They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I disagree. I say a picture’s worth about five words, and often those words are inaccurate. I came to this realization after our family ventured to New York City for a weekend of Christmas cheer. We had tickets to a 9 a.m. (yes, a.m.) show of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular on Sunday morning, so we decided to go up on Saturday and ring-a-ling some Christmastime in the city. My wife’s parents met us in Manhattan.
On the train ride back that snowy Sunday afternoon, I posted this picture on Facebook:
It received the most likes I’ve gotten all year (over 90!). Yet, as I looked at the photo, and the sweet comments from my FB family, I felt like a bit of a fraud. “Beautiful family,” said my friend, Barb. Thanks, Barb. I agree.
However, there is so much more to the story than the pictures we post on any social media outlet. Think about that profile picture you just updated with a shot of your Christmas tree. Any fights happen during the decorating? Or, what ugly comment fell out of your mouth while trying to get your kids to look perfect for the family photos of the now obligatory holiday card?
Yes, this picture captured some of the fun, and all of the magic that the Big Apple has to offer during the holiday season, but it did not tell the whole story–the thousand words were far from that photo. For this picture was taken only an hour after my son said the ugliest thing he’s ever said to me, and I responded in (un)kind.
New York City is one of my favorite spots, and as I get older, I think of it as home to the world. I love the feeling of belonging I get when I’m in New York. The city makes me feel alive. However, the city with 2 young boys can make me feel suicidal. Beyond the complaining about walking (“My pants are hurting”) and the cold (“I can’t feel my neck”), there is the constant worry that one of your kids may die! My darling son thought it was funny to run ahead to the corner of every street, threatening to step into oncoming traffic. If I had a dollar for every time I yelled “Hayden” as he approached a cross walk, I would have been able to stay at The Four Seasons rather than The Courtyard Marriott. I knew it was bad when I started having fantasies about having an only child–or GASP none at all (only for the weekend, of course:). I would chastise myself mentally for thinking this, but then I would spy both kids walking zigzag down the block, stepping in everyone’s way, or brushing up against any surface in the hopes of ripping their brand new winter coats. Breathe, Michael. It’s the holidays. Enjoy this moment. Let them be kids… GET OFF THAT WALL NOW!
We packed a lot into one day. We marched our way up 5th Avenue and marveled at all of the glittering storefront windows, and the dazzling display of wealth. We stood in line at FAO Schwarz and then beheld the most fantastical, over-indulgent toy store in the whole United States. Surprisingly, we convinced both boys that Radio City was our gift to them , and they could use their allowance to buy a toy (they get allowance for things like breathing and going to the bathroom inside the house). Hayden insisted we go to the Build-a-Bear factory to spend his allowance. As I watched the corporate bear adoption process, I was amazed at how sweet the whole experience felt. Then, more walking up to Rockefeller Center, aka Santa’s Insane Asylum. We’re talking throngs of people, hundreds packed so close together that even the Dalai Lama would feel claustrophobic.
I was relieved that we didn’t have any plans to ice skate, we were simply trying to view the tree and get to the LEGO store-which happened to be smack dab in the center of The Center! The store felt like Santa’s Workshop on Steroids. Owen planned on spending his money there, but after a half-hour of deliberation, we realized the line snaked around the store and down the stairs. I kid you not, it was probably a quarter-mile long. Bad Daddy came on the scene and said, “I’ll be happy to come tomorrow after the show, but we can’t wait in this line for an hour.” Tears. “The LEGO I really want is at the other place, but mom told me to wait til I came here.” “FAO Schwarz?” I ask. He nods. “I’ll take him back there,” says Pam. Had the madness seeped into her head? “Go for it,” I say. “Hayden and I will walk back to the hotel.” Which we did, after I got a Starbucks–no madhouse there, since there’s one on every corner in NYC.
Now a weekend in New York usually involves dinner and a show. However, when you have a seven and nine-year old, your dinner is at 6 p.m. and your show is at 9 the next morning. But reservations are still required, and we had them at a yummy spot called La Bonne Soupe. After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed back out into the bustle and walked up to the restaurant. I had been attempting to get a picture of the boys for our Christmas card all day, but Hayden insisted on making a goofy face in every photo. I tried on our walk to dinner, but he continued to smirk and squinch–not a genuine smile to be had. The restaurant was “cozy”, which is Manhattan for cramped, yet, the ambiance was warm and welcoming. The place is famous for their French Onion soup, and the menu was filled with many tempting dishes–which happened to come with a complimentary glass of wine. Sign me up. Although, at that point, I could have used a bottle or two.
Everyone was tired, but the boys were quickly fading. For Owen, fading means getting more quiet, for Hayden, fading means getting more obstinate. He refused to sit up, he was banging his plate and silver ware, and my mother-in-law had to ask him (politely) to get his hands out of his pants. All of this with the distraction of games on my I-Phone. It was early enough, and the place crowded enough, that he was not making a scene, but I was out of patience and he was out of time. I looked around the room, comforted by another family with two girls of similar ages to my sons, whose parents were hesitant but resigned to handing over their phones at the first sign of trouble.
