The Hunt for Red Faced Self-Forgiveness

The other night the boys and I watched The Hunt for Red October. What could be better than movie night on a rainy November Friday? We took a circuitous approach to the boys’ introduction to the Jack Ryan saga. First, I fell asleep at about 6:40 pm. I ordered Chinese takeout, we ate, I cleaned up the kitchen, and barely made it to my mattress before passing out in full drool-accumulation position. This has become something of an unfortunate occasional ritual for me. I exhaust myself with lack of regular sleep and my self-imposed existential self-flagellation during the week so that staying upright until it’s dark outside becomes a major challenge by Friday. Even in November. 
Fortunately, I’d already set the boys up with dessert and a film to watch: Twilight. They missed the whole series, being too young when it came out and not the core demographic for teen vampire romances. But Freddy asked about it, so I figured why not? About twenty minutes into the movie they appeared in my doorway saying vampire romance was BORING and could they please watch something else. From the foggy depths of semi-consciousness, I suggested Hunt for Red October. “Submarines, spies, stuff blowing up, lots of action and suspense” I managed before turning over and soaking the other end of my king-sized pillow with saliva. 
I awoke in a daze 20 minutes later and stumbled into the family room. Both boys were huddled under blankets on the couch as Jack Ryan presented his defection theory to some D.C. power brokers and James Earl Jones looked younger than I ever remember him being. I joined them for the remainder of the movie. Freddy immediately started peppering me with questions about the Cold War. 

Actually they were questions about what the hell was going on in the movie, but they all pertained to the Cold War in one way or another because, I quickly realized, the film is virtually incomprehensible without that cultural backdrop – the concept of “defecting” was totally alien to kids, and they wanted to know all the significant battles of the Cold War and who won. What do you say to that? Korea? Angola? Ethiopia? Vietnam? All of Central and South America? 
I asked Freddy why he had turned on the closed captioning for a movie in English. He said it was because he was having trouble understanding the dialogue. I asked if the subtitles helped and he said “some.” What’s wrong with these kids? Haven’t they seen War Games? Red Dawn? No Way Out? Rocky IV? Turns out 1980s brink of nuclear disaster diplomacy and espionage lingo isn’t self-evident to Today’s Child. 

