tales from the salt mines


I’d like to start out your weekend with two emails my brother Sean sent to the family over the last two days. We all send each other missives that range from the mundane to the sublime, but every so often one of us releases a cri de coeur built to last. Sean has topped himself again, on his birthday, no less.

All you need to know is that Barnaby is Sean & Jordi’s 4-year-old boy, and Marlena is their baby girl about to turn one.


From: Sean Williams

Date: May 11, 2011 12:27:52 PM PDT

Subject: Endless

It’s all very nice, being a father and all, but sometimes I just want to get the car going downhill and then run and lie down in front of it.

Barnaby is really lovely, except for the vast amount of time that he’s just insufferable. It’s really cute that he thinks he draws L’s correctly, and that everyone else in the world draws them wrong – except it isn’t, it’s just awful. Once a day for the last three days, I’ve thought to myself, “I have to pull his pants down and spank him,” and when the thought occurs to me, I start to walk away, it’s all I can do.

One time we were at a park five blocks from the house, and I just thought, “well, everyone in the neighborhood knows him, he knows how to get home, and if I stay here, I’m gonna spank him. So I’m leaving”, and I did. About two minutes later he came running up next to me, screaming at me for being mean, crying at the top of his lungs, passing other women I know who were staring at me like I’m the biggest asshole in the world.

Right now, Marlena is on her second nap of the day. The first nap was EXACTLY an hour and forty minutes of her screaming at the top of her lungs, followed by an hour and ten minutes of nap. As I type this, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, almost horse, standing up in her crib, because I put her down. Last night, she screamed for less than half an hour, so if the pattern continues, I’m in for another hour at least.

And she’s so physical, so determined, that she’s standing up in her crib before I can leave the room. I’m doing the Ferber method, one minute, two minutes, three minutes, five, seven, eight, ten, ten, ten, ten, ten… and on and on. So, every ten minutes I go in there and calm her down, and then, before I can get out of the room, she standing up and screaming, choking, breath-catching screaming that fills my entire head.

Barnaby was running around with other kids, and I told him not to grab Augie. And then he grabbed him, and Augie came and told on him, and I told them to work it out, and I told Barnaby to stop. Then he did it again, then it happened again, then I told him again. Then he did it again, then it happened again, then I told him again. I grabbed his arm and told him he was going home, and he crumpled to the sidewalk and started screaming at the top of his lungs, trying so hard to cry that he eventually cried. In front of school, surrounded by three moms I know, six moms who know me and eight moms who think I’m the father who doesn’t know how to raise children.

And the thing is I DON’T FUCKING CARE. I don’t fucking care if he gives Augie Indian Burns, Augie should learn how to fucking deal with it. I don’t care if Barnaby goes to school at all, I don’t care if Marlena never sleeps. Am I under the impression that if she sleeps now, somehow things will be better later? They’re just gonna be this fucking bad, I’ve got a four year old that PROVES it doesn’t matter how hard I try to do all of this utterly inorganic nonsense, I’m still gonna have a kid that everyone else thinks doesn’t measure up.

I just have this police state voice going on in my head all the time about how I haven’t done enough, haven’t been enough of a father, aren’t teaching them, watching too much TV, not forcing them to eat. If I have one more motherfucking parent tell me “well, I just MAKE him eat what I put in front of him”, as I silently seethe and think, “yes, and I’m sure you don’t have a kid who will vomit the entire contents of his stomach on the table just to prove a point,” I’m gonna fucking explode.

For some reason, I’m trying to FORCE Barnaby to eat his hot dog before he gets any fruit, because… I DON’T KNOW. I DON’T KNOW WHY. Isn’t a hot dog made from the sluicings off the killing floor?

Anyway, my ten minutes are up. I’m gonna go lay her down again.


From: Sean Williams

Date: May 12, 2011 7:43:43 AM PDT

Subject: RE: Endless

Going back and reading what I wrote just now… I’m amazed there’s noun-verb agreement. Really, I don’t think the tires were quite out of the mud when I started typing.

