“Bro, do you even lift?”
Weights, no. Kids? Of course.
I’ve been lifting them for almost nine years. I developed something called Mommy’s Thumb after the birth of my first. I wore a wrist support for months, meaning I was never more than an hour away from explaining—once again—what this embarrassingly-monikered condition was to my colleagues. I lifted two kids—benching a solid 60lbs—for a few years, happily riding around the house with two of them on my back. But that was before. Because it’s been three weeks since I lifted my daughter, barbell-style, into her top bunk, putting my back out in the process.
I can’t remember where I read it, but there’s a tale seared into my mind on the importance of parenting in the present, and the fleeting nature of raising young kids. “There will be a time when you pick your child up for the final time,” it foreshadows, “and you won’t even realise it.” Wherever you are, this second, look at the people around you, who were one day lifted by their dad, for the last time, in a landmark moment that completely passed them both by. When was the last time your dad lifted you?
I try to parent from the current moment, and be here for my children, physically and mentally. My eldest is approaching her ninth rotation around our glowing orange sphere at a terrifying pace. I may not realise the last time I lift her up. But I can tell you, with absolute clarity, that the last time I’ll lift her into her bed was sometime around 11 pm on Wednesday, April 26th, 2023.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that first introduced me to this idea. My relationship with my lower back is a long, complicated one, with more tears than an all-day Toy Story marathon. I see my physio so often that she has become a close friend. I’ve done the work: daily stretches, regular yoga practice, and learning to lift things in a manner appropriate for a 40-year-old man. I’ve read a shelf-load of books on back pain—mostly useless, before eventually finding one (thank you, Noah) that was a revelation, opening my eyes to the idea that “the battle going on in your mind results in a real physical disorder that may affect muscles, nerves, tendons, or ligaments.”
Lately, my feelings towards pain have begun to shift. It isn’t just inevitable. It’s a signal. It’s your body’s way of reminding you you’re pushing it too far. Ever put your palm flat onto a hot surface? Didn’t leave it there long, did you? The pain was a sign your body couldn’t take the heat, and this flag, flying through your nervous system, was everything you needed to pull your hand away fast, ensuring that all you needed was cold water and an ice-filled hand towel—not a trip to the emergency room.
Pain is your body shooting a flare into the sky, screaming to be noticed by your amygdalain an attempt to remind you of everything you should be doing: drink more water (and less alcohol), stretch every day, get your heart rate up a few times a week, get checked up by a doctor. Finding time to do any of these is hard, especially as a parent. But the cruel irony is this is now required more than ever, because no parenting book prepares you for the brutal physicality of parenting young children.
“We’re exhausted,” you might recall other parents, or slightly older relatives, telling you in your pre-kid days, when life was freer and easier. You may have nodded empathetically, assuming it was late nights and early mornings wiping these parents out; in those years you were enjoying late nights and early mornings for entirely different reasons. You may have brushed it off, mistakenly believing things might be different when, or if, you became a parent yourself.
What I wish those parents back then would have told me is this: “Yes, The nights are tough. But it’s the days that will truly put your body through it.” I had a few child-free days last month, and the number one revelation was how simple life is when they’re not around. When you don’t have to clean every room of the house, yet again, every time you walk into it; that physical spaces can remain, days since you last occupied them, in precisely the same condition as before. There are times when the door to their room is closed, and I wonder: if I leave it like that, maybe the mess doesn’t exist—a thought experiment you might call Schrödinger's bedroom. Aside from the hidden gunk is the all-too-visible mess, and a reluctant acceptance that living with kids is signing up to be a full-time live-in cleaner, the Sisyphean ordeal of occupying a house where you’ll spend the next decade on your hands and knees, picking playtime detritus out of the carpet, whilst a small cyclone (or two) works its way into the adjoining room; Tasmanian Devil-in-training, leaving a trail of puzzle pieces, Lego bricks and dirty socks in their wake.
If you’re not reaching down, you’re lifting up: hoisting them out of the bath; raising them into the air in screaming delight; heaving the stroller out of the car with one hand whilst hefting a bag full of baby gear in the other, hoping they balance each other out. It’s a visceral experience—every push and pull, the physicality of parenting a constant barrage on your body. It’s a time in your life when, for any number of years, your morning can begin with a child jumping onto your bed and launching themselves onto your delicates. And that day doesn’t get any better from there. “You got off easy,” I hear a sea of mums thinking as they read this. And yes, you are all correct. We only felt the force of impact after the birth—but you all went through much more, before and after. I hope you all raised a glass for the Mothers last Sunday, because those women in our lives truly took one for the team, especially during those early years.
But now? Well boy: you’re gonna carry that weight, a long time. We had visitors around recently and Bodhi took a liking to one male friend without kids, who proceeded to lift him up and throw him around for a few hours. When lacing up his shoes to head home, my friend remarked how wiped out he felt.
“You do this every day?” he asked.
Not to that extent, no. My body knows its limits.
Bodhi turned four last month. This weekend we had lunch with another group of friends, a couple with demographically-similar kids—an elder daughter and younger son, roughly five years apart—but five years older, a solid leap further ahead on the parenting path. I can wholeheartedly recommend having friends in your life that fit this archetype. They’re deeper into the labyrinth, laying red thread to help you navigate your way through. (Or, if you prefer a more recent reference, leaving Miyazaki-style messages on the floor for the next batch of explorers, warning them of grave dangers ahead.) They reminded us we’re exiting the era of peak physical parenting, and starting to make our descent from the apex of somatic pummelling.
