Twins unleashed.

Let no man tether
His own body to his dream
His dream to someone else
Oh no, oh no
— Elvis Costello

I used to be one of them. One of the naysayers, one of the tongue cluckers, one of the enlightened few who couldn’t believe that a man’s sloth could extend to how he handled his offspring. When I’d pass one in the park, in the store, on the street, I’d take one look at the nylon sagging around the shoulders and chest of some unfortunate toddler and furrow my brows. And when the straps suddenly went taut, jerking the poor child mid-step, I might glance at the offender with the other end of the leash looped in his or her hand, my gaze cold and stony, my temples throbbing as I tried to transmit telepathically, YOU are a BAD PARENT.

And now the tables have turned.

Looking back on the months when we were so anxious for Jack and Emme to start walking, I can do nothing but laugh. A mirthless, low chuckle. Because that’s when the trouble really begins. Maybe identical twins operate as they do in the movies: A synchronized being, operating in tandem towards a shared goal, moving the same way, wanting the same things. Or maybe that’s more Hollywood fiction; similar Tinseltown portrayals of pregnancy and parenting have led me down the primrose path a time or two before. Either way, it’s not been the same with fraternal twins. In fact, it’s guaranteed that if one wants to go left, the other wants to go right. One wants to go slow? The other wants to go fast. Up, down. In, out.

This is workout enough when Lara and I are both around, but it borders on impossible when it’s just one of us. Parks are no good; even if we could keep both of them from leaping to their deaths off the playground equipment, there’s the constant threat of them being mowed down by older kids who don’t see or don’t care about the toddlers in their paths. About the only outdoor adventure that works is taking them to the store or on a walk or anywhere that they stay safely strapped into their stroller.

With Lara staring down a long summer at home with the two, the idea of being confined to the house is a bleak one. Plus, Emme and Jack have been showing more and more signs of boredom with our apartment, despite the steady influx of new toys provided by Mommy the Yard Sale Queen. Merrily jaunting off to work each morning and leaving my family in the House of Pain is not an option.

Which brings us back to leashes. Of course, they’re not called leashes. Type baby leash into Google and you’ll get the canine-dodging, marketing-approved term, toddler harness. The problem is that phrase is also a synonym for car seat, which made the search harder than it needed to be. What I was looking for was one of those dog leash things with the yards-long spool of nylon and the quick-release button that lets you stop the nylon in an instant. Except, you know, for babies. When I couldn’t find one, I started looking at the ones for dogs, thinking that I could just use it with one of the toddler harnesses instead of a collar.

DO NOT USE WITH INFANTS OR CHILDREN, read the warning on one such nylon spooler. TO AVOID POTENTIAL EYE AND FACE INJURY OR CUTTING, BURNING, OR AMPUTATION INJURIES TO YOUR BODY, PLEASE READ, FOLLOW, AND SAVE THE INCLUDED WARNINGS AND DIRECTIONS FOR USE PAMPHLETS. FOR USE BY RESPONSIBLE ADULTS ONLY.

Okay.

Death trap

I left the Pets section and returned to the Baby products to look once more at the rather uninspired offerings. Most of these were the basic shoulder-and-chest nylon harnesses that I had ridiculed before I had children. I did the same now, but for different reasons: That lead is way too short. What, no padding on the straps? Why on earth would they put the hook on the harness instead of the lead? It’s going to hurt kids when they sit on it!

There are basically three kinds of toddler harnesses: Backpacks, toys, and no-frills. The backpack is one of the most popular types because it gives each tyke a furry pal on his or her back to put the bond back in forced bondage. The problem is that since these kids literally have the monkeys on their backs, they can’t actually see their new friends once the harness is on. And having the kid haul around his own stuff in the backpack? Come on, Mom and Dad. Let’s leave the pack mule act where it belongs—with you.

Toys, as I call them, are reversed back packs, with the stuffed animal on the front so that kids can play with it. Great, except that if you’re kids are still small, the toy can get in the way of them either seeing or reaching out for anything in front of them. Plus, the ones that face out from the body have the same problem as the backpacks: the child can’t see them, or rather, they just see the backs of their heads.  And the ones that face the rear are just disconcerting. It looks like your kid is being mauled by a teddy bear.

Where the hell is Elmo, Mommy?

Backpacks and toys ostensibly exist to make the harness more palatable to the wearer. In truth, they’re primarily trying to mask the harness from all the Judgey McJudgersons out there, as well as from Mom and Dad themselves. No matter how justified you feel, there’s no way you can strap your toddler into one of these without feeling slightly deranged.

