Yesterday my daughter toddled into the house after pre-school and issued her usual demand.
“Peppa TV Daddy! Peppa TV!”
My daughter is totally in love with Peppa Pig, a children’s cartoon from Great Britain. Much to the amusement of her teachers she’s watched so much of it that she’d developed an English accent. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of the show but now my house is filled with Peppa books, Peppa clothes, Peppa dolls, and Peppa toys. That little porker’s got a lot of my money.
My wife was still outside collecting things from the car so I turned on the TV and pulled an episode of Peppa off the DVR. When the show’s theme song played my daughter’s face lit up with joy. “Peppa!” she cried. “I’m Peppa and you’re Daddy Pig!”
“Thank you, dear,” I said, sadly noting my resemblance to the show’s pater familias.
My daughter secured, I headed to the basement to put a load of towels on. Then, just as I turned on the machine, the bloodcurdling screams began. “Daddy!” my daughter wailed. “Daddyyyyyyy!”
Racing upstairs I found my wife waving the remote control in her hand. “No Peppa,” she said. “You were very bad. I told you no Peppa.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“She threw a tantrum in the car and threw her juice box at me. I just finished cleaning it up.”
“Daddy!” Natalie screamed. “I want Peppa. Peppa! Peppa!”
“You know she wants Peppa the minute she walks in the door,” I said to my wife. “How was I supposed to know she was being punished?”
“It’s not your fault,” my wife said. “I should have told you right away.”
“Now I look like the villain.”
I had just wrapped up a tough day at work and the last thing I wanted was my kid having a meltdown. I briefly thought about overriding my wife and letting Natalie watch her show, but undermining my spouse and rewarding my daughter for bad behavior might’ve earned me a night on the couch. I like my bed.
“Sorry, Natalie, I said, looking at her tear and snot stained face. “No Peppa.”
“Nooooooo!” Natalie screamed, pulling a full Linda Blair. “Nooooooooo!” Then she threw herself onto the ground.
“I knew I shouldn’t have given my copy of the Rite of Exorcism away.” I said.
“She’ll be fine,” my wife said. “Don’t worry.”
“You’re not my favorite, Daddy,” Natalie yelled. “You’re not my favorite!” Ouch. I know enough about child psychology to understand that my daughter’s sense of self is emerging and it was a healthy sign that she was angry, but the words still stung.
“I don’t have to be your favorite, Natalie,” I said, patting her head. “Just know that you’ll always be my favorite.” My daughter’s response was to slap my hand away.
“Don’t slap Daddy!” my wife yelped.
“Let it go,” I said. “There’s only so much a three-year-old can process.”
My wife took Natalie upstairs and placed her in her crib. As I sat on the couch listening to my daughter cry I thought about the future. One day Natalie is going tell me, “I hate you.” It’ll probably be because I’ll have set a limit – no TV, no car, no party, no sneaking out of the house at 2:00 AM – and she’ll freak. I can live with that. But one day that hatred will probably be well deserved.
All parents screw up their children. I don’t care if you’ve spent 20 years on the analyst’s couch working through all the issues you inherited from your folks, you’ll find all new ways to mess up your kids. Life is going to throw you so many curve balls that eventually you’ll strike out and your children will get hurt. Every day I see obvious reasons why kids get damaged – abuse, poverty, affluence run amok, lack of nurturance, poor boundaries, mental illness – you name it. But there are good parents out there who live exemplary lives and still have children with problems and are often mystified as to why.
The only explanation I can come up with is that everybody is damaged and eventually part of it gets imprinted on our children. What’s worse, we probably will have no idea what we did or how it affected our little ones. But no one has a perfect childhood and I feel bad for those well-intentioned parents who knock themselves out trying to create an unattainably idyllic state for their kids. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to be good moms and dads but there’s a limit to what foible laden human beings can accomplish. Besides, chasing perfection often brings about its own terrors.
Eventually all children render judgment on their parents. It’s part of the journey of life. My own parents made their share of mistakes and, for a while, I was pissed at them for it. But when I got older I began to see them as regular human beings and considered the hands life had dealt them. If I had been in their shoes would I have done better? Probably not. And now that I have children of my own and understand the stresses they went through; I’ve reached a deeper appreciation of the excellent job my parents pulled off. And trust me, my brother and I weren’t angels either.
One day Natalie will stand over my grave and reflect on the kind of father I was. Feelings about parents are complicated and there’s no use in me trying to predicting the outcome. Hopefully my daughter will cherish the good, toss out the bad and realize that her Dad was just an average man who loved her deeply and tried his best. I pray everyday for the wisdom to do the right thing.
My wife came back downstairs, looking like she had been in sustained combat. “Natalie’s asleep.”
“Good,” I said. “She probably needed a nap.”
“So what do you want for dinner?”
I looked my wife straight in the eye and said. “Pork chops.”
Take that Peppa. Delicious!