An acrobat known as Red Panda has been a staple of basketball halftime shows across the country for more than twenty years. I once saw her in person at an NBA game years before I had children. I was stunned by her simple in concept, yet seemingly impossible in practice, act. In short, she rides a very tall unicycle, places an increasing numbers of bowls onto her foot and leg, flips the bowls into the air, and catches them in a stack on her head.
She never stops peddling her unicycle and she rarely ever drops a bowl. Her performances are mesmerizing.
But because I was a single, child-free adult when I saw Red Panda perform, I didn’t make the connection that she is the perfect metaphor for parenting.
As the dad of three children under age seven, I often feel like I am Red Panda. I’ve been an at-home parent for more than six years, so I’ve had plenty of practice, and in that time, I’ve developed routines and methods that help keep the household running relatively smoothly. However, just like a momentary lapse in concentration or an unnoticed spot of perspiration on the basketball court could send Red Panda, her bowls and unicycle clattering to the ground, the slightest bit of misfortune can wreak havoc on a household filled with children.
Sure, the physical stakes aren’t as high for me. I rarely put myself at risk of a seven-foot plunge onto a hardwood floor, except maybe when I’m climbing on the kitchen counter to hide snacks on top of the cabinets. The emotional stakes, though, certainly are.
Most recently, a seemingly routine bout of illness set our bowls (and bowels) trembling. It was perhaps the most dreaded of common illnesses: a stomach virus. My four-year-old brought it home with him from preschool. (For those of you with kids starting preschool soon, beware. In the first few months, your child will bring home lots of paper with smaller pieces of paper glued onto it and germs. Both are nuisances, but the germs are probably slightly more disruptive.)
Our sick little Patient Zero erupted late on a Sunday evening, just before bedtime. For someone who has only been alive for four years, he has an impressive resume when it comes to vomiting. His tendency to vomit at the drop of a hat is unfortunate for him and was for me, at first, but it does have its advantages. Namely, he already has exquisite timing and aim. He knows when he needs his trusty vomit pan and he hits the target with a precision that would make Katniss Everdeen jealous. Recently, he managed to spew into the pan while we were dropping his brother off at kindergarten, and he didn’t get a drop on our new car’s upholstery! I’m so proud.
From the first sleepless night, which the little patient and I spent together on the couch on top of some towels curled around a large silver pot typically used for boiling spaghetti and vomiting into, the plague ran its all-too-familiar course. Mostly it’s a waiting game: heavy on the mindless television watching with brief flurries of cleaning and disinfecting activity interspersed in between the Handy Manny episodes.
Soon enough, all I could think about was sickness, who was going to succumb next, what was really going on between Handy Manny and Kelly (the Sheet Rock Falls hardware store owner), and whether I was ever going to do anything normal again. Like leave the house, sleep in my own bed, spend a minute alone, or watch a non-animated television show. Once one bowl is off balance, there’s no stopping the ensuing cascade.
Later, the disease struck our youngest. The great thing about two-year-olds and stomach viruses is that there is not a second of warning before the terror is unleashed. Two-year-olds with a sick stomach are like earthquakes, not volcanoes or hurricanes.
In the end, a whole week later, I was lying on the couch on a Sunday morning waiting for my anti-nausea medicine to kick in while my finally healthy kids watched more television and scampered around our living room. Perhaps I was dozing off just a little, but I distinctly remember hearing one of my sons saying something about his two-year-old sister having markers. By the time I roused myself sufficiently to stumble across the room to investigate, the boring, white ceramic tiles surrounding our fireplace had been transformed into an array of little Jackson Pollack paintings. The two-year-old’s appearance was similarly colorful.
Such is the life of a parent whose routine, monotonous world has been disturbed by the most mundane provocateur — a sick child, or three. When the bowls crash down, boy, do they make a great clatter. And more often than not, the parent takes the fall, too.
But, eventually, when the wave has passed and the normalcy and motivation begin to return, you just have to get back on your unusually tall unicycle, arrange some bowls on your legs, and start flipping them up into the air so you can balance them on your head again. Because that’s just what parents do.
A version of this post originally appeared on City Dads Group.