Ten (Not So) Super Secret Revelations from Stay at Home Parents

We’re elated when invited to dinner parties or other events — but we’re also terrified.  We don’t get out very often and have lost any semblance of social awareness.  It’s possible we’ll airplane food into someone’s mouth and if a guest has sauce on their cheek, we’ll compulsively wipe it off without permission — with a saliva soaked thumb.  When we laugh, we’re certain the sound resembles the whinnying of a giddy donkey — the loud, rapid staccato of someone who’s forgotten how to laugh in the adult world.   Interacting outside the confines of home is like stumbling into blinding sunlight, overwhelmed by the noise of the terrifying, giant people we no longer understand.

No one is more uniquely qualified to write a dissertation on the difference between loving and liking — than a stay at home parent.   The overflowing heart basking in the glow of a child’s angelic, sleeping face — can quickly give way to inconsolable weeping under the bed (the parent–the parent is under the bed weeping), as you wonder how your child was born with the innate knowledge of where to find all thirty-one of your buttons.

Weekends aren’t weekends — ever.  Imagine your place of employment.  As you’re leaving for your days off, the boss informs you they’ll be spent at work — but you’ll have extra help.  That’s what our weekends feel like.  We’re at the same place, with the same people, doing the same things — with extra assistance. Imagine you can never get away from that needy co-worker — who you care about — but constantly poops himself.

It takes hours to make the house look like we’ve done absolutely nothing all day.  If it looks like we haven’t done anything, it’s likely we never sat down.  If it appears there was actual progress, one of the children ran away or was left at the grocery store.

The human psyche has a limit to the the crying, bickering, or pestering it can withstand.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist monk or a cement statue.  Eventually, you’re going to crack.  You aren’t taking care of children — you’re attempting to corral trained, emotional assassins — intuitively aware of ancient techniques of verbal torture.

To understand what it’s like to move through a day with children, imagine you have forty pound blocks attached to you with rope.  The blocks often move in opposite directions — except for when they’re trying to destroy each other.  Don’t have noodles for the casserole you’re making that night? There goes three hours of your day.  After wrestling the blocks into the appropriate gear, then into the car — an hour’s gone.  (Oh, and the blocks are shape shifters with infinite permutations.)  Two hours later after finally returning home, you realize you bought a muffin tin, a type of hair gel you don’t even use — and forgot the noodles.

Every movement of the day requires an algorithmic calculation.  If you ever see an adult in a grocery store at night giggling and performing a Dora the Explorer interpretive dance — it’s likely a stay at home parent that’s been given thirty minutes of freedom.

We have friends.  There’s a recurrent myth we’re all reclusive hermits, who have no friends and rarely venture outside.  The part about no friends isn’t true. It’s rumored a stay at home parent in California, between cashiers at the grocery store and a nice bank teller, has eight friends.  Eight!   (I have four unless you don’t include the ones unaware that asking me “Paper or plastic?” is automatic inclusion into my social circle.)

It’s an endurance sport.  There isn’t any one thing we do that’s particularly difficult.  It’s doing them for the seven hundredth time that day with the Discordant Symphony in A Minor pummeling our eardrums — that the endurance comes in.  Ultra-marathoners like to believe they test the limits of human will. So you ran seventy miles through Death Valley?  Did you do it with kids in tow or have to run through poop and legos?  Spare us your manufactured stories of triumph and grit.

We cry
.   It’s not every day and it’s not only when we’re overwhelmed — but we cry.  If you weren’t aware of this, it’s because we don’t choose those moments to post selfies to our social media page.   We only post pictures when the children’s clothes match, their smiles are angelic, and the living room is in perfect order.

The moments make it all worth it.  Every parent gets to experience these — the moments that take your breath away or bring the world into sharp focus.  We just experience more of them.  There are times the isolation feels unbearable and the self-doubt settles in — but then we get to watch as a new understanding of the world dawns in their eyes, or we get an uninitiated kiss on the cheek, or their adorableness overwhelms us.  It’s those moments that make the seven foot stack of dirty dishes waiting on us in the kitchen — only feel about six feet tall.

The Seductive Whisper of Certainty.

I used to trust the voices of certainty.

During my formative years, certainty, inerrancy, and infallibility were venerated — concepts bred in the heavens and bathed in an ethereal glow.  They were the north star and guiding light — leading through the pitfalls of a chaotic and morally duplicitous world.  They weren’t just concepts attached to religious texts and moral constructs, but permeated every facet of existence.  Uncertainty was to be shunned.  Uncertainty was weakness.  Clarity at any cost was the foundational ideal.

