Sometimes, in an occasional, passing flight of fancy, I innocently wonder what it would be like to be married to a woman other than my lovely wife Cassandra, whom I love very much. These thoughts occur rarely, like whenever a woman mentions me in a tweet, I’m watching a film that has actresses in it or I’m in a large office building where some of the workers are female.
A few weeks ago, at my 5-year-old son’s soccer game, I briefly wondered what it would be like if instead of Laszlo, one of his teammates were my son. For the purposes of this column, let’s call this kid “Gabe,” since that’s his name and I have no idea what his last name is. Gabe is the best soccer player not only on our team but in our entire league and possibly on the planet. Gabe is way better at soccer than I am, which I know from trying to play goalie against him in practice. He is also better than me at chess, French and celebrating after scoring a goal that none of his teammates has any idea about. I picture us spending weekends watching professional cycling, playing chess, eating obscure cheeses and making fun of the other kids on his team.
This is not the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to have a different kid. There was Livia, from my son’s preschool class, who at 3 could read, write, paint pastorals and kick me out of the classroom after I dropped Laszlo off by cheerfully saying “See ya later!” while not-so-subtly opening the door. There was Goldie, who while making bead necklaces on a table at preschool sifted out wisdom to me in the style of an excitable, blowsy Boca Raton divorcée. Although I don’t think it’s legally binding, I’m pretty sure I agreed to buy a timeshare from her.
These feelings about hypothetical alternate realities make total sense to me. I would have completely loved whatever kid I got exactly as much, so it would be better to pour myself into the most genetically impressive being possible. We choose our spouses, and if we sometimes want to trade them in, we certainly have to feel that way about these little people we had no say in picking. Sure, there’s a genetic bond, but Laszlo is only half me. My genes are 100% my parents, and I’d drop them in a grab bag and take my chances.
But just to make sure these feelings were normal, I asked my mother if she ever wished any of my friends were her son. “No. No. No,” she said emphatically. “I loved you so much. And you were so perfect for me.” That made sense, since I am so amazing. “I certainly remember I would like to have a different husband,” she added, laughing about the divorce I suffered through. You could see why I’d reach in the grab bag.
But my mom was a family therapist for 30 years, so I asked if lots of people saddled with children who weren’t me told her about kids they wished they had. “I can’t say that what you’re saying to me resonates,” she said, before remembering more clearly. “I’ve had clients whose children have severe developmental issues, and they’ve said, ‘I’d never tell anyone this, but when I see parents with normal kids, I feel jealous, and I hate that I feel that way, and I’m only telling you because you’re my therapist.'” Really, as though there’s just a continuum between severe developmental issues and being average at soccer.
My mom wondered if perhaps I was expressing a more common feeling incorrectly. “Maybe you sometimes look at another kid and think, I wish Laszlo were like that so his life would be better. I would sometimes look at another kid who was more outgoing and social and think, Joel would be happier if he were more like that. And my life would be easier if I didn’t have to drag him to parties, talk him through his fears and try to get him to ask for his own balloon.” I was starting to be very glad I had Laszlo.
I knew one person who rarely lied, so I asked Laszlo, who follows me to whatever room I go to and often cries if I leave my home office for a meeting, if he ever felt like he wanted a different father. “Maybe once in a while, but not a lot,” he said. So I asked him who would possibly be a better father than I am. “Phil,” he said, about our screenwriter friend who wrote Wreck-It Ralph. Then Laszlo hit me where it hurt most. “He’s funnier,” he said. Then, seeing my face, he added, “You’re funny. But you’re not superfunny.”
I hugged Laszlo tight and thanked him. Because while I can logically imagine trading him for a different kid, it’s way too late. I’ve become emotionally dependent on seeing him run behind the kids on the field while nervously chewing on his shirt collar and calming him during water breaks. Or sitting with him and watching Singin’ in the Rain, the only movie or TV show he’ll watch because it’s not at all scary. And finding out that he’s smiling because he’s imagining washing behind his own future son’s ear. The only thing I actually want to change is to be much, much funnier.
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.
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