If there’s one thing that always makes me feel like a failure as a parent, it’s when someone asks me what my kids’ first words were.
Seriously, I’m supposed to know that?
It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I wasn’t listening for their first words every day of their babyhood. It’s just that those first two years were full of so many loony squeaks and noises, some totally random and some parroting grown-up speech. Mixed in there occasionally were various sounds which I gradually came to understand were communicating something specific. But even those weren’t always words. It’s not like one day something crystal clear arose from my kids’ babble, like this:
Goo gaa foo daa daduh baba iPhone fee fum poopoo Ke$ha
The closest thing I can identify to a first word is “pop”, and really that’s just because it was their most commonly used word as far back as I can remember. More than “Daddy”, more than “Why? Why? Why?”, even slightly more than “Ke$ha”. Have I mentioned my kids love Ke$ha?
So what’s a pop?
A pop is my arch nemesis. My Moriarty. The Tom to my Jerry. It’s a vile plastic narcotic that’s been my childrens’ master since they first wrapped their tiny, toothless gums around one. You know, one of these:
Sure, at first pops were cute. I mean, look at this. This is cute:
You know what’s not as cute? This:
OK, it’s a little cute, so maybe you can understand my dilemma.
It all started so sweetly. One day, baby Sutton pointed at a pacifier that was just out of reach and pluckily chirped, “Pop!” Drew and I let out our biggest-ever “Awwwww…” and knew immediately that “pop” was our new term for pacifier, forever.
I never expected “forever” would last three and a half years.
I used to cringe when I would see anyone over the age of zero walking around with a pacifier in his or her mouth. Pacifiers are for babies, Childless Me insisted. Why didn’t that kid’s parents take it away? Were they A) not ready to accept that their kids were growing up, or B) completely incapable of standing up to the little tyrants?
The answer, I now know, is B.
Back when my kids were zero years old, we would scatter a dozen pacifiers around their cribs at night, because if they woke up and couldn’t find one, there would be hell to pay. I developed a unique superpower, the ability to locate a pacifier in the dark at 2 a.m. amid a tangle of bedsheets and Muppet dolls with only the light of my iPhone to guide me.
The only reason we stopped giving them so many pops is that they developed favorites, and they could tell the difference even in complete darkness. My kids had become pop connoisseurs.
So they got to be one year old, and they still used their pops. Big deal. Pops calmed them down, and keeping them calm was my #1 daily challenge. What was the harm?
Then, they got to be two years old…
Two and a half…
People started telling me to poke holes in the pops so they wouldn’t be as fulfilling to suck on. My mom told me how she finally got me to give up my pacifier when I was too old for it. She simply held it up in one hand, picked up a pair of scissors in the other, then la la la repressed memory la la la childhood trauma la la la.
I couldn’t do that to my kids. They were in love. How would I handle this if they were dating someone I didn’t like? I would never just forbid them from seeing each other. Likewise, a scissor attack seemed a bit drastic.
I would have to orchestrate this breakup gently.
Drew and I quietly began to roll back the availability of the pops. First, we restricted pops to inside the home or the car. No more sucking in restaurants or at playgrounds. That way, at least no one else had to know about our secret shame. A few months after that, we ruled that pops could only be used in the car or at bedtime, the places where we most wanted the kids to be quiet.
We started reading them books about how awesome it is to give up pacifiers. Pop-aganda. No less an authority than Elmo told them it was time.
“Are you guys ready to give up your pops?” we’d ask.
Pops quietly took over our lives. I learned to drive on the freeway with one hand on the steering wheel and one permanently arched over the center console, fishing around in the back seat for one kid or the other’s dropped pop. It was safer than the alternative — listening to them scream for the whole ride because they’d lost it.
Finally, I faced the harsh truth about these ringed plastic menaces. Pops weren’t keeping my kids calm. It was more like the absence of pops was driving my kids crazy. This was an addiction. While I’d quietly enabled them, my toddlers had degenerated into Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For a Dream.
I put my foot down.
No pops. Anymore. Ever.
In the car.
I mean, I still let them use pops at bedtime. I’m not crazy. Do you have any idea what kind of fight that would’ve been?
At first, the new rule went over smoothly. They didn’t even protest. It took a day or two before they started playing dumb. “Where’s my pop?” they’d ask as I pulled out of the driveway.
“We don’t use pops in the car anymore. Remember?”
“But where’s my pop?”
“We don’t use –”
“I want my POPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!”
Withdrawal was agony for all of us, but we made it. Within a week, they stopped asking for pops in the car.
Bedtime became the new battleground. Every night, I awoke at least once to one kid or the other screaming over the baby monitor, “Daddy! I can’t find my pop!!!”
Slowly, I planted the seeds for the final phase.
“You know who could really use these pops? Your cousin, Grace.”
“Yeah, she’s a baby! Babies love pops!”
“So, the next time we see her, we’re going to leave the pops with her. And then, as a reward, we’ll go to Toys R Us, and you guys can pick out any toy you want!”
Yes, I bribed them — not because bribing is good parenting, but because bribing works, and sometimes that’s more important.
For months, it went on like this. We talked about giving up the pops, and they loved the idea, because when we discussed it, it always occurred in the future. I could almost hear them assuring me, “I can quit anytime I want to, Daddy.”
Then, finally, this past weekend, we made the trip to my in-laws’ house, where the kids would see their baby cousin.
“Are you guys going to give Grace your pops when we see her?”
“Yes! And then we’ll go to Toys R Us!”
I didn’t even have to remind the kids when we got there. They were eager to do it, as soon as they saw Grace. Still, I knew the real test would come at night. They had never slept popless before.
Once again, though, they surprised me. They were actually excited. “Sleeping without pops is fun!” Sutton announced. They went to bed without pacifiers, and without a fight. They slept, ironically, like babies.
For three days.
We cheered like lunatics for them. “You did it! You slept without pops! You’re big kids now!”
“Can we go to Toys R Us?”
“Yes! The day after we get home, we’ll go!”
Still, something didn’t seem right. It was like the scene in Poltergeist after Zelda Rubenstein proclaims, “This house is clean!” and you just know the worst shit yet is about to go down.
The climactic showdown happened as soon as we returned home.
If Drew and I had thought ahead, we would’ve swept our house of pops before we left, but we didn’t, and ten seconds after we walked in the door, Bennett found an old one behind his bed and shoved it in his mouth.
“Bennett, we’re done with pops, remember?”
Bennett shoved his face in his pillow to hide from us.
“Bennett, give me the pop!”
It was worse than ever, and while we fought with him, Sutton demanded her pop, too. All that progress, erased in an instant.
Drew and I gathered all the pops and put them out of the kids’ reach. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t give in, no matter how bad things got. And they got pretty bad.
We fought with the kids all night long. They wouldn’t stay in bed. They wouldn’t stop crying. They played on our emotions. “Daddy,” Bennett wailed. “I miss my pop SOOOOO MUCH!!!”
“You can do it!” we told them. “The first night will be hard, but then it’ll get easier. I promise!”
This was rock bottom, but we didn’t cave. We made those kids face their demons. They stared into the abyss, tore their minds apart then built themselves anew.
It was one of the longest nights of our lives, but we made it, all of us. Dawn arrived, and nary a pop had touched anyone’s lips. Success.
I can’t say it was easy for any of us. I can’t say we’ll ever be the same again. But after our agonizing trek to the thundering gullet of Hell and back, we all agreed on one thing.
It had been worth it.