I think one of the things that I was feeling so lost about is that there’s simply nothing that works for one kid that also works for the other. There is a particular strain of single-mindedness in our family that is remarkable mostly because it only shows up in a handful of us, so it’s really easy to spot. Sometimes it’s seen as a virtue, and sometimes it’s mocked (mostly because it’s a virtue the rest of us wish we could summon).

So, Marlena is hellbent, utterly. She’s been furious for three days because she’s pretty close to walking, except SHE’S NOWHERE NEAR WALKING. So she pulls herself up on stuff, starts shuffling her feet, takes a nosedive, and then screams as she pulls herself up again. Endlessly. She can’t believe she isn’t walking yet. This morning she pulled herself up on a bench, leaned her head back and screamed at the ceiling. Because she wants to let go of the bench, walk to the door, go to the subway and ride the N to the UN building where she’s pretty sure she’s the Secretary General.

And on the other side, Barnaby is completely amorphous. His understanding of what’s happening, what he’s capable of, what the world is, is totally fluid, and based wholly on assumption rather than evidence. This morning he started yelling at me because I told him he had to pee and change his clothes before we go downstairs, and he started insisting that he NEVER pees in the morning. Meanwhile, not only does he pee every morning, but every single person on the planet pees every morning, barring serious illness.

His letter L’s are just one example of his relentless absurdity, and all of it is pure contrarianism. His “3” is not only the least efficient way to write a 3, in the end, it actually looks NOTHING like a three. It looks like a dead bush with six branches.

And I get it, it’s developmental, he’s going to say no to everything, because he’s feeling socially and intellectually blind, so he’s putting up his hands to feel where the walls are, and the only way to feel for the walls is to push.

But I simply don’t know how to confront him when he insists that I have baby teeth and he has grown up teeth – an argument so insane that I simply stopped having my half of it right away, which led to him yelling about how I wasn’t answering him. He has gotten more time outs for being rude than he has for being insane… I mean, I don’t even care if he’s insane, that’s fine, if he wants to insist that his remote control car is also a stegosaurus, I’m not even gonna correct him, it’s just difficult to know how to deal with him screaming rudely about it.

Marlena’s relentless need to perfect things, and Barnaby’s complete acceptance of himself make things dizzying to police. When Barnaby was a baby, we could say “Don’t grab the wires” and he’d be all, “Oh. Okay. I’ll play with this empty bottle and pretend it’s a wire!”

But with Marlena, you could pull her away twenty times, she’ll dig her feet in and scramble right back, until you put the wires out of reach, at which point she’ll scramble, look up and HOLLER, fist in the air, purple. And when Marlena points at the puffs, and I give her puffs, she then eats puffs. If Barnaby asks for a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether or not he’ll eat it, because he might look at it and decide that it’s yucky.

So… anyway. As I told Michelle, you get to the end of your rope as a parent, only to discover that you’ve got more rope than you ever imagined. The real problem is that yesterday was my birthday, and even at 41, you kinda think “well, today will at least be average, or maybe slightly better!” so when it’s a day riddled with time outs and screaming babies taking nose-dives out of the crib, it becomes a tough pill to swallow. But I think I was just wallowing a little bit, and I appreciate being able to do so here.



the cousins, Easter 2011: Andrew, Lucy, Barnaby, Marlena



0 thoughts on “tales from the salt mines

  1. Amy S.

    Oh, man, I love that Sean Williams.
    I had the same day yesterday, but teaching. Alexander was off his meds, so he made (no exaggeration here) 40 trips to the water fountain. Which would be fine, but of course, each trip involved perturbed and baiting as many other kids as possible. Cyndey was being a raging herpes outbreak of a bitch as usual. And I’ve spent the last 20 hours worried I’d get fired or sued because when Dawnesha (involved in a situation she didn’t need to be involved in) stood with all her weight on my foot and I took her by the shoulders and moved her off, she cried and whined that I pushed her.

  2. Lurker Ann

    Oddly enough, this brilliantly captured many aspects of…my mother. It’s never actually occurred to me to want to spank her, but that’s only a detail of our respective roles. The self-centred self-assuredness and overbearing demand for reaction are very familiar. I just turned 41 too, but only now am starting to feel it’s not my job to try to help her be more comfortable in her skin. It must be harder when the person is your child, but maybe the same rule ultimately applies.

