Muscle and bone

Muscle and bone

I was sitting at the kitchen table on a rare lazy Saturday morning—no swimming lessons, no birthday parties, no sleepovers. My wife was still in bed and I had dragged our three kids away from the cartoons to eat some breakfast. “Where’s mom?” asked Lucy, four years old.

“Sleeping. As long as she wants.”

“I want mom,” she said.

“I know, but wait until she wakes up. What do you need?”

“I want a banana.”

“Lucy, I can reach the bananas. They’re right here. Just ask me.”

“I want mom.”

I get it. Mom is the best. I’m not hurt. Not really.

“Dad, which one of us kids do you love the most?” asked Jackson, eight years old.

“All three of you,” I said. “I love all three of you best. You, you, and you.” I really do wish my wife could see how well I’m doing. It’s a gold-star start to the day, thanks to me.

“Okay, let me show you something. Here’s how much I love coffee,” I said, holding my hand about three inches above the table. Molly, Jackson, and Lucy hovered over their Cap’n Crunch. “And here’s how much I love books,” my hand twice as high as my coffee love. They know how serious I am about these things: I get up at 5:00 a.m. every day for coffee and books.

“And here is how much I love you,” I said, stretching my arm way up over my head. I’m feeling good, like this is going to be a key scene when they make the movie of my life. Mom’s asleep, the kids are grinning, and the day has only begun. I’m nailing it.

“And this,” I said, wiggling my fingers up a tiny bit higher, “is how much I love mom.”

All three of their faces dropped in sync like they’d been rehearsing the move for weeks. “You love mom more than you love us?” asked Molly, just turned 11.

“Yeah, but just a little bit.”

“More? More than you love us?” she asked again.

“Well she is the best, right? We all know that. So, yeah, I do. We all do. But she’s only ahead of you guys by this much.” I held my finger and thumb to my eye and left a gap between of a fraction of an inch.

“I can’t believe you love her more,” she said as she started to cry.

It’s true, assuming you can even measure love by amount. I do love her more. I’ve known her for 23 years and we’ve been married for almost 16, and I would still say, without hesitation, that marrying her is the best decision I’ve ever made. Of course it isn’t all clear skies and smooth sailing, and the narcotic bliss of young passion is long since diluted in the broad, deep well of a life shared. But the love itself has stayed true. The bond has been stretched and stressed but it has never fractured. I’m still in love with her. She still has my heart. She is my one and only.

But since the kids came along, our healthy, steadfast marriage has gotten a bit wobbly. Our fairy-tale love story has transmogrified into a familiar cliché of domestic life with young kids: more fights, more stress, less sleep, way less sex. We didn’t make these babies in a last-ditch effort to save a disintegrating marriage. Marriage suited us well, and we were good at it, just the two of us, husband and wife.

The trouble is the kids because starting on the day the first one was born, my kids have been trying to eat my wife’s soul. I can see how they take, take, take from her with hundreds—more likely thousands—of everyday demands on her time and care and affection. Endless requests, one after another, from the first snuggle with Mom before the sun comes up, to the last kiss of the day just before they drift off to sleep.

These three beautiful, narcissistic, metaphysical cannibals want to gobble her up, one simple, childlike request at a time. Can you carry me? Can I have another piece of toast, but can I have honey instead of jam? Mom, could you make pasta for supper? My mitts are wet, so can I use yours? Can you save this picture I drew of a cow? Mom, can I have a cookie? Can I have your cookie? Mom, can you fix my Star Wars pajamas? And can you tuck me in tonight? Can you read me another book? Mom, dad’s downstairs, so can I sleep in your bed?

Sliced apples after school and help with the spelling homework and Kleenex for the tears because that favourite new t-shirt got snagged on a stick during a pirate war with the neighbour boys. “Mom-can-you” repeated over and over again, the mantra of un-self-conscious children who know that they are safe and deeply loved; “Yes, I can,” the reply of a mother who loves generously, willingly, with a wide-open heart.

My kids want to eat my wife’s soul, and my gracious wife is inclined to let them because they have her heart. They are trying to consume her, but I won’t let them, for herself, for them, for me. They can’t have her, not all of her anyways.

I have lots of roles I fill for my children, including protector. I’m the growling papa bear, a prickly face and demeanor, with a big roar to scare away bad guys, and strength to scoop up the kids and carry them up the stairs, two at a time. In their minds I’m strong enough to lift the whole house if I ever needed to.

But I am my wife’s protector, too, not in some bygone, paternalistic, “husband-knows-best” kind of way. I have to protect her from the very ones who love her the most. I wrap my arms around my wife and hold her as my own, but those doggone kids are always trying to wiggle in between us to make a kid sandwich. Sometimes I hip check them out of the way. “No,” I say, “it’s my turn. I had her first. I loved her before we even thought of you.”

Usually we both just let them worm in there, and we hug and squeeze, squish and tickle. The symbolism of the gesture is not lost on me. It’s more than just a metaphor: these are the very ones who have come between us, these little ones whom we are now also obliged to love “‘’til death do us part.” I love my kids, but I love my wife more, and sometimes I need to protect her from them, adorable little monsters that they are.

Aren’t my kids supposed to fill my heart with joy and make me mushy and doe-eyed, sentimental and pacific? Mine tire me out, exasperate me, unsettle me, frustrate me, stress me.

I carry so much fear for them. How is this going to turn out? In the countless decisions my wife and I make for them every day about books, cartoons, screen-time, bedtime routines, vegetables vs. candy, discipline, religious instruction, swimming lessons, summer camp, oral hygiene, second-hand clothes, are we creating loving citizens of the planet, or selfish, shame-filled meanies? Will anything I hope for them come to pass or will they make all the same mistakes I made and then some? And where the hell is all that syrupy-sweet, love-dovey stuff I was hoping for? What’s the matter with me?

My first outing with my firstborn daughter was a few hours after she was born. I carried her in a carseat, and I had to keep switching hands, right to left and back again. Was I strong enough to be a dad? (Note: the last thing the world needs is an iCarseat, but seriously, if Graco hired a designer from Apple strictly for the ergonomics, the world would truly be a better place.)

But this is how I love my children. I love them with my muscles and bones. I pick them up, flip them upside down, and piggyback them up two flights of stairs at bedtime. I carry their heavy bags to the van for the long drive to Grandma and Grampa’s house, and I shovel the snow in the front yard into a big pile so they can slide on their crazy carpets. I used to tire myself out working for a bricklayer, falling asleep next to one or the other of them every night during story time. These days I earn a living mostly by fixing and renovating old homes, building decks and fences, desks and bookshelves, and as I hang drywall or lay tile or swap out a toilet, I am loving my kids. These are not signs of my love; these things are my love. I earn a modest income but my wages are honest, and my kids are clothed, fed, and sheltered.

My work is love. All those hugs from my glue-stained palms and skinned knuckles, bruised fingernails and aching muscles are signs of my love. The ancient Greeks had different words for different loves, including storge (STOR-gay): steadfast, daily-grind, familial love. Even the word itself sounds strong and stubborn, squat and scowling like an old Mennonite babushka. It has none of the flash and fire of eros or the heroic efforts of agape, but it’s standard operation for me and my three.

I’ve built a strong, sturdy bed for each of them. I’ve built wooden games and a playhouse and a small pergola on the back deck which doubles as a climber. I put up swings in the basement that get a lot of use in the winter. For Christmas last year I built them each a dangerous-but-not-deadly toy archery set out of plywood and dowel.

The kids have my wife’s heart and she has mine, but I’m not sure I have enough room to cram those three kids into the narrow spaces of my heart, too. But I can offer them my muscle and bones.

And I do.