The Fort and The Smile: The Tale of Being a Parent

Once upon a time there was a little girl. Her name was Jane. She was 6 years old and had long curly hair. Jane loved playing house. She formed little families, gave all the characters names, and created elaborate roles and intricate relationships for all the people to act out. When Jane played house with her mother, she’d inevitably build a fort. Every time, Jane would ask, “Why Mommy? Why do you always build a fort?” She would smile and take one of the characters from the scene and proclaim, “I love this fort. That’s why.” Jane would smile back. Jane felt safe and loved. She fantasized, and knew, that one day she would be a mother, just like her mom. Also, and once upon a time, there was a big boy, who lived across the town from Jane, and his name was Max. Max was 8, pretty tall for his age, and loved sports. He played all day long and was happy as long as he had a ball in his hand. Every Saturday, he and his father did chores together and drove in Dad’s car all over town. Max wanted to be a father some day, just like his dad.

This little girl, Jane, and this big boy, Max, met his senior year in high school. Jane was a junior. They liked one another but never dated. They remained casual friends for years. After Jane graduated from college with a degree in psychology, she moved back home. Jane had plans to go to law school. Max stayed in town to go to the local college. He dropped out after his first semester, sophomore year and started working in his father’s family business. Jane and Max started dating. And not before too long, Max proposed to Jane and they had a beautiful wedding. Jane and Max were going to begin a family, just like their parents.

It’s important to know that in the town where Jane and Max were raised, everybody had this quirky ability to memorize the statistics about cultural trends. Jane and Max were no different. They knew 43% of first time marriages end in divorce, and since both of their parent’s were, now, divorced, the likelihood of divorce loomed larger. Jane and Max would have 1.8 children. Jane and Max knew that it would cost them nearly $400,000 to raise their 1.8 children to adulthood and an additional $200,000 per child to attend and graduate from a top rated four-year university. Jane and Max knew their children would watch 1680 minutes of TV a week and will view 8000 murders by the time they complete elementary school. Jane and Max also knew 60 million households have at least one computer in the home and that there are 200,000 new subscribers to per day. Nonetheless, Jane and Max were committed to the notion of having children; it was a lifelong dream for both of them. Jane and Max knew that nearly nine of ten people, their age, wanted to raise children. Jane and Max also knew that overall life satisfaction was 72% more likely when a person felt satisfied with his and her own family life.

It was a normal day, Friday. Jane and Max had been married 18 years. Their marriage was strong. They had two children, Sally, 15, and Jack, 13. The country was at war, money was tight, and the cost of living had dramatically increased. Max was self-employed. This was his third business venture since his father sold the family business. Max knew that most men would have 5-6 different jobs before they retired. Jane worked part-time. They needed the additional income. Sally was a jock, an A-B student, popular, and Daddy’s favorite. She was self-driven and loved pleasing others. Sally abhorred conflict. Jack was a classic underachiever. He loved music, hated sports, and talked endlessly with his mom about politics and life. Jack was rather disorganized and required a lot of tending to… Things were relatively good, and things were, also, scary.

Growing up, Sally and Jack loved to build elaborate forts in Jack’s room. They spent endless hours playing together. Jack was terrified of storms, especially thunder and lightning. He was frightened 100% of the time causing serious sleeping problems throughout the years. The forts became useful because on stormy nights the 2 kids would sleep together under their creations in order to brave their fears. But on most nights, 98% of the time, when Jack was having difficulty going to sleep at bedtime, he slept in his mom and dad’s bed. Jane and Max’s sex life decreased by 37% since they had kids. Jane spent 93% of her awake hours, outside of work, with her children. Max worked, on the average, 52 hours a week and with the rest of his available time, he was with the family 89% of the time. During family time, Jack received 82% of the negative attention from his parents and Sally received 59% of the positive attention. The family enjoyed taking family rides to explore new places and new towns all the while playing car games, laughing, listening to mom and dad’s old music, and talking about – ‘just anything’…Things were relatively good and things were, also, scary.

