Since I became a dad, my social skills have gone into a steep decline.
Last week I learned that I am no longer a polite person.
On Friday, two friends came over to our house for dinner. Everything went as planned. The kids fell asleep just before their arrrival, the dishes tasted great, the wine flowed. And the conversation was lively.
Then, as the four of us were just enjoying a post-dinner cup of tea, I happened to glance at my watch: 11 pm.
I did a quick calculation of how many hours of sleep I would get before our youngest awoke if I went to sleep that very minute: 7 hours. Not too bad! Oh, but there's the dishwashing...
I did another quick calculation, but this time checking on my physical condition (I had felt a cold coming on all day): Sore throat. Fatigue. Possibly slight fever.
The voices of my wife and our guests danced around me. That's when I blurted it out:
"Well..." I said in a loud voice. "I'm really tired. I'm going to go to bed."
I heard the words as they left my mouth. I saw them register on everybody's faces.
Silence. My wife glared at me. Then she said, "Tom!" and put her head down into her hands.
Our friends looked as if I had just literally kicked and shoved them out the door.
Everyone tried to recover. "That's cool," said our friend sitting to my left. "No. That's cool. I understand. Yeah." His tone showed that he was instinctively trying to smooth things over but he did not understand. His partner, her mouth in an involuntary frown, was folding up her napkin and beginning to rise.
"I'm sorry," I said, hearing my voice again as if in a dream. "I... I... I didn't mean to just say that all of a sudden. It's just, I'm not feeling that well. And --"
"Tom!" my wife said again. Then she turned to our guests: "That's my husband..."
We suffered through another 15 minutes or so of attempts by all of us (most of all, me) to make things okay. But there was no getting around it. I had messed up the end of a very nice evening because I had become confused and thought for a moment that I was my own dad.
My only defense is that I thought I was sending myself upstairs to get my pajamas on.
As a parent, I have learned to act this way. I will interrupt if necessary to start the next phase of the evening. When it is time for dinner, sometimes you just have to announce it, and the farm animal puzzle, or the wind-up plastic fish-catching game, just has to stop. When it is time to go upstairs to sleep, then we go right away, no dilly-dallying allowed.
But adults move in a different, more graceful, more euphemistic way through the world. We generally seek consensus, or at least tacit approval, for the major events of an evening. We don't eat until everyone has a plate. We wait until everyone is done to get up. We stick to schedules. We avoid whining.
Since I spend much of my time these days around a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old, this distinction between adult and chlld behavior is getting lost to me.
Case #2: When a friend dropped by last night, my first impulse, seeing him walking in the door, was to spring up and do the dishes as we talked. That way, I could get that out of the way. Before I was a parent, of course, when a friend dropped by my first impulse was to drop everything and look after his or her needs. Which person would you rather drop by to visit?
But it's not selfishness I'm talking about; it's habit. I have fallen into the habit of being sudden, direct, efficient, and not terribly concerned with appearances; I'm also in the habit of guarding, like a dragon, the hours I have left to sleep.
The end result is that I find myself a social neophyte again when I get together with other adults. I need to learn my social skills all over again.
And this time I have to learn them on less sleep.