  3. cullen

    @Sean, I feel yer pain; my kids are a little older now, so it’s mostly a vicarious sympathy, but we’ve all (or at least many of us) been there. Keep at it Ferberizing.

  4. Lara

    Wow. I could have written this post, with the minor change that I have two girls. Other than that, it’s right on the money.
    I wonder if every parent has that “hot dog moment” — the sudden realization of the absurdity of the situation. Mine happened to be identical (am I really wasting all of my spirit and energy trying to force my kid to eat a HOT DOG???), but I imagine there must be endless variations. Might be a good book…

  5. LFMD

    I love that Sean Williams, too!
    My first reaction to reading Sean’s entries was “Damn, I miss those days!” My daughter will be 12 next month, and she is an independent, self-sufficient individual who enjoys my company but is slowly shifting towards enjoying the company of her peers more and seemingly needing me less. I am painfully aware that we have at most 6 more years of her living at home with us. I miss the days when Helen was Barnaby and Marlena’s ages. I miss Helen insisting her name was “YaYa.” The way she would pull herself up in her crib at night and scream because she couldn’t figure out how to get back down in the dark. Her main comfort items were her purple Gymboree blanket and her pacifier, and she was always screaming for “PURPLE BLANKIE, PAA! PURPLE BLANKIE, PAA!” The year she was 3 and would only wear purple and pink. For an entire year. Followed by the summer she would only wear outfits with the Powerpuff Girls on them.
    Embrace and enjoy. As they say, “the days are endless, but the years are quick.”

  6. erica

    How fitting that a friend would e-mail a new bedtime book called “Go The F**k To Sleep”, by Adam Mansbach. It is PRICELESS and captures much of what I see here!

  7. Joanna

    Perfect! That Brooklyn moms group would have been lucky to have Sean as a member. Staying home with little kids will break you more quickly than boot camp and I’m sure Sean’s honesty and humor would have saved someone’s sanity.

  8. Kelly in NC

    I’ve definitely had the hot dog moment. The worst is when I don’t realize it’s a hot dog moment until I’m too far in to back down and I’m stuck enforcing some inane directive simply to prove that I’m the boss.

  9. wottop

    As a 4 child veteran, I can see part of Sean’s problem.
    He is too wound up trying to live up to that perfect parent mold he has created in his head. Those women in the park are thinking about how glad they are that their children aren’t doing what yours are. They wouldn’t be able to handle it either. Not without a bottle of Vodka.
    “I’m still gonna have a kid that everyone else thinks doesn’t measure up”. Stop right there. Parenting is an act of selflessness. If you are solely worried about their reflection on you, you picked the wrong thing.

  10. Julie

    I think every parent, if they were truly being honest, has been in Sean’s shoes at least once if not many more times. I laughed while reading his missive, not out of meanness or spite, but out of sympathy b/c it’s a BTDT moment/hour/day. As LFMD said these times too shall pass and you will find yourself reminiscing somewhat fondly on these days. I would have loved to have had Sean in my “mom” group. As a working parent who sent her kids to daycare, I got a lot of “those” looks too. Thus my group consisted of all working moms, many of whom were uber competitive. It would have been a refreshing addition.

