We walked into the store together; she marveled at the giant red balls our Target store uses as traffic barricades. She picked out the shopping cart she wanted to ride in (“That one.”) and I explained to her that if she were good, I would buy her a treat. So I’ve already become the parent who bribes his child; just want to make that clear.
She did behave; we picked up the few odds and ends that I could think of to buy: batteries, vitamins, humidifier filters. We also needed a new bookshelf, and so we navigated through the furniture aisles. I came to the bookshelves, and I pushed the cart to one side so that I could peruse the racks and select the shelf best fit for our needs. I wasn’t watching carefully what I was rolling sweet Curly Fries into close proximity to: the children’s bean bags. Immediately, she grabbed one and squealed. I laughed nervously. “That’s a bean bag,” I said. “Bean bag!” she repeated. She nearly pulled one off the shelf, and I had to momentarily abandon my bookshelf reconnaissance mission. “Do you want this to be your treat?” I asked. “Yes!”
After loading the boxed bookshelf into the cart, I let her pick the color she wanted (pink with purple and green polka dots). It rested on top of the bookshelf, barely sitting in the cart, surrounding my little from behind like a throne. She rode the rest of the shopping trip leaning back with a contented smile.
She voiced some suspicion when I removed the bean bag from the cart for the teller to ring it up, but it returned to the cart quick enough for her to settle down. But she expressed significant resistance to where I packed it in the car. “It won’t fit in the back seat with you,” I explained. “My bean bag!” she cried. “It will ride up front with me,” I assured her.
On the way home, I noticed that our trip to the store had not taken as long as I’d hoped. “Want to go to THE PLAYGROUND?!” I called back to her. “Yes!” But she was too distracted at the prospect of playing with her bean bag to enjoy the playground. After thirty minutes of wandering aimlessly between the jungle gym and swings, she ran back to the car. “My bean bag!” she cried.
So we headed home. She wanted to carry the bean bag in by herself, but I insisted she let me so that it didn’t drag on the ground. She followed behind me, antsy and whiny, clutching upwards towards the bean bag in my arms. We got inside and I threw the bean bag into the middle of the living room, sweeping my arms out in a grand gesture of invitation now that she was free to enjoy her bean bag. She giggled and ran across the room to it, plopped down in front of it, looked up at me and said: “Open it.”
“What?” I said.
“Daddy, open it.”
“Sweetie, I can’t open it. It doesn’t open.”
She began to whimper. “Open it!”
“Honey, you don’t open a bean bag. This is what it does. You’re looking at it.”
And then she bent over and burst into tears.
In that moment, I felt responsible for her suffering. Clearly I didn’t explain to her what a bean bag is for. Had she understood properly, she would have chosen a different treat. Now here she was, having wasted her choice of a treat on a giant bag – full of beans! – that you can never open. Such a cruel fate, to be so tempted and fooled!
I could relate. How many times in my life have I gotten home with something only to discover that it isn’t what I expected? Wait a minute, this Blu-Ray player doesn’t have a built-in Wi-Fi connection. Well crap, this electric drill doesn’t swivel to ninety degrees like I need it to. Geez, this Loudon Wainwright III box set focuses too heavily on his nineties catalog. You mean this job requires me to get up at 6:00 every morning? No one told me being a parent would be this hard. Yeah, I can sit on the floor and cry with you, my sweet Curly Fries. I know the bitter disappointment of bait-and-switch buyer’s remorse.
But of course, what parent lets it end there? I couldn’t let her sit in the floor and cry like that. Not because I need to rescue her dreams from the crushing defeat of disillusionment, mind you, but because I just didn’t have the patience to listen to her cry. So I sat down on the floor and plopped down on the bean bag. “Wow, Curly Fries, look at this! Don’t you want to play! On! THE BEAN BAG?!” I rolled around, squishing the weight of the bag from one side to the other with a dry squishing sound. She looked up and her sobs began to subside. “Look how much fun this is!” I rolled forward on my stomach, but that was all it took: “Move, Daddy.” She pushed me off the bean bag and threw herself upon it with a squeal of delight. And just like that, the bean bag turned into a treat again.
I suppose this is not a new lesson; I could look back upon my whole life and list all kinds of instances when a thwarted expectation turned into something delightful. But, as I stated at the beginning of this post, parenthood is all about things not going as planned. Raising a child is a non-stop circus of discarded expectations. But the thing is you have to have those expectations in the first place. If Curly Fries hadn’t thought the bean bag was whatever she was initially so excited about, we’d have never brought it home. You have to have expectations to discard them, and once discarded, the new – and possibly more exciting – possibilities become clear. Everything about raising children is a bait-and-switch. But if you’re open to this truth, then you will likely find that the switch is so much better than the bait. Our pastor once told us that raising a child is like getting a gift that you never stop opening; that just when you think you know what you’ve been given, they grow and you have something new. Being a parent means learning to let go of what you thought you wanted, of what you thought you were getting, and embracing whatever new possibility offers itself to you. After all, who wouldn’t rather play with a bean bag than a floor full of beans? My little girl showed me what it means to be a parent: to acknowledge your disappointment in order to receive the next new thing, which is even richer than you would have imagined.
So when life gives you a bag full of beans you can’t open, throw yourself on it.