I just finished reading an article on parenting that suggests using the word ‘proud’ in regards to your children is the wrong thing to do because it suggests a kind of ownership. When they achieve something we should feel happy for them, it says, not proud.
‘Dad, we wanna wrestle you!’ Archie screams from the lounge room and something primal awakens inside me.
My teeth grind and the hair on my forearms bristles in anticipation of the battle ahead. ‘I’m feeling strong today. Have you warmed up?’ I yell as I run to the kitchen pantry – which is decorated with the boys’ pictures and artwork – so I can look at one of my favourite paintings, a Lewis original.
Its long, seemingly random strokes of yellow depict a lot more than the average art enthusiast can see. What holds me spellbound is the accompanying caption he dictated to his kindergarten teacher: my Strong Daddy is punching bombs away. I love it because it’s true. I am a strong dad and I would undoubtedly punch bombs away if they were hurtling towards my children, but even as I acknowledge the accuracy I am struck down with confusion by the article I just read. Am I proud of this painting because deep down I think I own my children like some slave-owner from a century or so back?
I look to the lounge room to see Archie doing step-ups on the stairs and Lewis and Tyson jumping up and down in anticipation, and as I run through my own warm-up routine – hamstring and glute stretches, a dozen mountain climbers, ten sit-ups and thirty seconds of jogging on the spot – I can’t help but question my own feelings and motives.
I initially told Lewis I was proud of the super job he’d done of the painting – the brazen yellow strokes and the perfectly placed blotches exhibit the artist’s eye for detail and hint at his awesome talent – but was I really proud? Or was I displaying something even less honourable, like ego gratification at the recognition of my strength? Maybe I was simply happy because he felt proud of his own painting? Or maybe he was happy because I was so proud of him, and I was happy because I saw how happy he was on hearing of my pride?
Oh God, regardless of the spin I put on it, again and again I return to the same conclusion – I do feel proud of my kids – and this leaves me with no choice but to confront an uncomfortable truth. I believe in the ownership of one’s children and therefore support slavery in its many forms. These thoughts and realisations can only lead to illness.
‘Dad,’ Archie yells again, ‘we wanna fight you!’
‘Them’s fighting words,’ I scream in return as I slap myself across the back of the neck, charge the lounge room and dive to the ground, carpet-burned and ready. Milliseconds pass and I am smothered in a ferocious blanket of flailing children squealing at me.
Even though their strength is not great, their limbs no match for my classically defined and regularly cultivated Hulk Hogan-like muscles (1980s style), their intensity is fever-pitched and relentless. As the minutes turn to hours I weaken against their tireless onslaught. The playing field is slowly levelled. I am reduced to a drooling mess beneath them and exhaustion delivers me to semi-consciousness. The squealing and laughing is muffled, the thumps and punches and chokeholds seem far away as my body becomes a large dome of silence. The Strong Daddy who punches bombs away lies defeated.
I scream, ‘Dear Lord, the cacophony!’ and a feeling of sadness comes over me as I think about the time I was reading Hairy Maclary’s Caterwaul Caper to Archie as a toddler and the way he laughed at the crazy musical sound of the word cacophony when we got to page twenty-four. It echoes inside my mind in Archie’s two-year-old voice – coph-cophony. It was one of his first multisyllabic words.
An uncharted amount of time passes and then I am punched in the back of the head. My primal drive to win at all costs returns. A sharp jolt and twist to the right is all I need to scatter the boys to separate places on the grubby carpet, and when I roll to my knees I am in possession of two weapons. Yes, weapons. On the outside it would appear as if I am just a simple dad in his lounge room play-fighting with three under six-year-olds, but on the inside I am my favourite modern-day superhero: Hit Girl, the foul-mouthed, knife-slinging young sidekick from the life-affirming movie Kick-Ass. The decorative cushions I am holding are pistols. My aim is well-practised and deadly.
There may come a day when Lewis realises that his Strong Daddy can’t actually punch bombs away, and there may come a time when even channelling the energies of Hit Girl is not enough to claim victory against the might of my children. But not today, my friends. Because I have been revived from this near-defeat with an epiphany: Even though I don’t own my children I do feel that I’m in possession of them, for the time being, and the melancholy blur comes from understanding that I am constantly in the process of relinquishing them to their own lives.
With every one of their achievements and failures, with each bedtime story, packed lunch, nappy change, school drop-off, midnight scream for cuddles; with every internal surge of frustration, love, guilt, happiness and, yes, pride, I am letting go of my babies.
It’s all incredibly important and it all matters because this crazy screaming battle in the lounge room is about to end, and it has occurred to me the number of wrestles remaining is finite.