“I have four kids.” It’s a phrase I often find myself repeating.
How did this happen? OK, yes, I know how it happened. But even to my own ears, it’s an odd thing to hear. “Four kids.” Rather than asking how, the better question might start with why. More importantly, "Why do I hear myself repeating it so often?"
When I first started saying “I have four kids,” I tried to figure out why I told this to new people I’d meet. I mean, was it a brag (“Look at me! So very virile!”) or a plea for patience (“I know I'm a mess, but there’s a reason.”) or a cry for help (“Please God, someone take these kids!”)?
In any good rhetorical analysis, one must consider the audience. In front of my students, maybe I’m trying to tell them I’m patient and comfortable repeating myself. “Oh, you missed my explanation of what’s due this week even though I’ve said it 20 times in class, 10 times online and 3 times via email? Oh, I have four kids. I understand. I’ll repeat it. Again.”
When I’m on the Liberty School District campus grounds, I’m saying it to let the other parents and guardians, teachers and administrators know why I appear to have business in every building. “Oh, you know, I have four kids. Which means four trips. At different times. For different things they forgot. Notes. Homework. Instrument. Mask.” This is often accompanied with a hurried chuckle.
After all this time, what I’m doing is stating the one fact that most clearly defines me: I’m a Dad.
When Mary Beth and I got married, I took to our negotiations about whether or not to start a family with the dedication of a trained debater. Armed with research, I would explain why having kids would be good for us, help us grow, save our taxes (yes, I used the tax write-off argument), to ensure my longevity (i.e., fathers live longer).
Point. Counterpoint. It really didn’t matter. In the end, we wanted the same thing: to build a family.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was scared. Before we decided to make a family, I really grappled with the fear of being tied to another person for the rest of my life. Even before Ella was born, I understood that her existence was something I would always have to answer for. I would always be connected to this little human, and talk about her, and share my pride in her with the rest of the world. Now I’ve got that times four.
Conversely, Mary Beth and I could disconnect. We could divorce, go our separate ways, and really not have much interaction beyond co-parenting little Ella from a distance. But not Ella. My connection to her and my other children would always be different, always linked ways that are significantly different from a link to anyone else.
This is because bringing a kid into the world is a hell ton of responsibility, an important decision most parents do not take lightly.
I’ve also found that each kid gives me a chance to start over. When you’re standing by a little person who is experiencing every human interaction and thought for the first time, you’re given the opportunity to understand the world through fresh eyes. You’re forced to think about things in ways your brain shuts off when your innocence evaporates. You’re forced to grapple with questions like “Why do bees like flowers?” or tougher questions like “What would you do if you could float over everyone?” or “What do worms taste like?” and my favorite, “Can I pick the babies who get my teeth when the tooth fairy takes them?”
These are all questions I’ve answered over the years. Little kids expect serious answers to these questions, because they’re not ridiculous questions to little kids. In fact, kids ask great questions. If we go with it, their questions can contain multitudes of human understanding.
While I might have been terrible at answering these questions for Ella (“Oh honey, bees like flowers because they look pretty” and “I have no idea what worms taste like”), I was prepared with better answers for the other three kids.
Parenting tip: “I don’t know what something tastes like” is never a good answer. They’ll search for the answer on their own, and it might not end well.
Before I had kids, I didn’t really know if I’d like them. Sure, I worked with little kids as a coach and teacher, but those were in small doses. I sometimes thought of kids as a burden their parents carried. Yet, it was strange because I still wanted some of my own.
Now I know kids are the purest form of humanity. Nobody is trying harder to figure out the world than its newest inhabitants.
In my search to understand fatherhood, it occurred to me that a long time ago I was someone’s kid. I was once a little Caillou asking grownups to explain rainbows and hiccups and stars.
This type of deep reflection is how we all start life. Even those of us who had chores and responsibilities from an early age still had wonder and awe. We had an insatiable need to find answers, to learn to do things for ourselves. We grow up but we never grow out of the need to learn. Maybe it’s that we stop recognizing the complexity of our questions.
Of course, over the 20 months, the questions have gotten slightly more complicated. “Why can’t I have sleepovers anymore?” “When can I see my friends again?” “What’s a quarantine?” “Why did Aunt Donny go to heaven?”
Figuring out a way to answer those questions while protecting their wonder wasn’t easy. The cop-out would have been to give in to the fear, but I worried that if I let myself focus on the darkness, it could end their childhood innocence. It could have silenced their thirst for exploration that I admire so much. It could have ended one of the things I love most about being a father: answering the tough questions.
So I did my best to keep it together. When they asked about changes forced on us by the pandemic, I tried to focus on the positive. I played games. I told dad jokes. I focused on sending out positive energy, not because I was inclined to positivity, but because I was protecting the value of childhood. I also stopped giving the same “because COVID” answer to every question.
I helped them find answers, which occasionally led to clever solutions (i.e., virtual sleepovers for the win).
Look, even before the pandemic, my life was messy and complicated. I mean, did I mention I have four amazing kids? And sure, the pre-pandemic daily grind of personal and professional obligations stopped me from being more present in their lives.
But there’s also been a positive side to the pandemic. It forced me to focus on my family, and to be strong for my kids. That, I hope, lasts long after the pandemic dissipates. That, I believe, just makes me a better Dad.
— Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and executive director of the Youngstown Press Club. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.