OG Dad #23: Bad Moments in Parenting


I tried to buy “The Hokey Pokey” for my daughter on iTunes and iTunes said I didn’t have the credit for $1.29. My daughter was sitting next to me. 19 months. But I could sense she understood my credit shame. In fact, it was Mastercard’s mistake, but that didn’t matter. There were enough times when lack of a buck-twenty-nine to my name was not such a far-fetched concept, and the feelings were still in there, waiting to be triggered. What you never think about – when you stagger into parenthood, is the emotional osmosis factor.

(I believe I may have flung my phone off the wall.)

Which—why kid?—has to be a banner imprint-forming moment for the young mammal sitting on your lap. (Which I’d worry about more, if I could stop worrying about radiation leaking out of my hand-held device leaking into her brain like slow-motion battery acid.)

Just seeing you act like that, to a child, makes acting like that an option. Even more, if you really want to work up some guilt, the more they see you doing shit, the more they think that’s the way they’re supposed to do it. Which is fine, if you want them to grow up to be unhinged phone hurlers.

One should be, to use the overly used word, more “mindful”. Just using the word is kind of mortifying. But then again, ideas, as George Bernard Shaw would say, “are not responsible for the people who embrace them.” (I know this because I used to keep a Bartlett’s famous quotations beside the toilet.) I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of the man’s plays, but I throw out his bon mots like beads at Mardi Gras.

Stay focused, is what I’m trying to say, and you can stop yourself from, not just from phone hurling, but other behavioral lapses like, say spooning walnut butter out of the jar at four in the morning, buck naked in front of the fridge with your cute little behavior-sponge standing beside you.

Like most little kids, mine’s smart. (There aren’t a lot of dumb ones. They don’t get dumb until they get older, from what I can tell.) She picks things right up. As soon as she’s old enough, you’ll catch her doing you—staring blankly into the refrigerator, holding the door with one hand and muttering to herself, “I don’t know… I don’t know… I don’t know…” just like her Daddy.

Still, unwholesome as late night fridge-gaping may be for the formative mind, it’s not the worst. From a certain angle, anything you do at four in the morning seems vaguely sketchy. Unless, maybe you’re hopping right out of bed and into a half-lotus for early meditation.

And yes, I once did a ten-day silent retreat with Swami Satchidananda and came back to New York City determined to keep up my four a.m. wake-and-meditate schedule. After three days—okay, two—it was right back to wake-and-medicate.  Then again, this was decades ago, and I was twenty. Before the gender category “Loaded Yogi” had been invented.

Sometimes, when I’m channel-surfing like somebody hitting the buzzer in a Jeopardy bonus round at ten-after-hell-o’clock in the morning, I look down at my year-and-a-halfer, happily plopped on my lap sharing a bowl of popcorn. And think, Why don’t I just enroll her in ADHD Pre-School? I mean, friends, people I respect, have told me how bad it is to watch TV with a child. The experts agree. But, maybe I’m deluding myself, I feel like the sooner I can expose her to Wallace and Gromit, the better. Plus life’s hard. You can only read so many books, do so many horsey rides (never a good idea when their mother is trying to sleep, after a late-night weaning session anyway).

I always imagine good parents teaching their children Spanish, or how to play the flute as soon as little Bri or Megan can sit up. I’ve taught mine how to consume pasta without silverware and zone out in front of the tube. (Should I not be watching “Lockup: Idaho State Penitentiary” with my under-2’er?) Or is the worse crime the popcorn—as I have since learned how criminally easy it is for a baby to choke on popcorn?  We also have sock-fights and make up stories about giraffes who wear owls made out of worms on their heads. Imagination’s good, right? Or should Social Services be contacted immediately?

No, what really worries me is that I’ve taught my little girl how to stress. Accidentally. I mean, you can control—more or less—what you do in front of your child. But what about what you feel? For example, when I’m down, I have a habit of remembering something that happened, say, fifteen years ago, and then I stop whatever I’m doing and groan “Oh fuck!” over and over. Sometimes the exclamation is accompanied by a loud, patented palm-to-forehead “I should have had a V-8” slap. Not the worst thing in the world—until you’ve seen it re-enacted by a sweet-faced 21-month old in Sesame Street pajamas. “Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Look Daddy—Oh fuck!”


The best life advice I ever got came from Hubert Selby. He told me, “If you can’t be happy—at least try not to depress people when you walk into a room.”

A bar too high?

If you grow up in a tense house, you don’t just get used to tension, you become tension. A tension conductor. Nervousness is like any other household pollutant, except it’s not manufactured by Monsanto. Unless it’s worrying about Monsanto that’s getting me nervous. Or worrying about Kimberly Clark. Parent company of Huggies whose “Snug and Dry” brand diapers are giving babies chemical burns. Needless to say, our baby wears Seventh Generation, which makes me an enlightened and progressive parent. But still, an occasionally depressed one.

“Depressed parents! Show of hands? Anybody?”

Thank you. What this late-life, elder-dad does—which I’m letting you know because so many strangers stop me on the street and say, ‘Hey, OG Dad Guy, what do I do when I’m feeling suicidal, but I don’t want to bum out my kid?’—what I do, as last resort,  is slip into Borscht Belt Tummler Mode. Mel Brooks in Catskills. Jerry Lewis at 23.  Even Peter Sellers in “The Party”. Anything for a laugh. When my baby is wailing, inconsolable, my last resort is pretending to trip and fall. It never fails. If she’s really in it, baby Ixnay will catch herself laughing—mid-wail—and giggle her ass off before remembering the role she’s playing and morphing right back to fake-sounding cries and whimpers again. If I pick her up, then stumble and pretend to drop her, her splurpy delight is irrepressible. Nothing funnier than Daddy nearly losing his grip—on her, I mean. Like I’ve slipped on a make-believe banana peel. Hijinks ensue.

We grow up and tell ourselves a story about how we ended up who we ended up. But if you tell yourself a different story, just as a science project, you can snip the chain that anchors you to the past. (Wait—are you wearing Eau de Wayne Dyer?) The real trick to making sure your toddler sees you happy is by actually being happy. When that’s not happening,  try not to let her see you banging your head off the wall.

I mean, how hard is that? Life is great, late-life toddler pop. Look in the mirror. Repeat in the morning. Act like you believe. Even if you’re embarrassed to tell anybody.

Is it better to go blind staring at the light or the dark? I’m sorry—what?  It’s four in the fucking morning. Let’s watch Wallace and Gromit.

Jerry Stahl has written 8 books, including Permanent Midnight, Bad Sex On Speed, and I, Fatty. His new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, is now out from Harper Perennial. More from this author →