Kids today just don’t know their oily, well-muscled geopolitical history. 
About ten minutes after I sat down, Benny got kid-tired fidgety. Changing positions, playing with the blanket, asking random questions aloud to the room pertaining to the animal kingdom rather than submarine warfare or Cold War diplomacy. I asked if he was tired and he said “I don’t think I can make it to the end of Red October, Dad,” which was adorably predictable. I reminded him that we’d already just reached early November, but Benny, who normally humors even my worst puns, was too tired to even roll his eyes. I had him lay down against me and within about five minutes I felt his body go slack and his breathing slow down. He was fast asleep, despite the depth charges exploding on the screen only a few feet away. 
It was in many ways the best of all possible Fridays. Sure, there is always an absent center in our home life and huddling on the couch as a threesome instead of a quartet highlights that to some extent. But, apart from the immutable fact of our loss, cuddling on the couch with the boys and watching a not terrible movie I’ve seen before is something even I can’t find much to complain about. In fact, I remember thinking to myself as we watched the film how fortunate it was the boys hung amicably with each other despite my somnolent absence. 
They’re still cute…
Speaking of sleepiness, the movie wasn’t finished until after ten, by which time Benny had been asleep a long while and Freddy was getting a bit tired-cranky. Nothing major, but he gave Benny’s limp, overlapping leg a shove when he got up from the couch, shot a dirty look when Benny didn’t immediately wake up (he’d taken over drool duty from me). I cautioned: “don’t spoil a pleasant night; be nice; golden rule, remember?” But, sure enough, as I repaired to my bedroom, I heard the tell-tale sounds of Benny screaming in exaggerated agony and Freddy shouting through tears of anger and frustration. After letting it go for a minute or so, during which time it only escalated, I went upstairs, separated them, and read The Riot Act (abbr. late night version). They went to bed with tear stains on their faces and unspoken insults choking in their throats (or escaping my notice in the blissful decorum of my master sweeeeet). 
…when they’re not screaming at each other.
As I threw myself back into my briar patch of a bed, I replayed a scene in my head from earlier in the week. It was breakfast and Benny was being uber-spacy – musing idly into the void when he had yet to get ready for school. It’s been a point of emphatic contention for us: I’m trying to get him to do his own basic tasks without being asked, to avoid me nagging and him forgetting his necessaries. It’s going haltingly at best. For no reason particular to that day’s episode, I lost my temper. 
I yelled at Benny instead of doing any number of things I know would have been more effective: ignore it altogether; gently remind or redirect; ask him if he’s got everything ready instead of scolding him for not being ready; let him express his frustrations before trying to steer him the right way. These are all good techniques and I’ve used them before with varying degrees of success. Not this time. I just lost it. It’s a thing that happens with me, particularly when I’m feeling threadbare, tired, or overwhelmed. 
The problem is: I use those adjectives to describe my mental state way too often these days. I mean, who isn’t threadbare, tired, or overwhelmed and is raising two kids? (If it’s you, well, congratulations, but I also sort of hate you? #sorrynotsorry) Not only are my struggles not valid excuses, they’re just practically unhelpful. 
I don’t know how to parent, but I especially don’t know how to parent my own weaknesses. I believe the truism that kids learn a lot more by watching us than from anything we say to them directly. Heck, if my kids learned from what I tell them directly, they’d be the neatest, most respectful, responsible, highly emotionally developed children in the Western Hemisphere. They are MUCH better at adopting all of my worst leadings by example than they are internalizing any of my sententious parental sermonizing. 
How do you keep a nine year old from throwing tantrums when you sometimes have them yourself? How do you teach an eleven year old not to act out of anger or frustration when your impulse is sometimes “emotional Hulk smash feelings first, fix feelings later?” 
One of the ways I really like to make myself feel terrible is by ruminating on the fact that, of all the things that will affect the way my kids develop into adults, a huge portion of them are probably unknowable to me, at least in terms of their relative importance. It’s like piloting a submarine with no training. Sure, the ocean’s a big place, you could set off in a random direction and go for days without hitting anything, even in a massive Typhoon Class ship. But do you really want the first sign of a collision to be the walls of Reykjanes Ridge piercing the hull?
Despite his training & experience,
 Dr. Petrov’s is not the face of
calm self assurance. 
I’m not the Captain Marko Ramius of parenting. I’m more like Tim Curry’s Doctor Petrov – along for the ride, seemingly in charge of something, clever enough to get a plum assignment from the Soviet Navy, yet completely oblivious to every single plot development of any significance, and utterly wrong on the conclusions I draw from my own observations (I’m not saying he should have known about the defection plan, but didn’t he at least suspect something was up when they let EVERY other officer stay for tea and asked him to go on some invented errand?! He’s a doctor! Educated! A man of science!).  
I read books and articles about parenting. I talk to my friends about it. I even Mr. Robot style talk to you about it through this blog in hopes this will serve as some sort of parenting stress release valve. I even try to think ahead, to plot a course we can follow through the lugubrious depths of child development technique. But at the end of the day – at least some days – I still screw it up. 
Scott Glenn’s glasses are enough of a reason to watch the movie again.
And a good enculturation vehicle for teaching the boys about the 1980s. 
Ultimately, I guess what I’m looking for — and hoping for everyone else I know parenting kids, especially those doing it alone — is a good way to not just give myself a break, which is essential, but also a how-to on really believing I deserve it. You know, like Capt. Bart Mancuso when he figures out Jack Ryan played him by “knowing” Ramius always crazy Ivans to starboard in the bottom half of the hour. Or, in case you fell asleep an hour before that scene, like a nine year old whose dad yells at him sometimes but still knows how loved he is and won’t wind up at the bottom of a sea of emotional wreckage.  

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