Nothing really prepares you for the snotty-nose, ear-infection, stomach-bug fest that is toddler daycare. My son, Henry, went to a most excellent hippie-dippy rural learning center where the kids were ushered outside to play and get dirty at every opportunity. Every day seemed like a bout in the germ Thunderdome.
Around the time Henry was leaning into the terrible threes, my wife started battling a recurrence of breast cancer, enduring multiple kinds of chemotherapy and other treatments that destroyed her immune system. The doctor’s orders called for a clean and germ-free house and for peaceful nights conducive to restorative sleep. Our lives at the time were in chaos, yet from this challenge came a surprisingly settling force: Henry. In taking care of him, I began taking better care of myself.
Step one for me was establishing a gold standard of hygiene as Henry was transitioning out of diapers. I became a fanatical hand washer. I even wrote a story for this magazine on how to wash your hands properly based on tips from his daycare: Create a mousse of suds in your palm and twist your fingernails in it; repeat with the other hand. I turned into a three-Purell guy (car, bag, mantel), which I’m not sure is a sound approach to life—but it felt good to be doing something, and Henry seemed to have fewer colds, runny noses, and bugs.
Hygiene, while a squishy target, turned out to be easier to master than some of the other goals, namely learning to manage his mood. As a triathlete, I was familiar with bonking, the nasty crash when you run out of energy because you don’t have enough fuel. At first I didn’t realize that if his daycare team skimped on the Fig Newtons at afternoon snack, Harmless Henry would turn into Hangry Henry. Usually I’d expend all my energy trying to calm him down, and, soon enough, I’d bonk too. I started always packing an apple or a string-cheese stick for Henry. Then I started packing another for myself.
Sometimes even a snack-fed Henry would melt down, but at the Zen Den at his daycare (no, really), he had learned a technique called “turtle.” As the name implies, it involves remaining still and taking several deep breaths through your nose. Henry would huddle on the ground, his rib cage inflating and deflating. It usually worked. Earlier this year, at SXSW, I moderated a panel on self-care for men, and Aubrey Marcus, the founder of Onnit, led everyone through his preferred stress buster—six deep and slow inhales and exhales: turtle.
Then there’s the wild kind of energy—the bouncing-off-the-walls-during-a-rainy-day kind of energy that shouldn’t be fed with fig bars or turtled into submission. A babysitter exposed Henry to WWE and he took a shine to Dolph Ziggler. Luckily, we had a couch that could withstand leaps and slams and Henry trying to suplex me. Those bouts went many rounds deep, and his endless energy helped power his sick mom. I couldn’t stop him. I could only try to keep up and wait for the shenanigans to ebb. When they did, we were both left with a feeling of having worked out whatever we needed to simply by way of silliness.
Even after snacks, turtle-ing, and three WWE title matches, Henry might still need help settling down for the night. So our family went all in on bath time. Henry was going through an Angry Birds/Octonauts/Lego Star Wars phase. I’d gather all these toys and dump them into a lavender bubble bath and let him enter his own soothing aquaverse. I’d often jump in too and do my own version of meditation. His mom would sit on the side of the tub. We’d talk about Henry’s day as he played out all kinds of interspecies snorgeling adventures until the bubbles went away. We were all more relaxed those nights.
Those habits helped us through many tough times, including when Henry’s mom lost her fight with cancer a few years later December 7, 2014. Henry is now almost too big to wrestle, and we don’t share a bath. But we still tussle on the couch once in a while, and though I don’t get in anymore, the tub remains our decompression and talk-therapy tank.
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