Just then, a man sat down at the next table. He was older, well-dressed, and eating alone. Alone in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night–so why was I envious of him? Oh, I know why. The reason was kicking me under the table, trying to coerce me into downloading another frigging app to my phone. “No, Hayden,” I said, annoyed. He began to whine. “No!” He did the limb-flail on the booth seat. I was done with this behavior. I pulled one out of the Parenting Torture Manual: the under-the-table-pinch. He shot up, startled. Then, he realized what I did. I thought he might scream, upturn the table, chase me with a butter knife. But instead, he just hurled the meanest thing he’s ever said to me, right there in Manhattan, in front of all of us, including my in-laws. With quivering lips, he mumbled, “I wish you didn’t live with us,” with such dramatic flair that I would swear he’s been watching Lifetime TV movies.
And my response. My response? I looked at him, and with a measured tone said, “Oh, yeah, well guess what? When you act like this, no one at this table wants to live with YOU!” Inside, I felt better, but outside, I was being met with uncomfortable stares from everyone at my table AND the man sitting next to us. He looked up from his soup bowl and stared right into my eyes with an expression of sad disapproval–You are a mean man, Sir, his eyes said. No, my eyes shot back. NO! You have not lived with this kid for the past seven years. You haven’t watched him almost kill himself at every damn street corner today. You weren’t there when he choked his brother in line at FAO Schwarz. You weren’t there when I ran back into that madhouse of a toy store because he forgot the goddamn birth certificate for his goddamn bear: Mushroom Thomas Trainer. Don’t you judge me. This kid could put anyone over the edge. Even you, Mr. Perfect.
“Would anyone like another glass of wine?” asks the waitress as she checks in on our meal. “Yes!” say the four adults at our table. “YES!”
That’s the real story. Not the one you see in the photograph. That’s what I kept coming back to after I posted that picture on Facebook. This picture does not tell the whole story. Far from it. This picture does not show my insecurities at being a dad, the regret I feel for my reactions sometimes, the constant fear I have that something bad might happen to one of my children, the unfair resentment I have towards my sons’ for not knowing how lucky they are–we are–to be afforded these wonderful experiences, experiences I never had as a child.
I sit alone on the train, in an odd one-seater by the exit, and watch a lady and her boys eat cupcakes and giggle in the seats right in front of me. I am aware of the ease with which they handle each other, this family in front of me–my wife and our boys. It’s an ease I wish I could feel more.
The car ride home from the train station is adventurous and tense, as the first snowfall blankets the highway. The boys are excited to see the flakes. Pam and I worry as we see cars in ditches off to the side of the turnpike.
We are relieved to get home without incident. Excitedly, we begin to recap our experience in the city. It’s unanimous that the Toy Soldiers was our favorite Rockette number in the show; Owen longs for the French toast he had at the corner diner; Hayden recalls the Rockefeller Center scene depicted in LEGOS. Like most trips, there were many bright moments, peppered with some miserable ones. And that’s the nature of family, of traveling, of life.
Then, Owen gripes about me making them wear those “itchy” sweaters to the play, and Hayden whines about the fact that I refuse to let him wear sweatpants everyday. I tease them for being wimps. They say, “You’re so mean, Dad! You’re the meanest dad in the world!” I recall the Bad Parenting Manual this time and respond with, “Oh, yeah? If I’m so mean, then why don’t you two go and live somewhere else! Then you’ll see how good you have it.” Response one: “Fine!” Response two: “We will!” “You two wouldn’t make it to the end of the driveway!” They attempt to do just that, in six inches of snow, in bare feet. They come back in, frozen. The three of us can no longer tell if we’re kidding or angry, and I can see the headlines now: “Boys die of pneumonia attempting to run away from home. Meanest Dad in the World Missing”.
Pam brings the boys up to bed, and I throw myself a pity party while I shovel the driveway. With each mound of snow I heave, a thought spews from my mind: Well, someone HAS to be the bad guy; Mean? They’ve don’t even know what mean looks like; These boys live a charmed life; I’m tired of always being the disciplinarian. My thoughts pound steadily, each one making me feel worse. Then, I hear a banging on the bedroom window above–it’s Hayden, freshly showered and in his PJs. He’s banging hard. What did I do now, I think negatively. He says something, but it’s muffled. “What?” I yell up to the little figure in the night. “Will you come up and snuggle me?” he yells, louder this time. I laugh at the absurdity of it all, the meanest dad in the world being asked to snuggle. “Sure,” I say. “Give me five minutes.”
As I lay in Hayden’s bed, we talk about all the things we loved about the Christmas Show at Radio City. He shows me where his new bear, Mushroom, is going to sleep. Then, he asks me to draw letters on his back. I spell words and he tries to guess them: N-E-W Y-O-R-K C-I-T-Y: “New York City,” he shouts. S-A-N-T-A: “Santa,” he says, stifling a yawn. I-L-O-V-E Y-O-U: “I love you,” he whispers, halfway off to dreamland.
No picture could capture this moment.