But since I approach life with both eyes wide open, I chose one of the no-frills options: three unadorned straps cinched in the back and attached to a three-foot lead. I’m a man who doesn’t have to hide from the truth; plus, I was afraid that backpacks and toys would be too stifling in the summer’s heat.

“That’s not going to work, honey,” said Lara as I told of her my plan. “At this age, it’s just going to topple them over. And they’ll fight it non-stop.”

Nonsense, I thought, as I smiled and nodded. I pretended to mull over her point as I hit the Amazon checkout button on my iPad.

The harnesses arrived Friday afternoon. I was giddy, knowing that the test run the next morning would show whether or not my dream of liberating my wife and children from the same four walls of the playroom would come to pass.

The next morning, I popped the harnesses on Jack and Emme with little fuss, took them down to the stroller, and took them to Loyola Park. I had discovered a prime bit of real estate the week before; it was in the middle of park, large and shaded from the sun, but still affording a nice view of the beach and Lake Michigan beyond. Since it had been early on a Saturday, the place was practically deserted. Good. No one there to run over my kids as they ambled through the grass and sand. Emmeline had been excited to run around, but Jack had wanted to be carried most of the time. This actually made managing the two of them easier, though it would have been better if Emme (the lighter one) had wanted to be carried while Jack (the slower one) ran around. Except for a few escape attempts by Emme, we had all had a really nice time. However, my back was killing me by the end of it, which is when I had thought of the baby leashes that I had once despised.

Shaded and empty: Just the way I like it

We pulled into our little nook in Loyola Park. I whisked the twins from the stroller, quickly attached the leads to each of their harnesses, and went north in search of wild adventure. Jack and Emme, however, went west and south-southeast, respectively. They immediately fell to the ground when the shock of reaching the maximum length of the nylon hit their tiny bodies.

This inauspicious beginning set the tone for our visit. As Lara had predicted, they were constantly falling over, so they quickly began to resent the harnesses. They pulled and grunted at the straps, but they could do little when faced with the power of industrial strength Velcro. They soon switched tactics, realizing Daddy’s grip was more vulnerable than the harness. Suddenly, they were swirling around me, crossing my arms and tangling me in nylon. I felt like Gulliver under a Lilliputian attack.

In the end, we all had a miserable time. The excitement and laughing from the previous week had been replaced by frustration and crying. When Lara asked me about it later that day, I had to admit that she had been right. Again. The harnesses are now in a drawer, where I suspect they’ll stay for a long time. Although I could be 100% sure that Emmeline and Jack were safe when using the harnesses, what was the point if no one was enjoying themselves?

Strangely enough, the one thing I felt certain would happen never did. I was waiting for the disapproving stares of the public. And perhaps one or two people would be self-righteous enough to make some catty or sarcastic remark. I had my reply all planned out: All right, I would say, since you’re obviously an expert, perhaps you could come over here and show me how it’s done. You know, how you would rein in these two by yourself when they run in opposite directions, so that they don’t go into the street, or eat some nasty lip balm container left in the dirt, or chase the wrong kind of dog, or wander into someone’s nearby camp, or make a break for the lake. Because I’d really like to know.

I’m almost disappointed it didn’t happen. Because maybe one of those jerks really does have the answer.

Marsha - June 24, 2012 - 8:49 am

Love this post (it’s a tie with Lara’s earlier “School Out…”). I’ve always thought that walking-to-about-three-years-old was the most difficult time raising kids. And that was with just one at a time! Looking forward to hearing what ideas you come up with along the way. Two very talented writers in the same family!

Lara Jo - June 26, 2012 - 10:06 pm

Thank you, Marsha! You’re very kind to say we tie…when we all know that Justin’s post is chock full of the AWESOME. Thanks, as always, for reading!!

Janie Hightower - June 24, 2012 - 9:56 am

Justin, I have laughed myself silly reading this piece. It was just great! I am just sorry the “devices” didn’t work very well. Maybe try again in six months, when they have a better grip on the laws of physics.

Lara Jo - June 26, 2012 - 10:07 pm

Thank you, Janie and Bob, otherwise known as Mom and Dad. I always told Justin you were his favorite.

Robert M. Hightower - June 24, 2012 - 6:29 pm

Great story J. You and Lara are certainly sitting on the horns of a dilemma with the galloping duo of Superhero JR and his ever present cohort Emmeline the Great. Just keep a strong heart and know they will be going off to college in a few short years and this will become one of those fond memories of days gone by. Good luck!

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