It was 9:30 pm; Jane and Max were taking their own Friday evening ride. It was their time to connect. They had done this evening ride for nearly 20 years, it used to be with kids, but they’re teenagers now and don’t want to be seen with their parents. Spring storms were abounding which made for exciting fireworks in the sky. Jane and Max were listening to Van Morrison and talking about the kids. Max’s cell phone rings. “Dad, it’s Sally. Will you pick-me up?”

This was one of those “don’t talk and don’t ask” parent-teenager situations. Most of Sally’s friends had begun drinking on weekends. Jane, Max, and Sally knew that 80 % of children, by the time they were seniors in high school, would experiment with alcohol and other drugs. 30% -35% would be heavy drinkers and 10-15% would be regular pot smokers. Sally was one of the sophomore holdouts and as a result she was, intentionally and unintentionally, being left out. Sally’s friends were really changing and Sally had little control over her friend’s choices. Sally also knew there were 6 million cutters in the country and that diagnosed eating disorders had increased 400% since she was born 15 years ago. Tonight, she was feeling pretty helpless. Sally was also premenstrual. So was mom. In fact, 70% of mothers and daughters’ periods overlap. Max and Jack had no clue.

Sally jumped into the back seat. Her face was long and her eyes were red. She had that look on her face that Jane and Max knew all too well. “Don’t worry honey, we were on our way to pick up your brother at the movies anyway. Afterwards, we can get some ice cream if you would like. “No thanks, I just want to go home.”

As the family approached the entrance of the 20 theatre-multiplex, crowds of kids were out front, running around, pushing each other into the rain, making lots of noise. Jack wasn’t part of the crowd. He was waiting by himself thirty feet away from the other kids. “He’s such a loser,” exclaimed Sally as she waved to a couple of the kids in the crowd. Jane and Max were worried about Jack. They knew that nearly 21% of children have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder with 5% being severe and that 2-3 million children are medicated with psychiatric medication. Jack walks up to the car, gets in, and says in a glum manner, with a tone that Jane and Max knew all too well; “I hate the kids at my school.” Jane asked how the movie was and reassured Jack that things will get better in high school. As they drove away, Sally said, “Oh yea, I forgot. Dad, you’ve got to hear this great new song,” as she handed him a CD to play. “It’s like, this really cool singer. Her name is Beth Orton.” Music was a centerpiece in the family and allowed everyone a neutral opportunity to be heard. So, as always, they all listened…

…Oh baby baby it’s a wild world. It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.Oh baby baby, it’s a wild world. I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.You know, I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do and it’s breaking my heart in two.Because I never want to see you sad girl. Don’t be a bad girl. If you want to leave, take good care and make a lot of good friends out there. Just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware:Oh baby baby it’s a wild world. It’s hard to get by just upon a smile…

When the song ended, Jack turned to Sally and said, “That’s a cover. That Muslim dude, who they thought was a terrorist, wrote that song back when mom and dad were kids. Yeah, Cat Stevens.” Jack was right 98% of the time when it came to music. “Whatever,” Sally replied. “I’m going to bed when I get home. I’ve got my PSAT’s in the morning.” Jane and Max were smiling in the front seat as lightning sparkled the dark sky. “1-2-3-4-5-6,” Jack counted anxiously to himself as a loud bang could be heard in the distance.

Jack was unable to sleep that night. 12:35am, 1:17am, 2:12am. Jack got up from his bed and entered his parent’s room as they slept and snored. He approached his mom and tapped her on the shoulder. He moaned, “Mom, I can’t sleep.” Jane and Max awakened. Moments later, Sally entered the room. “I can’t sleep either. I’m worried about tomorrow.” Max turned on the lights. The kids slipped into the parent’s king-size bed as Jane glanced over to her desk where she caught a glimpse of a photograph of her own mother and said, “Let’s build a fort!” Jane, Max, Sally, and Jack built a most incredible fort. Everyone found a comfortable space and began to fall asleep.

That is, except for Jack. The thunderclaps were too startling. Jack thrashed and rolled all night long…Things were relatively good, and things were, also, scary.

Jane and Max always knew they wanted to be a mom and dad. On this stormy morning, sleeping in the family-made fort, with sweet smiles on their tired faces, they knew why.