When you’re a man alone in the house and your family is away for nearly two months, the stuffed animals really stand out. The silence is there too, awkward and deafening, but I expected that. It is the pink elephant, snuggly rabbits and teddy bears looking out from behind every corner that strike deepest. Stuffed animals are cute when accompanied by small children, but downright disturbing when abandoned.
This fall has been a different one for the family. My wife Cathlin is on a four-month sabbatical from the West Tisbury Congregational Church, where she is the minister. She received a grant from the Louisville Institute to spend it in Scotland, and lived there for a month by herself in September. I visited with the kids for two weeks in October. When I returned home for work, the kids stayed.
Although I never realized it, before children I had lived life in the middle ground of emotions, never fully venturing out to the extremes.
Back home, I soon realize that not only are my children missing, but the whole routine of my life has been mostly erased. I don’t go to school drop-offs and so don’t see my circle of parents or my children’s friends. I don’t go to story hour at the library, ballet class or tennis lessons. I’d be lying if I didn’t say a lot of this is enjoyable, not spending hours each day organizing play dates or surviving harried mornings making school lunches. But I grow uneasy when I also notice that I no longer have my full range of emotions, either.
Although I never realized it, before children I had lived life in the middle ground of emotions, never fully venturing out to the extremes. I never had a temper, not really, until I encountered my son having a full-blown tantrum about which socks to wear. I never felt true contentment until I sat between my son and daughter reading them books I had loved as a child. And I didn’t know how deep exhaustion or love could be.
While alone, I feel myself returning to that smaller playing field of emotions. And yet, at the same time, without the moment-to-moment scrum of parental survival, it is almost as if I can see and love my children more clearly. I am reminded of saying goodbye to my children at the airport in Glasgow. After boarding my flight, I settled into my seat, buckled my seat belt, and prepared for my pre-flight routine. Before children, I would have opened a book, looked to the movie listings or settled in for a nap. Back then I wasn’t afraid of flying. But having children changed this. Now when I buckle up, I think of all that I have to lose, or rather what my children have to lose if I die. During takeoffs and landings I now pay attention, sitting up straight, feeling the acceleration of the plane down the runway, absorbing every bump on the tarmac and nudge by the wind. If anything happens, I want to be present and thinking about my family.
Once I am in the air, I return to being a normal person, asking for a drink and watching violent or trashy movies. Somehow I feel safer high in the sky than at points of contact.
One day I go for a drive, just as dusk begins to settle. I look up in the sky and see the first few stars coming into view. When Pickle was very young she decided that I was the one who put the stars up in the sky each evening, climbing a very tall ladder and working deep into the night. When I put her to bed she would quiz me about this task, asking how I got the job (a wood troll gave it to me as both a curse and a blessing), what was the hardest part (the top of the Big Dipper) and whether I ever needed any help. Pickle decided that Calder, her friend Maeve’s dad, took over the duties when I was sick or we were traveling.
When I said goodbye to Pickle in Scotland, she brought this up again, even though I am sure, at age 8, she doesn’t truly believe it anymore. While crying and hugging me, she reminded me of my job in the night sky. She also suggested, because I might be lonely, that I give Calder a call. We could put up the stars together, she offered, and maybe add a few extra as we would have more time working as a team.
...without the moment-to-moment scrum of parental survival, it is almost as if I can see and love my children more clearly.
Pickle has never informed Calder that he is the relief star dad, and I have never found the right moment to let him know, either. But he is usually game for anything, even though at the moment he is building a house for his family. And so instead of returning to my quiet, lonely house, I head over to his place.
That was a few days ago, but as of this writing, we are still up there each night, two dads standing tall on precarious ladders, trying so hard to be the guiding lights our children want us to be.
Editor's Note: A version of this essay previously appeared in the Vineyard Gazette.