Third childhood is the most deeply satisfying one: the one you go through with your own children, but it’s also darkened by melancholy. At 42 years of age, I was crawling around on the carpet again, making silly faces, singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” reading Goodnight Moon, and discovering that Sandra Boynton is far superior to Dr. Seuss. At 48 I was building dollhouses and Lego sets. At 54 I was playing I Doubt It and Go Fish and Battleship. Every December of my life as a parent, I’ve been watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. My kid license has been reissued. But every humiliation of first childhood is matched by an equally salient moment of heart-rending poignance. You realize how special these years are, and you want time to slow down so you can savor them, but you also want it to speed up because you can’t wait for your kid to get past the diaper stage, the screaming stage, the klutzy stage, the child stage.
Parenting is humiliating only if you choose to allow it to be. We’re aware of how ridiculous we look, chasing chubby legs churning across the Sheep Meadow so the little one can dash into the men’s room and stick her hands in the urinals again. But we stop minding how we look. When you’re a parent, you learn a secret unknown to non-parents. You discover that your entire life to this point took place in black-and-white. Parenting Oz may be weird and unpredictable and beset by witchcraft and flying monkeys. But a parent’s life is in color. The only part of it that is truly unbearable is when you start to realize it’s ending. My children are twelve and nine and spend their days on screens. One makes videos and the other writes presentations on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the basement there’s a graveyard of plastic: forsaken toys, dolls, costumes. A pretend cash register with a ringing bell that used to delight them. A little pink princess castle made of flimsy cloth that used to be a treasured hiding space for my younger girl. Being among these objects haunts me and hurts me and sometimes makes me cry. Every square inch of the basement is a reminder of flown years.