“Daddy, can I help?”
Coming on a bright summer Saturday morning, this sweet offer from the world’s warmest toddler prompts a low rumbling sound from its target.
“Daddy, why are you growling?”
For starters, the “stupid door,” as it is known around our house, has come off track again. I’m so good at fixing it that I’ve done it three times. My wide-eyed two-year-old stands next to the open tool box. He lifts out a screwdriver and says, “I’ll do it!” I sigh.
Alec is in the “daddy’s little helper” stage. Whenever he spots me touching a hammer, wrench or drill, he rushes over to make my life easier. He picks up pliers to twist the hose I’m struggling with under the sink. When I head for the garage, he announces, “I’ll come with you!”—certain that I can’t find sandpaper or lug a ladder without him. He especially likes to show me how to use the “round and round screwdriver.” It’s electric.
I love that he wants to be with me. I appreciate the bonding, the teaching and his predilection to do things for himself. I’m glad he’s at the polar opposite of our 13-year-old daughter, who thinks, “Please help me” means, “Come here so I can pull your teeth out.”
But I have a confession. The boy slows me down. Trying to get things done with him is like hiking with a backpack of bricks. I try to find tasks for him, but there’s only so much that can be done by a handyman in diapers. His entreaties to join me in the garage strike when he’s in socks: I wait while he dons sneakers. And how do I respond when he joins me on the deck and insists on helping me with the circular saw? Plastic toddler tools? Alec knows that his red and yellow drill never makes a hole and that nothing moves when he pounds it with his hollow hammer. He scoffs at his small green rake: “It doesn’t work.”
I’m not proud of how I usually solve this: agreeing to my wife’s suggestion that she take him to a playground while I get things done, or letting Alec pretend to work with me while my voice betrays my frustration.
I feel guilty. The problem is that, like many of my contemporaries, I measure the success of my weekend by how many items I cross off my “to do” list. But as I zip around an empty house getting lots of things done, I feel the loneliness that comes from putting good home ownership above good fatherhood.
Some tasks are simply essential. But the reality is that our “to do” lists never end, while our kids’ childhoods do. I imagine myself walking around after the kids are gone, thinking: “I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to with the kids, but at least the gutters were clean.”
I hate to admit this, but I had to take a cue from my wife. Regina is better at working the kids into her daily routine. “You have to accept the fact that you have a family,” she said one day as I steamed over how long it was taking to install a fence with Alec’s help.
I had to change the way I look at things. I saw that sitting under the kitchen sink with Alec is as good as playing. He loves handing me tools and holding the flashlight. Okay, I have to remind him to keep the light on my hands. But this gives me a two-fer: playtime with him while getting something accomplished.
Second, I had to redefine what I hoped to accomplish. So here I am putting in mini-blinds. Alec hears the round and round screwdriver, his signal to help. I lift him onto the ladder and help him place the screwdriver into the head of a screw that I’ve started to put into a hole. He presses the orange button and, Viola!, he is screwing a bracket into a wall.
I rake leaves, letting him use one of the big rakes. When I split firewood, I put the finished logs into his red wagon; he pulls it up to the house and unloads the logs onto the wood pile. When I’m measuring the windows, I give in to his demands to share the tape measure. “How long?” I say.
“Thirty hundred pounds,” he answers proudly.
I enjoy this process of fixing things without focusing on the finish line. I don’t reach the finish line as often, but I get more time with my son. Somehow, I feel like I’m accomplishing more.
Patrick Boyle is the father of two and editor of Youth Today, a Washington, D.C.-based national newspaper for people who work with kids. He has written about child and parent issues for Child, Parenting, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, among others.