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  • Ken Ilgunas

This newsletter has no news because someone’s tugging my ear

[This is from my newsletter. Get these newsletters in your inbox by signing up on this website.]

I’d hoped to knock out two of these a month, but who has the time?

So much of my time gets devoted to childcare. Perhaps my most onerous parenting duty is letting my daughter tug my ear. Every day and every night she asks for it, using her mother’s German.

“I want daddy’s ohren” is the mantra.

She’s been tugging my ears for almost the whole of her 2.5 years. I don’t mind the daytime “comfort” tugs so much. It's the nighttime marathons — that can go on for hours — that I resent. She’s never been able to fall asleep without tugging on someone’s ear.

We shouldn’t have let it go on this long. But when you have a clingy, crying baby, and when you know there’s a way to get her to fall asleep, it never seems like a sensible strategy to deprive her of her favorite comfort or impose a hard rule. No, you’re just grabbing whatever tool you have in the parenting toolbox.

There are many ways she handles my ear. She pulls, she tugs, she grasps, she rubs. Sometimes she harshly grabs the cartilage of my outer helix and folds the ear down on top of itself. Sometimes she yanks the lobe upward as if she wants to tear the ear off. And sometimes it’s a reverential caress or a gentle tickle or a series of silly lobe flicks.

The only boundary I’ve managed to set — and which she has surprisingly accepted — is that her little fingers are not allowed to embark on expeditions into the caverns of my inner ear. Those I swat away, and she’ll, without a word of protest, venture back onto her usual paths.

As she falls asleep, her ferocious tugs turn into soft finger flicks, until her hand droops onto the bed and goes to sleep with her, though sometimes her fingers continue to restlessly tremble.

A few months ago we gave her a toddler-sized bed. I can no longer lie alongside her as she goes to sleep, so, to give her my ear, my body must remain seated on the floor, while my back contorts and neck stretches so that my head can rest on her pillow. It is an uncomfortable position for my body to be in for a full hour, but the ordeal is actually less painful than it was in the past.

When my daughter was a baby, it felt as if she was trying to literally saw through the webbing of my ear with her nails — her little shards of glass — perhaps to once and for all have my floppy lobe and hard folds of cartilage to herself. I’ve thought about finding her an authentic-seeming rubber ear mold, but I know it won’t work: she needs the head on which the ear is attached as much as she needs the ear.

The violence of her tugs vary depending on her state of mind. If there are little lightning storms zapping in her agitated brain, she frantically and aggressively pulls, squeezes, and slices. With her eyes closed, she’ll insolently push my cheek and turn my head in order to grab the other ear. I must give her free reign of my body above the neck, or she’ll begin to gradually shift toward dreaded wakefulness.

Imagine doing this for an hour a night, every night. Imagine doing it at nap time, too. Sometimes it’s two hours a night! Last night, I tried putting her to bed at 6 PM, and she didn’t go down till 11 PM. That’s five hours of sleep drama! Those are hours I could have been working, cleaning, or, hell, enjoying leisure. Instead, my ears get pulled as I wait, wait, wait for her to finally fall asleep.

Eventually she’ll transition into a new arc of the sleep cycle, when her breathing becomes heavier, more swinish, and I can softly make my exit.

But, whoops! I stepped on a creaky floorboard and my daughter commands, “Go back to bed, daddy.” The threat is implicit: if I don’t shove my ear back into her palm, she will wail until I give into her demands.

My only way of managing my emotions — and not yell at her to go to sleep and stop destroying my ear — is to enter into a dissociative state, in which I pretend I am not human. I try to not think about all the things I’d rather be doing. Instead, I think of myself as a sort of servant-automaton, existing only to serve this baby. But it’s never a true dissociative state. Behind my robotic frame is a heart thumping the beat of frustration, irritation, dismay.

Is it fair to call the ear tugging torture? No, probably not. But, then again, have I reached the point where the novelty of the Chinese water drop seems preferable?

Some rough math…

I’d say, on average, I spend about forty-five minutes a day engaged in my daughter’s sleep-time routines. (This number factors in brushing teeth, reading books, having my ear pulled, waking up in the middle of the night to put her back to bed, plus the fact that my wife shares half these duties.)

My daughter has lived in the open air for 987 days. That means that I’ve spent 44,415 minutes, or 740 hours, or 31 days, in a state of bedtime tedium, with my neck stretched in painful angles. That’s a whole month!

And that’s only the bedtime routine. Add in all the other parenting-related duties: cleaning, cooking, playing, supervising. I might be able to take more pleasure in the tedium of the everyday task if I didn’t also have to worry about functioning as an economic unit: I must make x amount of money, per year, to pay the mortgage, bills, and for the necessities of life.

