We learn a lot about how we feel for a wife and children when we have to spend a chunk of time away.
While seated in a transatlantic flight last Tuesday—my eighteen month-old boy, Sasha, looking at a picture book in my lap—I found myself wondering how I would feel when I landed in Amsterdam.
This would be, since the birth of my daughter in 2009, the beginning of my first full-blown vacation. Sure, I’d have plenty to do in Europe: an online course to teach, the business of research for a book, participation in a literary seminar, and the work I do here at The Good Men Project. But any parent knows these things are rather easy when there are no children. You can barely consider them tasks.
My wife and I have stumbled into a situation with virtually non-existent social capital. At home, we’re always exhausted. For the past four years, I have woken up tired each morning—sometimes I get to all the things on my to-do list, but other times I simply don’t. I’ve learned to forgive myself, even to understand that forgiveness is unnecessary. What have I done wrong? I’m responding the way a human responds to a lack of sleep and intense demand for his attention.
There are minutes when I feel I’m in survival mode, scrambling to accomplish the most necessary thing—make this food, pay this bill, send the right amount—so that I can rush out the door in time to pick up our daughter from preschool or get to the crying child, hungry now, just woken up from a nap. I have an anxiety disorder, and sometimes parenting leaves me feeling like a prairie dog sensing hawks overhead as wolves bear down from all directions. I can no longer tell if PTSD is exacerbating the psychological condition of being a parent or if it is the other way around.
As so many parents do, I dream of prolonged breaks. I have longed for time to sleep in or to wander the streets without any duties or responsibilities, no visions of my children fallen under the wheels of elevated trains, or fears that they will split their faces open while playing on the front stairs. I wish each day to write without little feet pounding on the floor above my basement office, and without the clock ticking, some looming appointment or drop-off time distracting my concentration. I want to be able to read for a half hour or longer, in a room where I hear nothing beside the sound of rain falling on metal windowpanes, smell only freshly brewed coffee. The greatest fantasy is for my wife and me to go on some Scandinavian spa vacation, or to live in a hut on a Central American beach for twelve days.
The Central American dream aside, I didn’t need to long for the break anymore. My family and I were exiting the plane in Amsterdam. We’d split: the wife and kids were continuing on to Kiev to visit my in-laws, while I’d spend a few days in the Netherlands before flying to Lithuania. I was trembling at the prospect of this freedom, anticipating it—this is not hyperbole—with the kind of nervous fascination a boy feels before losing his virginity.
How would I respond to this? What would it be like? What if I started down a hallway of Schiphol Airport by myself and felt the greatest elation? What if I found out all this parenting and marriage was a horrible burden, that the central desires of my life had always been to live as a wandering libertine, and that I had only tricked myself into family life out of a sense of obligation or societal pressure? I’d be fucked. How would I handle that? What action would it demand? The destruction of everything? Or a life of depressed repression?
I was quite tired after the flight, had not slept a wink. Kira, our daughter, had passed out in a stroller, but Sasha was suddenly jacked up, running up and down alongside a window. My wife, even after a cup of strong coffee, was pale as the dead when covered in lime. When it was time to queue up to enter the gate, a mob of elbowing and unwashed Ukrainians suddenly hoarded together, each one seeking advantage, as if they were lining up not for assigned seats but for bowls of rationed broth. The reek asphyxiated me. But I stood with my family, holding the squirrelly boy on my shoulder until he tired out.
It was now time for them to pass the gate. I could not go any further. I kissed the sleeping girl, the boy and then planted a sustained kiss on my wife’s mouth, tasting her coffee breath. I stood to the side and waited in a place where I might watch beyond the security checkpoint. My wife waved one last time, flashing her huge green eyes before she and the children disappeared, blending into the mass of people in a tight boarding area.
I headed toward the moving walkway, following the signs to the passport control. Unexpectedly, a sunburst of orange heat and sorrow had risen into my face to begin seeping out my eyes and nose. There was no faking it, the unmistakable warmth and power a man feels when missing his dearest. After less than a few minutes. My family was not fifty meters behind me before my eyes had welled up.
My first impulse was to hide in a bathroom stall until the feeling passed, then to wash my face. But why? Why should I be ashamed, and what did I have to hide? If I was to shed tears over my departed family, I would do it right here, in the hallways of Schiphol airport, surrounded by strangers from every corner of the world. It was, after all, a celebration. What else should I have expected from myself?
Photo by Sean Rosekrans