It’s about time—I’m unsure how much more my body can take. The first draft of this essay is being written on a bank holiday Monday, nursing my back with ibuprofen whilst I watch them in the park, knowing they’re almost self-sufficient in the realm of play and can happily enjoy themselves with minimal intervention (until the inevitable s/he hit meeeeeeeeeee occurs). Sure, I’m still needed when shit kicks off: when he can’t quite reach the fireman’s pole, or she overestimates her parkour ability and comes sheepishly limping back. But I’m needed less for my physical prowess—or what little I have of it—with each day that passes.
I’m going to make sure to prioritise my physical well-being, stay active, build my strength, keep the weight off, and make sure my body stays in good shape. But training the mind will be crucial for the next phase of parenting. We’re crossing the threshold where their mental needs are overtaking their physical ones: problems that are, on paper, less draining, but require entirely new models of thinking, and a shift in our core parenting muscles. We’ll need all kinds of cerebral special moves in our parenting toolkit to make it out the other side.
How are you at problem-solving? You do it regularly at work, right? So what about solving large-scale networked problems, with multiple stakeholders, consisting of many moving parts, multiplied by the power of hormonal teenage children? Imagine Jeff from Sales could scream, “I HATE YOU, AND I WISH I WAS NEVER BORN!” in the middle of your meeting. Or if your manager could roll their eyes and mutter “Whatevs” under their breath when they disagreed with your presentation. It’s coming: all those feelings, managing their workloads at school, falling in and falling out with a merry-go-round of friends, hoping they make some “Crayola Buddies” and end up in a non-toxic group. These new problems may be less exhausting, but they’re more complex, growing exponentially more difficult as they intersect with friend groups, social media, puberty, and a developing sense of self, requiring all-new approaches and a constant reinvention of what it means to raise children.
At least the physical intensity of fatherhood is starting to recede, I tell myself.
Please be true, my L4 vertebra wails, somewhere from the depths below.
3 things to read this week
“Kids Who Get Smartphones Earlier Become Adults With Worse Mental Health” by Jon Haidt and Zach Rausch in After Babel. A hot topic of conversation in the community this week has been the effect of social media on this current generation of children. There have been a series of recent findings—Techno Sapiens shared a similar piece last month—but this is starker than most, showing the considerable gulf in how much harder these apps are hitting girls, and how significant the effects can be depending on what age they are when they get access to their first smartphone. You’ll think twice about giving your pre-teen kid a phone after this one. (Thanks to Jeremy for terrifying us all by sharing this in our community earlier in the week. It’s not all doom and gloom there, I promise.)
“When Kids Discover Their Parents’ Old Social Media” by Kate Lindsay in Embedded. Chalk another one up in the column for abandoning social media entirely and heading away to live in a cave, or an off-grid commune. Embedded dive into the recent TikTok trend where children are uncovering their parents’ old Facebook accounts, and turning them into social content for their own clout. “Since parents who had children during peak Facebook often used the platform to post about their kids, Gen Z users have created “watch me grow up through my mom/dad’s Facebook” videos, presenting a slideshow of the photos that their parents posted of them online.
“Build Notes” by Nathan Brown in Hit Points. Are you playing the new Zelda game? It’s magnificent. I’ve had to tear myself away from it to get this newsletter done, and feel like I’m a little kid again, finding my way around the world sword and shield in hand. My kids are playing along, but not getting as much controller time as they’d like: my youngest is chopping down trees, the eldest is gliding around Hyrule like she owns the place (before handing a controller over to me when the music changes, indicating a bad guy of some kind is in her vicinity). I’ve long been a fan of Nathan’s Hit Points, and this issue shares reflections on a first weekend with the game, before handing over to a reader submission who writes about playing the Zelda games with his daughter, and “the new one, the first new release we get to experience together […] where, for once, I don't know any more about what will happen next than she does.”
One thing to watch with the kids this week
This week my kids will be mostly watching me play Zelda. But I’ll put the controller away for twenty minutes so we can enjoy this Tiny Desk Concert from the Broadway cast of The Lion King, taking their place amongst these iconic shelves to celebrate 25 years and over 5,000 live shows. If you don’t break out in goosebumps and a giant smile within the first 30 seconds I’ll give you your money back.
Elton John and Tim Rice knocked it out of the park with these songs back in 1994; these songs sound even better almost 30 years later. Want to follow it up with more Tiny Desk loveliness? Here’s one to celebrate Sesame Street’s 50th Birthday, featuring Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo, The Count, Cookie Monster, and many more.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
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Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson, who nailed it yet again this week. Survey by Sprig. Typos via the industrial-strength ibuprofen I am double-dropping every few hours. Did you see Succession yet? “Maybe the poison drips through.” Ooooof. Send me links, comments, and your favourite holiday photos from Hyrule. Here we go again:
If you’re a parent of adult children reading this essay, and are moved to pick up a fully-grown child once again, PLEASE tell me how it went.
If any brain surgeons/neuroscientists are reading this, please know I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’d like to hear more about this male friend without kids who lifts up your kids, he sounds great.
Great article! Our kids need the physicality that only dads can truly bring to the relationship. When they are very young through their early teenage years, there’s nothing better than wrestling, tickling, tossing, etc. To see the joy in your kids’ eyes when they think that they beat dad is priceless. Then suddenly they’re in their mid-teenage years and they don’t realize how strong they are, but they still need us to be physical. It’s one of the many, many joys of being a dad. Keep up the great work!
Kevin can I recommend you to Pavel Tsatsouline, Dan John and Pat Flynn on YouTube . You can get a 35lb kettle bell and bulletproof your back in no time.