or if Young Jack is playing soccer, or if I’m two martinis deep) when I don’t worry about, say, how I’m going to pay for four kids to go to college when college now costs approximately $50,000 a year even if you go to an “inexpensive” college. Like, just for example.
So, yeah, I do have my carefree moments. And they are blessed moments indeed. They are also few and far between.
Because for the most part, I worry.
I worry about money. I worry about college savings, retirement savings, and all of our other savings that don’t seem to add to all that much given my advanced age and the fact that, you know, I have three kids plus one on the way. I worry about the housing market, and whether we’ll ever recoup the money we poured into our lovely Colonial here in The Beautiful Wissahickon Valley. I worry about the apparent/impending death of the print genre, and the writing profession in general.
I worry that I don’t spend enough time with my kids, and when I am spending time with my kids, I worry about the work that I could be getting done if I wasn’t spending time with my kids.
I worry about tomorrow, and next week, and next month. I worry about tax day (always the darkest day of the year for those of us in the freelancing writing business) and I worry about quarterly tax days (which are just one small notch below actual tax day on the “This Day Is Worthless And Evil And Miserably Depressing” scale).
I worry about my day writing job and I worry about my freelance writing jobs. I worry about the freelance writing jobs I’m working on until they’re done. Then, with the writing jobs I’m working on finally complete, I enjoy about 24 seconds of tranquility before I start to worry if there will be another writing job—or if, indeed, the entire freelance writing industry will collapse around me.
In other words: I worry. Compulsively.
And here’s the thing: I don’t worry about this stuff because of me. I worry about this stuff because of them.
Fatherhood has given me gifts beyond description, and for that, I am eternally grateful. But it has also turned into a freaking nervy mess.
I used to be a pretty care-free kind of guy.
While in college, I lived by the somewhat ingenious modus operandi formulated who-knows-when by my Uncle Frank, who pulled me aside shortly before I left for Happy Valley and offered me possibly the best free advice I’ve ever received: “Don’t get lost in the beer,” he said, “but don’t get lost in the books, either.”
And I didn’t.
I did fairly well in college—Dean’s List a couple times, non-Dean’s list a few other times—and I learned a bunch, too, but I decided fairly early on in the process that I was there live as much as to learn. So I learned … when my living permitted it. I will spare you the details, which really aren’t all that exciting, but let’s just say that there was a time there, circa 1997-1998, where I achieved a sort of Lebowski-meets-Bukowksi zen-like state of existence that, in my estimation, was living, perfected.
I lived. I enjoyed. I learned.
And I didn’t worry about one earthly thing. I mean, nothing.
Alas, those days are over, and have been over for about seven years now, because soon after Young Jack was born, I experienced one of those rare True Moments of Realization. I am quite certain any parent out there reading this—if you are not a parent and are reading this, I have to ask: Why?—has experienced the very same True Moment of Realization. That True Moment of Realization, of course, being this: As we drove Young Jack from the hospital back to our lovely and completely kid-unfriendly South Baltimore rowhome, I came to understand all at once, in an avalanche of awareness that has left my buried to this very day, that I was responsible, in a real and eternal way, for his life. Everything about it.
It was mildly terrifying.
And now that I am responsible for the life and well-being and happiness of two more human beings (as well as one more yet to come), well, it is thrice more terrifying.
To be completely honest, I’m sincerely shocked I’ve yet to go gray (knocks on wood).
Here’s the thing: Despite the fact that I have a Lovely Wife and three wonderful kids (plus one on the way) and a loving family back home in Ohio and great in-laws here in Philly and a supportive bunch of friends scattered about both the greater Delaware Valley and the continental United States, I feel, at times, as though I am entirely alone.
Entirely alone is this fight, that is.
With my parents and in-laws getting older and nearing retirement, with My Lovely Wife carrying the load on the child-care front, and with my children growing up fast, I feel pretty much solely and entirely responsible for, it not the emotional and social and intellectual well-being of my kids, than at the very least the financial well-being of … everybody. In fact, in the more breathtakingly terrifying moments, It seems a rather a black-and-white issue: If I don’t deliver the money—that is, if I don’t deliver ever more money, to pay for the ever-increasing expenses of modern-day children, and possibly one day the elder-care needs of my folks and in-laws, not to mention who-knows-what-else—then I will have failed in responsibilities as a parent/breadwinner/etc.
‘Cause, well, the money ain’t coming from anywhere else.
It’s me. Or it’s nobody.
And I don’t deliver? Well, then this: We lose the house. The kids have to wear rags. My Lovely Wife will be left barefoot. And we will end up living under a highway overpass in Trenton, huddled around a raging campfire, listening to a battery-powered AM radio.
I assure you, this is an unhappy thought.
And it lingers, in the deep recesses of my consciousness, pretty much all the time (even though, and I should emphasize this so as not to raise alarm, we really are doing quite fine, thank you very much).
I don’t sleep much these days.
Between my mid-winter gloom (I have not yet been medically diagnosed, because I hate going to the doctor, but I am sure that if Seasonal Affective Disorder exists, I have it), my current-and-ever-escalating anxiety levels, and the fact that My Lovely Wife not only snores when pregnant, but also kicks her leg incessantly (the result of so-called Restless Leg Syndrome, a truly ridiculous medical condition), it’s awfully difficult for me to, you know, relax.
Have you ever tried to sleep when tense, folks? Doesn’t work.
So most nights, I lay there in bed. Thinking. About … everything. What has happened, what might happen, what could happen, what hasn’t happened. Worry worry worry. 11 p.m. comes and goes. Midnight comes and goes. 1 a.m. And so on.
Eventually, I mercifully attain sleep, then face the morning feeling less than rested and ultimately more frazzled than the day previous, not only because I am as nervy as ever, but also because spent the night previous being kicked by my wife.
By this point you may be wondering how I will tidily wrap this thing up—how I’m going to put a happy/ironic/pithy bow on a column that has up to now been, well, somewhat of a downer.
But, well, you should know now right now that there is no happy ending to this column. There is just me. Sitting here on this train. Writing this piece about my ever-increasing worries—the worries of a father in an unhappy economic time—and trying to sort them out, and having only middling success doing so
That’s pretty much it.
So as I sit here typing these very words, on the dreary Chestnut Hill West line into Philadelphia, I am asking myself an iteration of the same question that you may be asking yourself now: “Well, if there is no point, why in the world did I write (or, in your case, read) this?”
I have no answer, to be honest.
I just felt that … I had to.
Because if you couldn’t tell, this issue—the massive weight of responsibility that I have come to realize (and maybe you, as a parent, have realized, too) is the price you pay for the joys of fatherhood—has been weighing on my mind of late, and given that I don’t have a therapist, and given that it’s only Tuesday so I’m not going seek solace in well-poured vodka martini (or two), well, getting all of this down on paper (metaphorically speaking, of course, because as I mentioned earlier, print is dying), I felt, was just about my only recourse.
I am a father. And I worry.
I wish the former did not mandate the latter. I really do.
But I’m now seven years deep into this fatherhood thing, and from my experience, I’m thinking there’s just no getting around it.