During a recent bike ride, Mike, who doesn’t have children, unknowingly made a profound observation about parenthood. “The hills that look really bad usually end up being pretty easy,” he said, “and the ones that look easy are surprisingly hard.”
Mike was talking about biking, and he was trying to encourage me through the last couple miles of our trek when, as we turned onto Mount Hope Avenue and I saw the incline before me, all I wanted to do was get off my bike and walk. Or, better yet, take out my cell phone and call Dustin for a ride.
A few days later, however, I realized that Mike’s comment could be applied to many aspects of life and in particular, to parenting.
I was shopping for decorations for a Halloween party with my friend Steph (to be formally introduced in next week’s column, “The Usual Suspects”) and our respective sons, Lindell, 2½, and Preston, 3. We browsed the aisles accompanied by the surrounding commotion caused by two preschoolers. It’s chaos to which we have grown accustomed. There was giggling, fighting, debate and, finally, cooperation. But that was just Steph and me. The kids were running circles around us, and I think, but I’m not positive, Lindell was pretending to be Preston’s dog.
I can’t say for sure what the boys were doing, except that they were underfoot (quite literally), because Steph and I were consumed with remembering our shopping list and dividing the expenses. Then suddenly chaos broke loose. Lindell, still in full dog pose, fell at my feet and was begging for a “Halloween duck.” “I want Halloween duck,” he said over and over again. Somehow, while Steph and I were distracted, the boys had grown fond of two 75-cent rubber duckies dressed up as pumpkins. Now they were acting like their hearts would break if they didn’t leave the store without them.
“Fine. You want 75-cent rubber duckies?” I said. “We’ll get them for you.” Then I turned to Steph and under my breath said, “How long until those cheap toys end up in the trash?” (Spoiler alert: not very long.)
See, I couldn’t imagine why Lindell and Preston wanted plastic duckies that were no bigger than a small apple (remember this comparison later). Except, just as Mike had pointed out, perception can deceive. The eye’s hill is the bike’s mountain, just as the junky toy is a child’s treasure. On Christmas morning, for example, children will generally be more excited about an inexpensive toy than the larger, flashier ones that you saved for because you thought they had the “wow” factor. One can never predict what children will grow attached to and why.
Lindell loved his rubber ducky all that afternoon. I was happy because now, instead of acting like a pet himself, he was patting his ducky and taking him for “walks.”
Then Dustin came home.
It’s true that the ducky dressed as a pumpkin did look a little like a half-eaten apple (although I’ve never seen an apple that squeaks). So when Dustin witnessed Lindell throw his ducky across the room, he thought it was food and belonged in the garbage.
“Lindell, you can’t leave food on the ground like that. Go put it in the trash,” Dustin said.
If Lindell’s speech were more advanced, he might have protested. Instead, he picked up his rubber ducky toy, walked sullenly into the kitchen, where I was washing dishes, and set his ducky in the trash can. With big, teary eyes, he gave it one last look before closing the lid.
“Don’t throw away your ducky,” I said, unaware of what had just happened in the living room.
“My daddy told me to,” Lindell said.
I left the kitchen to sort out the confusion and explain to Dustin that what looked like an apple was actually a cheap toy that his son had grown to love like a pet in the span of eight hours. But in my haste, I forgot to take the ducky out of the trash.
The next day, Lindell cried for his lost ducky, and we panicked when we remembered that no one had ever rescued it from the garbage. Luckily though, Lindell is the third child, and the same rules of cleanliness and decency expected for first-born children don’t apply. After realizing that the trash from the night before had been bagged and tied, but not taken outside yet, I poked a hole in the side of the plastic bag, dug my fingers into the deep, squishy pile of wet paper towels and banana peels and pulled out the ducky. After a good rinsing in the kitchen sink, it was as good as any new cheap rubber toy. You would have thought I’d saved the world by the look on Lindell’s face.
All for a 75-cent duck. Who knew?
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.