As I grow older that ethereal glow is losing its luster.  I trust voices of certainty less and less and find myself drawn to the tortured, wandering souls uncomfortable with easy answers — wrestling in anguish with questions and finding no solace in absolutes.  Perhaps this is all a misplaced, self-serving embrace of those verbalizing my own discomfort with the answers presented.  The answers that can’t be questioned.  The answers that no longer resonate.

I’ve watched the need for certainty corrupt discourse.  I’ve witnessed it — paradoxically — precede and supplant attempts to discern truth.  I’ve observed conclusions become the starting point for apologists to find convincing premises.   All the while, the voices of absolutism get louder and louder — a discordant symphony that can no longer hear itself — or understand why people are plugging their ears and rushing toward the exits.

As I get older, I’m supposed to move toward wisdom, clarity, and certainty — to move in any other direction is akin to the embrace of moral relativism or moral decay. Yet I often find more honesty, humility, and hopefulness in “I don’t know” than in the certainty that germinates and grows in the fertile soil of fear or desire for identity.

What would happen if we became more comfortable with uncertainty?  I don’t know — but I am becoming increasingly at peace with that answer.

The Non-Scientific Guide to Science.

A dilemma arises when you want to sway public opinion on a scientific topic — yet the most qualified scientists in the applicable field and decades of research oppose your beliefs.  How can you cast the largest shadow with a non-existent case?  The encouraging news is that in most scenarios, following a couple of general principles and a handful of specific applications, it’s easy to create a convincing shadow.  While specific tactics will be listed to include in your writing, two principles are worth remembering:  Confusion is easier to create than clarity and your views don’t have to BE scientific — they just have to SOUND scientific.

1)   If expanding your reach is the goal, start with a provocative headline.  Titles including “Shocking”, “Cover Up”, or “Scientists Quietly Admit” will generate social media sharing based on the title alone.  People often have short attention spans and don’t read the article — thus, confirmation for beliefs can be as simple as a sensationalized headline.  Even if the article is engaged, your readers have already been primed and their views are beginning to form — they’ve been given a lens through which to interpret what follows.

2)   There’s no easy way to solve the contradiction of opposing the overwhelming consensus of qualified experts — while appealing to a minority voice you want your readers to trust as qualified.   One approach is to reference someone in a non-related field that has their Ph.D. or other arrangement of professional sounding letters after their name.  Most won’t dig deep enough to determine whether they’ve been involved in relevant research or why their academic background is inapplicable.  What’s important is giving people a credentialed viewpoint that gives them valid cover for their beliefs.

One powerful tactic is to weave in a narrative of persecution.  The arguments of your cited expert(s) have likely been deconstructed — but if they can be framed as a martyr or painted as a marginalized voice valiantly opposing the establishment, this provides it’s own credibility and proof.

3)  Use selective quotes from scientists that represent the establishment.  That suggestion is fraught with danger however if you don’t carefully extract quotes that appear to further your case.  Avoid context.  Disregard what was actually said and focus on how you can make their words sound.

4)  Ask carefully chosen questions.  There are many accusations and claims that can be couched in a question — and who can be critical of an inquisitive approach? It’s irrelevant whether the question has been answered — most have.  The important consideration is that readers may be unaware of the answers.  Create a loop detractors can’t escape.  If a question is adequately answered, claim you aren’t convinced or side step to another question — even if you recognize it demands an unreachable burden of proof.

5)  The uncomfortable reality is that available evidence, often decades worth and disseminated by the most studied scientists in a field, point in the opposite direction you would like to move public opinion.  The ability to craft a rhetorically convincing narrative is imperative, as well as selectively referenced research — but only by carefully reframing it.  Not many have the patience or expertise to understand the research being cited anyway.  Take advantage of this fact.

6)  In many ways, voicing the minority position is difficult, but there is one area that can be utilized as position of strength.  Narratives that cast doubt don’t have to present complicated science.  They’re accessible and easily understood.  People have a tendency to reject what they don’t understand.

