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My Mid-Life Brightness

At 46, I thought I was done having kids. Then Rosalie waddled through the door.

Three years ago, on the eve of my 46th birthday, my wife walked into my office and presented me with a gift: a third child, to be unwrapped in approximately eight months.

I was, to put it gently, floored.

We already had two children, a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, both of them healthy to the point of rambunctiousness. I’d spent the previous two years imploring my wife to stop fantasizing about a third child. “Aren’t we kind of maxed out, time- and energy-wise?” I’d say, to which she would respond, “Yes, but when I look around the table at dinner, I just feel deep in my heart that someone is missing.” To which I would respond, “Yes, but I feel it would be bad form to drop dead of a coronary at this missing child’s bar mitzvah.”

My wife, who is eight years younger than me, listened with a great and abiding patience. And there she was in my office, staring at me with growing apprehension as I failed to rise from my desk and ecstatically rub her belly. Instead, I sat stunned as a single thought burrowed its way into my consciousness: I am too old for this crap.

More than two years have passed. Rosalie Almond has entered the world and learned how to crawl and walk and destroy every single object in our house that isn’t welded to the floor—but also to call out “Papa!” every morning with such unbridled hope that my heart nearly explodes with joy.

And yet my essential position remains unchanged.

This was brought home to me on a recent airplane ride down to Florida. I spent 60 percent of the trip chasing Rosalie down the aisle while also attempting to calculate the precise age at which she would be able to outrun me. At a certain point, Rosalie stopped to accost a matron who was wearing a necklace the size of a small chandelier.

“What a darling little boy,” the woman said, attempting to fend off Rosalie’s sticky little fists. She glanced at me sweetly. “And you must be a very proud grandpa!”

A number of people were watching this heartwarming little scene. But even though they were total strangers, I could not bring myself to set the record straight.

For a moment, I found myself embracing this narrative. Maybe I did have a son to whom I could hand off this insanely energetic child. This would leave me free to nap for the next, say, two years.

I need the sleep. Because, in addition to feeling chronically embarrassed, I am chronically drowsy. This might help explain why just a few months ago I staggered into the kitchen for a dawn feeding and filled Rosalie’s bottle with chicken broth. The cartons look stunningly similar.

It has also come to my attention that I have aged considerably in the past two years. This has come to my attention because my two older children remind me on a semiregular basis. My 8-year-old looked at me some months back and issued the following appraisal: “You look like a dried-up old drumstick.”

I immediately retreated to the bathroom, where I stared for minutes into the mirror. A dried-up old drumstick looked back.

My son, who is 6 and already aware of the fragility of the male ego, is careful to avoid such statements. “Don’t worry, Papa,” he told me. “When you get too old to lift Rosalie, we will get you a wheelchair.”

On the other hand, I no longer really have to exercise. Tracking a toddler takes care of that. I now weigh 10 pounds less than I did a decade ago.

My friends are often impressed by this. “You look thin,” one said to me when he visited last month. “How do you do it?”

“I’m on a special program,” I answered. “It’s called anguish
and fatigue.”

I also have a special routine for stretching out my back, which is chronically sore from carrying Rosalie, who makes shrill, blaring sounds when I try to put her down. Before bed, I lay down on my stomach on the living room rug. The two older kids then jump up and down on my vertebrae and laugh hysterically.

Sometimes, if my older daughter is feeling benevolent, she will pluck out my white chest hairs with her fingernails and use her Hello Kitty manicure set to sand down the gnarled callouses on my feet. It’s sort of like a spa treatment with a cross-generational dungeon component.

Of course, at 48, I’m still technically middle-aged. But if all goes well, I’ll reach the age of 65 and still possess a teenager. She will skulk around and sigh dramatically and hang out with other morose, self-hating teens while I spend a lot of my day trying to remember where I left my teeth.

I try not to think about the future too much. After all, Planet Earth will eventually be swallowed up by our imploding sun. The less time spent dwelling on distant inevitabilities, the better.

I’ve tried to adopt the same, more relaxed approach when it comes to parental quality control standards. At this point, Rosalie and I are enjoined in a very simple nonverbal contract: She is welcome to mangle anything within her grasp so long as she does not climb onto the counter where we keep the knives.

I realize this sounds impressively, almost illegally, irresponsible. But the older I get, the more I’ve come to recognize the great cosmic joke that underlies all parenting: the idea that you can ever do it perfectly. Or even especially well. Most of my mistakes as a parent have arisen from caring too much, not too little.

I suspect our two “big” kids would agree. A few years ago, they were riding their bikes near our home when I, their nervous and near-sighted chaperone, spotted a car turning onto our street. I screamed a warning so loud that both of them fell off their bikes. (This, of course, is why we force them to wear helmets capable of sustaining a nuclear blast.)

In fact, my wife and I stage-managed every aspect of their lives when they were Rosalie’s age. Were they eating enough? Were they dressed warmly enough? Did they have enough friends?

We were so full of anxiety that too often we failed to recognize how joyful it is to spend time with small human beings whose sense of wonder has no off switch.

So yes, I stagger through my days in a near-constant state of pain and humiliation, but I am enjoying myself more than ever. I even sort of enjoy Rosalie’s latest trick, which is to grab the loose skin of my neck, which I refer to as my wattle.

My two bigs find this hilarious. But they’re not cruel about it. They just watch Rosalie and giggle. Soon enough, they will teach Rosalie to pronounce the word “wattle,” and she will almost undoubtedly caper around the playground shrieking, “Look! My old dad has a neck wattle! Come play with my old dad’s neck wattle!”

For now, though, it’s just our little secret.


Steve Almond is the author of Bad Stories, out April 1. Email him at stevealmondjoy@gmail.com.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Originally Published June 2015