For the child-less readers… Imagine that your childcare duties finally end at 11 PM, giving you a one-hour workday, if you can indeed bring yourself to work at that late hour. Writing a newsletter and polishing my brand on social media are among the most obvious pleasure-chores to be cut out of my life. Sometimes I wonder how any parent is able to fulfill all of their prime responsibilities.

Barack Obama once wrote, “If you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one.” He made this claim by citing positive worldwide shifts in education, health, and economic mobility.

I get the argument, but would I feel so stressed as a parent if I lived in an Iroquois longhouse, alongside twenty families who no doubt shared parenting duties and formed informal nurseries? Where I wouldn’t have to worry about an absurd monthly mortgage bill? Or the fact that I have no retirement plan?

I shouldn’t assume or romanticize… One only need look at child mortality rates from bygone eras to appreciate how now is indeed better. Yet, can’t we have the polio vaccine and age-old family structures? Can't we live in novel communities — or find their policy equivalent — to support families better? Perhaps a modern-day “longhouse policy” is Belgium giving free daycare to kids under three, or Estonia offering paid leave to mothers (84 weeks), or Germany issuing generous payments to families ($240 per child, per month).

Here’s another idea… Sometimes we progressives imagine uniting our peoples and building back our country by requiring a year of mandatory public service, either in the military, in education, or in conservation. I’ll add a “nanny corps” to that wishlist.

When my daughter turns three, the Scottish government will provide us with thirty hours of free childcare a week. I am very grateful for that, but government support is not enough. That still means my wife and I will be responsible for my child for 138 of the week’s 168 hours.

It’s easy to blame governments. But let’s also blame the social and economic shifts that compelled Western civilization to select the nuclear family as the predominate family structure. My wife and I used our freedoms to romantically cross seas to a new land, leaving behind our extended families, whose help would be dearly cherished. We have a growing network of friends, but most of them are dealing with their own nuclear meltdowns.

This is a lot of ungrateful complaining. I should show compassion to those couples who struggle to make the baby who they wish would tug their ears to death. But I can be both grateful that I have a child and resentful that I have to be a parent. Nothing is more obvious to me than the fact that parents aren’t meant to be full-time caretakers. And babies aren’t meant to grow up with just a mommy, daddy, and an occasional childminder. There should be aunts, uncles, grannies, and community members — a village — to help raise every child.

I feel like I have a few worthwhile things I can offer this world. Maybe a few of these newsletters? Another book? An article? A video about gardening? But instead my head is literally being held against its will for hours every day. It feels like I was meant for something more — something the evokes what I do best — than twisting my torso so a body part can be relentlessly tugged. I was once an author. Now I do work a coma patient can do.

You might argue that I’ll look back on it all fondly someday. It is true how our memories edit and sift and simplify. Who knows, maybe I will forget the hours of tedium and remember the nice cuddles, the rhythmic suction of her dummy, or the random and adorable exclamations that come from the depths of her half-awake and always-developing mind: “When I get bigger, I go to school.” “I’m a family, daddy’s a family, mommy’s a family.” Maybe I won’t have, and will therefore miss, human touch someday. Maybe I’ll miss the time when someone so desperately needed me.

You might argue that this process — this pain — is all good for me. But let’s say I got the memo about selflessness and patience long ago.

My life is full of tedium and chores, duties and anxiety. There is little time for career development or pleasure writing. But life is unquestionably full—not “full” as in senselessly busy. No, there’s something about having a family — like a sound wave we can feel but can’t hear — that makes us feel something behind all that noise. Family annoys us, but fills us. Children nourish us unawares.

I should say that I do not actively perceive my life’s newfound enrichment. I only know it’s enriched because I never perceive or am pestered by fullness’s antithesis: existential emptiness. And existential emptiness is a sensation I’m plenty familiar with, and I don’t mourn its absence one bit.

In my pre-parenting days, I enjoyed steady career accomplishments and was enlivened by travel. My life should have felt full, but unless I was right in the middle of some life-consuming goal, it felt troublingly empty. Now, my life is mostly mindless tasks and endless chores, but it’s weirdly enriched. There is no easy way to explain it, but parenting can, at the same time, make you less happy and more enriched. My best explanation is that we need to be needed more than we need our needs fulfilled.

Don’t let me end this too rosily. I’d love to benefit from an Estonian law, an Iroquoian longhouse, or a member of the Nanny Corps to help me balance being an individual and a family man. I wish I could write this newsletter more, kickstart my career, and enjoy one of my hobbies without feeling guilt.

For forty-five minutes every day, when being held against my will, I only think about what else I could be doing, sometimes in a state of barely-managed rage. If I was a better man, I might view the ear tugging sessions as opportunities — if I may end this too rosily — to finally notice that this life is tedious, but full. And to notice that, to everyone else, I may be irrelevant, but to this one little person I am needed. And that seems to matter more.


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