A few years ago, I was stretched out on a lawn chair next to my sister’s pool when she plopped down next to me, yelled at her kids to stop getting water everywhere, and casually asked, “So are you guys going to have kids?” Already in my mid-thirties, I’d learned that this question was the new “how is work?” Because the older you get, the more concerned the world becomes for your eggs and the ominous rattle of your empty uterus. “I don’t know,” I said, “I have Oliver for now and I feel like that’s similar.” Oliver is our anxiety-ridden poodle. He needs CBD every time we leave the house or he stress-craps on our wool carpets. He has always been needy and a lot of work and while he’s not the same as having human children I felt strongly that he was at least a good prep course for my husband and me. Now, as a mother of a toddler, I know I could not have been more wrong.
It’s true that a puppy will get you used to someone ruining every nice thing you’ve ever owned and remind you with every potty break that your days are no longer carefree. You’ll also learn how to plan, something I definitely didn’t do before Oliver came into my life. You can’t stay out all night or randomly hop on a plane–not without arranging a sitter at least. But I don’t think that a puppy can truly shepard you into the realities of caring for a small human with any real authenticity. From my experience, the best way to prepare yourself for a future with children is to work in a bar.
Let me explain.
When I was in college, I’d bartend off and on at a local club to make quick cash to fund my wanderlust. I loved it. I enjoyed swaying to Depeche Mode, sipping on vodka sodas while listening to endless stories from chatty patrons. Drunk people have absolutely no use for social graces. Put a few drinks in someone and they’ll tell you everything they’ve ever been proud of and everything they regret on top of the things they like and dislike about you, right down to your lipstick choice and hair color. I’ve heard it all. I’ve been down many roads of nostalgia: the old punk days, the sports glory days, the moment they laid eyes on their firstborn kid, or that one crazy thing they did on that one trip. I heard a lot of epiphanies and even more missed opportunities. Everyone has one that got away. Nearly everyone blames pride. It’s been agreed upon (based on feedback I never fucking asked for) that I look best in light makeup or red lips and backless t-shirts and jeans.
Observing the nuanced rituals of the inebriated never felt like “real” work even though it was tiring. I’d shake cocktails while shitfaced friends screamed “Sweet Carolyn” on repeat. I shrugged or nodded during drunken soapbox lectures about the CIA, set boundaries with the pushy bros, listened carefully through slurred tales of triumph, calmed the angry, broke up fights, and assured the day drinkers that everything would probably be okay. Little did I know that all of the drooling, stumbling, and inability to emote normally was preparing me for motherhood.
Toddlers are basically tiny drunk people.
In many ways, chasing after my extremely active son 24/7 also doesn’t feel like work even though I’m so exhausted most of the time I can barely function. Often, I watch him reprimand his dolls or saute his imaginary culinary creations with a smile on my face and fire in my heart. I’m fascinated with him and the way he moves in the world. His carefree spirit and big feelings remind me to have fun and to just be. But there are other times where I’m sure that he’ll be the death of me, either because I’ll die trying to keep him out of traffic (he’s a street darter) or I’ll hurl myself down the stairs out of sheer frustration the 10,000 time he tells me “no go away!” While I always love him with every bit of my being there are other moments where I’m trying to reason with him about why he can’t eat an expired package of “lalacart” (Turkey) and I remember why I took my sweet time to have children in the first place.
I’ve heard people say things about the “terrible twos” all of my life and have seen it in action in small doses on plenty of babysitting jobs or with my younger siblings. This is the first time I’ve had the full fury of toddler crazy hurled in my direction. And it’s hilarious, baffling, and kind of scary, which reminds me of being twenty-five in a dance club on one of those nights where someone gets naked and streaks, cries all over the bar and then pukes aggressively during some kind of nonsensical argument about daisies.
This week my almost-two-year-old son got frustrated that I wouldn’t let him poke out my eye. He cried hysterically because the banana that he was eating peeled while he was peeling it. One afternoon he removed his diaper, pissed on the floor, and then gave himself a standing ovation while I tried to diaper him and stop him from tap dancing in the puddle. While Facetiming a friend, he used his toddler hulk strength to launch his potty chair across the room when she asked, “How’s the potty training going?” Then, hyped up on power, he ran zoomies shrieking, “WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA” until he collapsed in a pile of pillows face first. Every day he demands to listen to Elton John on repeat, screaming YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, with crazed eyes until we hit play on the Sonos. Some days he’s so amped up I’m convinced that he’s found a baby named Brad on our street who sells tiny bags of cocaine. I’m coming for you, baby Brad.
I attribute my ability to witness humans at their absolute worst while barely blinking to two things: my epically “unconventional” (traumatic) childhood and time behind the bar. The capacity to remain chill in the face of horror is an absolute gift for a mom. Most of the time through his fits and fury I’m able to calmly observe his shitstorm wrath slightly bemused and emotionally removed which gives me time to rationally sort out his big feelings. Most of the time. I’m not a monk. Different from the bar is the fact that my son lives with me twenty-four hours per day and the sheer number of times my has frustrated me to tears (a billion) versus the time a club patron made me cry (zero).
However, nothing that I learned while bartending totally prepared me for the roller coaster ride that is parenthood. Nights pouring whiskey for fun-loving or downtrodden customers could never have prepared me for the immense love and devotion I feel for my son or the way every cell in my body burns to envelop him in safety and security and happiness. Being a parent is kind of scary because of how desperately you want to consume your child. As a germaphobe and person who actually hates cuddling, I had no idea I could spend so much time aching to hold another human against my body. A friend of mine recently texted that after her daughters aged four and six fall asleep, she still bends down to smell their breath. I was not ready for the way my son’s very existence pushes me to go harder, do better, and heal myself and the world all for him. Nor could a night club have readied me for the way it feels to have your giant child wipe his nose on your gold necklaces, covering them in gag-inducing ooze–all while writing this piece. A dog can do that, though.
While I feel that bartending is the best way to hone a specific skillset that one uses to manage intoxicated humans and/or toddlers, it does not expand your heart and teach you how to selflessly care for a helpless and complicated creature. But that’s where dogs come in. Our poodle Oliver did that and more.
What (if anything) do you think helped get you ready for parenthood? Or Pet-Parenthood? Or just being an adult in general?
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please share if you’re feeling fancy.