7)  Attach the views you’re counteracting with a faceless, oppressive bureaucracy.  Be careful not to directly malign hard working scientists who have given their life to research and progress in their field — but doing so implicitly can be an effective weapon.  Depending on the topic, it’s also beneficial to use the specter of profit as an offensive bludgeon.   Disregard that being a vocal minority voice often leads to considerable compensation as well — in the form of book and product sales and speaking engagements.   When you include profit and a hint of martyrdom as two of your premises, you can write your own conclusions.

8)  Lastly, the scientific consensus is a house of cards.  It’s not actually, but that has to be your message.  This allows for every claim and seed of doubt sowed to be attached to the bold assertion their theory has completely crumbled.  Fortunately, holding a minority view doesn’t demand a substantive or valid theory — it just requires chipping away at theirs.   The kitchen sink approach is invaluable.  All it takes is one critique to stick. No one will remember the scores of times the opposition was mistaken.

No matter how compelling the research or the unanimity of the scientific establishment, you can resist the pressure to operate inside a template of logical coherence and the scientific method.

I’m Right. You’re Wrong.

As someone who spends a great deal of time trying to understand scientific disagreements, and to some extent political ones, I’ve contemplated a possible explanation — that people often care more about feeling right than being right.  No one falls conveniently on either end of the spectrum, and understanding this distinction doesn’t offer a  recipe for unanimity — there are still too many unexamined cognitive biases.  It does however provide a starting point to pursue — not iron clad, irrefutable answers — but what is likely true based on collective efforts toward understanding.

The threshold for feeling right is low.  An emotional appeal.  Cleverly worded invective aimed at your ideological enemies.  Feeling right demands little evidence and starts with a conclusion, while ignoring contradictions — selectively seeking validation and plausible sounding premises.   There is a reason for the popularity of bombastic voices that present cleverly packaged half-truths.

An impassioned focus on being right — and pursuing a shared framework that will lead to what is probabilistically true — is more demanding.  It requires context.  It requests a willingness to admit error and change directions.  It demands our assertions are presented in a way that falsification is possible.  If our views can’t be wrong — we are trapped in an ideological bubble, reluctant to step outside into a world of discomfort, but also an environment of progress.

Feeling right can happen within seconds.
Caring about being right demands something deeper and more time consuming.
Feeling right is as easy as painting with broad sweeping brush strokes.
Being right takes fine, meticulous brush strokes — and patience.

I have two young children growing up in a society where identity trumps truth and where manufactured indignation is presented as evidence — and it’s disheartening.  How do I teach them to think critically in a world where emotional resonance is frequently venerated over logic?   How do I counteract the onslaught of voices selling a brand of intellectual relativism — or the belief that my confusion is as valid as your clarity and that gut feelings trump expertise?  How do I recognize when I’m guilty of chasing the feeling of being right — or even of appearing right — rather then treading the uncomfortable path of following evidence wherever it leads?

I Don’t Want to Forget A Thing.

I fear forgetting the stories and vivid impressions of my children that I assume I’ll always remember. The sound of their laughter.  The hilarious phrases.  The endearing looks.  Already, gazing into the recent past — the images are cloudy — as if I’m looking through opaque glass.  Perhaps if I read this years from now, it will help revive these memories.  Maybe it will read like a chronicle from a different life.

Isaac’s pouty-faced, “I don’t like t-rexis.” (Repeated at least seven times)

Watching Noah’s mind at work — always on fire — never stopping — never slowing down.

Isaac’s run where everything is moving at once — cheeks, head, arms — like he’s being controlled by the invisible strings of a puppeteer.

Noah catching a blown kiss and rubbing it into his heart.

Isaac, nestled in his crib at bedtime as he pulls his community of stuffed animals in tight — tucked into the protective cocoon of childhood.

Noah drawing a picture for every classmate, the picture carefully based on what each of them likes — or drawing pictures as a gift for the librarian, the mailman, or the bank teller.

Isaac’s pout that appears just a touch contrived.  (His mother has noted a certain Hitchcock likeness.)

Noah’s inchoate attempts at creating his own jokes, where the punchline is followed by expectant laughter.  “What can’t you eat for breakfast?  Lunch and dinner.”

Isaac’s contagious, room expanding laughter after everyone else laughs — like he understood the humor.

Their kisses on my cheek. The authenticity of their hugs. The feeling that if they were any more adorable, precocious, or amazing — my heart would rupture.

I wonder if tucked away in an old book — there is a yellowed, folded piece of paper on which my parents detailed what they didn’t want to forget.  I wonder if I ever made their heart feel like it would burst.