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My spouse was away, and there was much laundry to fold. My plan was to drink some beer and watch The Walking Dead while I folded into the night. You probably have seen or heard of the show: a small battered group of people trying to survive in a world overrun with zombies, led by Rick, a father and father-figure.
It’s great fun and, like all great shows, it touches on many moral and ethical themes. I was looking forward to catching up on back-to-back episodes once the kids were finally asleep.
I was not far into things when I could hear a cry that was not part of the show. I paused, tense alert: Yes, it was our third child, not yet two years old. After a long day with all three boys, the youngest was making further demands on my time, wailing uncontrollably from a bad dream. After nearly an hour of trying to put him back to bed, we settled on a compromise: He lay on the spare bed, surrounded by laundry, while I folded and continued to watch the show with closed captioning. My son couldn’t see or hear it, but I could follow along silently. I was a little irked: It didn’t seem fair that it was after 11 p.m. and I still couldn’t let my guard down and just relax.
That’s when I had my insight. I suddenly knew what The Walking Dead is really about. Sure, the show is about Rick’s poor ragtag group trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. And yes, there are deep questions of right and wrong and situational ethics.
But on a much deeper, more profound level, I began to see how The Walking Dead is really an extended metaphor about parenting young children. I, too, am surrounded by mindless, ravenous creatures, unable to reason, desperate to suck the life out of me: my children.
I love my children, but let’s be honest: There are times when kids resemble nothing more than zombies. They never seem to sleep, always lurching out unexpectedly at the worst times, clawing at the bedroom or bathroom door, moaning to get in. The show’s zombies even stumble along like my toddler does when he is shuffling and moaning in search of his soother.
And then there’s their demand for food. When a bloody zombie looks up from a messy kill, it vividly evokes my child’s expression the time he pulled a box of Fudgee-Os to a violent death on the kitchen floor: the same gore-covered face, the same single-minded cookie-lust.
I realized that since our first child was born, my life has been like Rick’s: a non-stop horror show of bad smells and disgusting body excretions. I have found myself having to do things that I would never had imagined doing, on far less sleep than I got in even my worst university days. My formerly rich social life has collapsed and shrunk to a bare minimum, just as Rick’s entire society has collapsed and shrunk to a desperate few.
Rick’s group lives in a prison (talk about blunt metaphor!). How often have I felt (maybe just a little) imprisoned by the demands of children? Rick is seriously on the edge of losing it, prone to anger and irrational outbursts, crushed by the enormous weight of having to make every single damned decision without a rest, when any mistake could mean total disaster.
His life has become a constant struggle to supply food and shelter, while being forced to take incalculable risks to make it through the day. Which is pretty much how my life felt after a week without my wife – can I really leave them alone for five minutes to have a shower? – but without the guns and axes. I was burnt out, exhausted, desperate. Anger? Irrational outbursts? Borderline panic? You bet.
Just like other parents, Rick has his allies, encountered randomly out in the wilderness, met with a mixture of suspicion and relief at not being the only ones alive. How often have I found some comfort with these fellow survivors, soaking up those brief moments of camaraderie before the creatures attack again, demanding food, attention or a diaper change?
I sometimes see people whose orderly life with children is everything that mine isn’t: happy, calm, zombie free. My life feels completely inadequate next to those other parents. On The Walking Dead, this state is embodied by Woodbury, a picture-perfect town led by The Governor. Everything is in total contrast to Rick’s desperate prison: peaceful, orderly, what life should be like. The Governor is the perfect leader and father-figure. Of course, he’s also a malevolent dictator. How messed up would I have to be to have normal kids?
The metaphor only carries so far, fortunately. Most days, our family life is full of warmth and love, and my children are radiating vibrant, joyous life. We make it through to another day, another week, another month, and do more than barely survive – we grow and laugh and play and flourish. Most days are like that.
But like Rick, I’m constantly exhausted and tense, always waiting for an ambush: a moment of intimacy interrupted, a toileting disaster, a random act of sibling violence, the screaming and clawing at the door. The creatures are out there, always, waiting for weakness, waiting for me to let my guard down. Those are the times I think of you, Rick, because I get it: I’m living in a zombie apocalypse of my own.
Jeff Warner lives in Guelph, Ont.