The later in life you have your children, the more distance there is between your finely honed adult logic and kid logic. (Kids do have their own logic. It’s just super fucked-up.) The harder it is, then, to let go of what seem like completely reasonable expectations. Here’s what I wish I’d known before I gave birth: Once you pop out that kid, you’d be wise to write off the next five years as “anything goes,” and any trip or event as “potential shit show.” And the key to being a happy parent is to lower your expectations.
I was proud of myself that I planned a trip to Hersheypark for Jack and me. Husband had to work, so I took up the reins, getting our hotel reservations and tickets and driving us there efficiently and safely. Jack loves carnival rides, so we’d told him this would be like a huge carnival. I had visions of us frolicking through the park, hand in hand, shrieking with joy. Naturally, I would capture these moments expertly on film.
Chocolate World was already open, so after checking in at the hotel, we lined up for a tour. The experience was mixed. They were handing out chocolate chip cookies for Chocolate World’s 43rd birthday, and we munched our perfectly chewy cookies while riding through the exhibit, where Jack was entranced by the singing cows. But they also had a brass band as part of their birthday celebration, which made Jack cover his ears and whimper. He’s not big on loud noises, and the blaring brass echoed in that cavernous building. He started whining that he was tired and wanted to sleep.
It was 9:30 a.m. If he had slept in the car, we wouldn’t have had this problem, but of course, he didn’t. He was wide awake the whole time, asking when we were going to get there.
From there on out, the day was as pleasant as a hostage negotiation. I wanted to ride rides; he wanted to go to sleep. Then he wanted to go back and get that kind of candy he’d seen in that one store near the entrance. Then he was thirsty. Then he wanted to “tussle like two cats” (his words). Then he wanted to swim. That was all he wanted to do. He swims every weekend with his dad—no matter. Oh, but to swim, Mother! That is my fondest dream! (He didn’t say this, although sometimes he overuses the word “enjoy”: But I just want to enjoy swimming! But I just want to enjoy that candy!)
Anything I suggested was met with a fake whine-cry and a scamper behind my legs. Can you walk up to this sign so we can see how tall you are? Whine, scamper. Do you want to have your picture taken with this giant anthropomorphic candy bar? Whine, scamper. (Which doesn’t make sense, because he adores that damned frog Hopper at the Fun Zone.) Everywhere we went we seemed to run into the parading brass band. I wanted to punch every one of them in the face. During this time, we managed to ride three rides. Jack remained thoroughly unimpressed, and I was mentally calculating the cost of those rides. If it was $140 for the two-day tickets and we rode three rides, that came out to about $46.67 a ride. I could feel my bank account crying. Dammit, I had promised myself that I would be patient on this trip, as patient as my husband always is. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t utter things like, “Jesus Fucking Christ,” “Christ on crutches, I fucking can’t handle this,” or “I am about to lose my fucking mind.” (I said all of them.)
Jack was still complaining about wanting to go swimming, and I didn’t know what to do. On one hand, I was the adult; I’d made these plans, and I didn’t want to give in to my four-year-old’s whims. On the other, I didn’t want to traipse around a hot amusement park all day with a whiny little asshole. So I relented. We’d take the shuttle back to the hotel and swim at their indoor water park. Later, after he’d played and rested, we could take the shuttle back over to the park.
It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was necessary.
At the indoor waterpark, he became a different child. He splashed around joyfully and wriggled through the water like a minnow. We swam for the next three hours, and it was blissful. We attempted to walk across the pool on giant floating Reese’s cups, slipping and laughing; we careened down super-fast water slides again and again; we scampered through geysers of water and shot each other with giant spraying pelicans. When I got tired of doing the water slides, I let him go by himself as I watched and sipped a high-calorie peanut butter milkshake garnished with whipped cream and a Reese’s cup. We barely argued at all, and I only had to tell him to put his penis away one time, which is probably some kind of record.
By the time we’d changed into our clothes and stopped by the arcade for a bit, our room was ready. I had this. Things were turning around, I could feel it.
“Can we go home now?” Jack asked, tugging on my hand. “I want to go to sleep.”
“How about we go check in to our room, and then we can take a little nap?”
“OK,” he said agreeably. “And then we can go home?”
“Buddy, Mommy told you we’re staying here tonight, so we can go back to the park. Don’t you want to go back to the park?”
He considered a moment. “If that obnoxious music is playing, no. If that music isn’t playing, then we can.”
“Honey… that band won’t be playing,” I half-lied. I didn’t know if they would be, but I knew I was ready to lob a couple of grenades in their direction.
“Mostly I just want to go home.”
I sighed. At this point, we were back in the hotel lobby, where all the staff was extremely perky and more giant anthropomorphic candy bars roamed in search of their quarry. I put our bags down and slumped into a cushy chair. I started to cry, for the second time that day. I kind of wanted to go home too. I was tired of everything being a goddamn negotiation and having to battle alone, without my husband.
I called him as Jack curled up on a chair next to mine. “I don’t know what to do,” I told him. “I need advice.” He told me that whatever decision I made would be OK, that I wouldn’t be a failure if we canceled plans and drove home. I’d been a good mom and done the right things. As we talked, a giant Reese’s peanut butter cup eyed me. I willed him not to walk toward us. Apparently my subliminal messages weren’t strong enough, because of course that fucking peanut butter cup ambled over our way and approached my son for a hug, whereupon Jack started crying and freaking out. HEY. PEANUT BUTTER CUP. MAYBE YOU CAN SEE THAT I AM ON THE PHONE HERE, AND THAT MY SON AND I ARE BOTH CRYING, SO HOW ABOUT YOU GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE I PUNCH YOUR STUPID, DELICIOUS FACE AND THEN EAT IT. THAT’S RIGHT; I WILL LICK YOUR DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS FACE OFF MY HANDS.
Peanut Butter Cup picked up on my “do not fuck with me” vibe and backed away.
My threat was eerily prescient, as fewer than twenty minutes later I was in the car slurping a half-melted Hershey bar off its wrapper like a rabid wolverine. I’d gone to the check-in desk and told a very nice young version of Dwight Schrute that my son wasn’t feeling well and that we were planning to leave, so to please charge my credit card accordingly. Young Dwight had kindly refunded everything except the cost of the park tickets and sent us on our way with two Hershey bars. “Can I have mine?” Jack asked from the back seat, as we drove out of the parking lot. “Not right now,” I said. “You ate a whole pack of Jolly Rancher gummies today.”
Before we even turned on the main road, he was passed out asleep. Shrugging, I opened the second melty Hershey bar and began to lick it off the wrapper with glee. I could see in the rear-view mirror that my hair stuck out in all directions after three hours of swimming and that my mouth and nose were covered in chocolate. It looked like I had actually made good on my threat to eat the anthropomorphized Reese’s cup’s face.
I thought I would cry the whole way home, but I felt strangely happy. First of all, the two-hour drive was the most peace I’d had all day, and second, I realized that, discounting my expectations for what the trip would be, we’d actually had fun. For the rest of my life, I will remember the look on Jack’s face as he came whooshing out of the water slide and gleefully ran around to get on it again. That moment.
Later it came out that Jack had been eagerly anticipating the Star Wars General Grievous figure his father had promised him. Had he given up a day in a child’s paradise for a plastic cyborg villain? Maybe. Because kids are like that. Sometimes they like rides, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they adore people dressed as giant frogs but run screaming from people dressed as giant candy bars.
It’s better that, much like on a daunting water slide, you don’t try to predict the twists and turns. You just lie back, let go, and try to enjoy the ride.