  11. Annie H.

    First of all, I love Sean.
    Secondly, I recently had an (inane) argument with another (childless) adult (as I listen to dog and 4-year-old crash to the floor repeatedly in the upstairs apartment–I have no illusions about what being a parent actually means) but ANYway…this other adult and I were chatting about some of the kids that live here with us–kids that belong to OTHER people–and he shared some anecdote about one of the kids refusing to do something and the dad standing over the kid and being like “You WILL do this” and I said, offhandedly, “In parenting it always comes down to that battle of wills.”
    He rejoined that, as a parent (which he hopes to be eventually) he would NEVER, EVER, EVER “engage in a battle of wills with my child.” He made the very grave mistake of using as an example of something he would “never do” a story I had told him about a battle of wills I had with my own (beloved and no longer living) father, who did force me to drink a glass of whole milk once which I promptly vomited (because I hate whole milk by itself).
    So, this other childless adult and I argued for almost two hours about his assertion that he would never, ever engage in a battle of wills with his child (because the likelihood of psychological damage would be too high) (I can hear all you parents roaring with disbelieving laughter). I swear to god. I kept trying to pin him down: “So, are you saying you are never, ever going to verbally assert that your child has to do something or other unless he/she wants to face certain consequences?” He would reply that he “was not going to be in their face” about it, was not going to insist that they do something or other unless it was….what was the word he used… “really important” or something like that. (collective flash to Hot Dog Moments)
    I kept saying, “My POINT is that ALL parents, before they are parents, have these enshrined rules about what they are and are not going to do as parents, but what I have learned as my friends have become parents is that every parents finds him or herself at the end of their rope at some point, standing over their kid shouting about something they don’t even care about, because actually HAVING kids drives you insane. Usually temporarily.”
    He could not see my point which I actually understood because he was raised by a truly insane person. But still. Y’ALL know what I’m sayin.

  12. Neva

    Oh Sean, as I read this I thought that we really need some sort of public service announcement in the recent vein of the one for gay teens but directed at parents of young kids. They could have the child covered in poop, tantruming in the grocery store, refusing to sleep for the millionth time and then cut to the grown up version saying “it gets better”.. because it does. It really does.
    I love being a parent but some days of that early parenting stuff were enough to make me want to move out to an apt and ask for visitation every other weekend.
    Your email is what people should talk about more together. I was scared to admit how unhappy I was at times. I always felt guilty because I thought everyone was loving every minute with their little sweeties and I had a hard time ever complaining.
    Talking to people who are honest about this helps (don’t even bring it up to the competitive, my kid is reading at 2 types they’ll just fill you with advice about how THEY do everything and it always work for them) and having time to yourself helps. Do you exercise? Do you have hobbies you can get to outside of home? Do you ever have time for yourself?? Please, please, take some!
    Also, not that I would wish it on anyone, but having a disabled child really teaches you something important about letting things go. Because there is no way your child will ever compete you stop worrying about what others think or what your child is doing right or wrong for their age/stage and you really can just enjoy them more and worry less about the small stuff. I wish I’d had more of that attitude with my first one honestly.
    The good news is like LFMD says – it goes so quickly and you won’t remember the bad stuff. But, you will miss the good stuff. So, focus on the good stuff (and buy some ear plugs).

  13. Kelly

    oh Sean, I too laughed out of total “Been There” compassion… LOVED the line about getting the car rolling down hill. I have twins and an older girl, and there were times when the twins would be 5 months old, I had to get up for work in the morning, bawling at the same 2 AM moment, I’d have forgotten which one was likely hungry & needed to breastfeed and which was crying to be sympathetic, and I’d just sit between their cribs and wish Scotty would beam me the f*ck up and get me out of this hell ASAP. Now the wee darlin’s are 5 and more bearable, but you’ve hit this on the head so hard.. I hope you submit these writings to a Parent’s magazine as a “day in the life of a SAHD” — publishing it to a wide audience would be (as Neva pointed out) very healthy for all. Good luck! That’s all anyone can really say, eh?

  14. xuxE

    yeah that totally sucks. are you wanting advice from the btdt crowd or you just want to vent and keep on keeping on?
    if you want to change i say first, fuck ferber, babies cry because that’s the only way they can communicate, don’t ferberize and let her just cry which is like tuning her out, but instead go the other direction and tune in more, read her signals, pick up on her schedule.
    with both check and see if you are giving them focused attention while you’re watching them, or are you actually trying to do other shit at the same time while you’re watching them – if you are, that is definitely frustrating the hell out of you and them, so stop multitasking and channel your inner mary poppins full time instead. this is key info my sah man discovered.
    final advice is start preschool as soon as you can. smart kids get bored. bored kids act out. you need a professional. how can you compete with someone who made coloring and potty training their career calling? plus the peer pressure of toddler hood is awesome in a preschool setting. “big kids use the potty” works great when there are actual examples of this all around. and all of that lord of the flies acting out on the playground shit will get nipped in the bud at a decent preschool. even a good daycare.
    takes a village. ymmv. keep on keepin’ on.


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