A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Take my kids, for example...

She is a conscientious student and always strives to do her best.  She is a pleasure to have in class.
 “Do I haaaaaaave to?”
You’re sure you didn’t mix up the report cards, Mrs. Impossibly Patient First Grade Teacher?  Because… I don’t think you know the child that I know. 
Do you have to?  Um, yeah, kid.  You. Have. To.  Despite all indications that the vast magnitude of my cruelty is overwhelming your neural circuits, I’m not, in fact, asking you to read Plato in the original Greek or walk across a wasteland of smoldering lava in your Dora the Explorer socks.   I’m asking you to amble over to the cutlery drawer and take out some spoons.  You know, those things that make it possible to eat pudding without getting it on your ears?  Yeah.  I’d like a few of those.  On the table.  And really, I’d like this to happen without any whining.
“But Mamaaaaa…”
There are times when parenting feels rewarding: truly, deeply, I-am-part-of-the-future awesome.  For example, a few days ago, one of my kids wanted to know the length of the human genome.  We Googled it together, and discovered that there are TWO METERS of DNA in every human cell, and that all the tiny encoded chains of nucleic acids in your body would reach to Pluto and back.  Yeah, how cool is that? 
There are times when parenting feels peanut-buttery: that is, run-of-the-mill, with occasionally chunky niblets of humor value to keep me going – like reading aloud all six novels in a series about Humphrey the classroom hamster, whom, despite myself, I’m kind of starting to bond with. 
And there are times when I wish that the notion of child-theft-by-gypsies were not a myth (and a racial slur to boot).  Or maybe not theft, per se, but child trading.  Because I’m pretty sure those gypsy (sorry, Romani) kids would be way more tractable than my own – and not have the same three knock-knock jokes imprinted on a mental Mobius strip.
At those times, of course, I am consumed by guilt.  Because Nice Parents do not have such thoughts.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my children.  I adore them; I dote on them; I would take on an angry bear on their behalf, armed only with my bitten-down fingernails and a pocketful of hair-snaggled rubber bands and used Kleenex.  I love my children… and yet I’ve often wondered why it is that despite the fact that I am viewing them through the lens of my positively-biased genetically-related bonded-since-infancy gaze, they nonetheless sometimes appear to be nightmarish little demons.  Conversely, I’ve wondered why other adults – who are under no particular imperative to love, like, or even tolerate my kids – often seem to see them as relatively functional small human beings.
I was proud of her courage to speak in front of her peers… Great job!
Ah.  So… the other twin doesn’t talk much at school, huh?  Uh-huh.  Yup.  THAT MUST BE BECAUSE SHE’S SAVING IT ALL UP.
“But I don’t want to go to bed!  I’m not tired!  Wait, I need to tell you about my book… so in the first part….
“… and then after they go into the cave, then their flashlights run out of batteries…
“…and they have these walkie-talkies… wait, Mom, I need to tell you about the walkie-talkies…
“…and then the one girl with the pony…
“…so then after they switched the batteries…
“… and then there’s another girl, and she’s in the cave too… Mom, wait, I’m not done yet!  Wait, listen!”
I meant to listen.  Really, I did. I mean, who could resist a twenty-minute oral book report on a novel entitled “Pony Pals”?  But my brain had melted fifteen minutes previously, and leaked out my ears.  Maybe it puddled somewhere in my stained hoodie, I’m not sure.  It was really too bad, because I’d been hoping to use it to help me parse the intricacies of the crisis in Syria, or to write a couple of scientific journal articles, or at the very least to make a marginally erudite pun on Facebook.
Facebook.  Facebook is where my parental guilt goes to metastasize.  On Facebook, given my place in the over-educated-middle-aged-people demographic, many of my friends went through the Kindergarten Rite of Passage with the baby of the family this fall.  The last one! On Facebook, there were many bittersweet parental sighs.  But… when my first one and my last one set off for their first day at University Park Elementary School two years ago, I did not weep; I exhaled.  And then I zoomed off to work, my spirits and my bike both free-wheeling.  Because someone else was taking care of my kids
Yeah, I know.  Not nice.  Wasn’t I supposed to be mourning the end of their babyhood?  Regretting the loss of some portion of my time with them, and some portion of my influence over their little lives?  Wasn’t I supposed to be concerned about the not-me influences they would be prey to in a big, bad world full of Other People? 
 “Mama, it’s not faaaaair!” 
At times like these, the Other People can have my kids.  On any given day, there are at least seventeen things that are “not fair”.  I’ve leveled with the kids: yup, life isn’t fair.  I’ve pointed out to them that most of the time, the not-fairness of the world has been working heavily in their favor.  This is commonly known as the “You should be grateful, because some kid is starving in a country you’ve never heard of” strategy.  It doesn’t work.  Or, maybe it only works on other people’s children, who invariably seem to remember, when in my care, to say “please” and “thank you” and “I had a very nice time” and even “Wow, you’re so cool”.  You think I’m making this up?  No, really, someone else’s offspring thinks I’m, like, awesome.  My own?  Not so much.
“You gave her the bigger piece!”
The thing is, I LIKE kids.  I always have.  I revel in their imaginative energy (“I will give you a ticket to our kingdom.  But you have to paint yourself with cranberries.”)  I am amused by their disarming honesty (“You have a really big nose, Nancy!”) I appreciate their peculiarly abstract view of the word, as evidenced by the poetry-magnet ode that appeared on the fridge (“He is warm butter.  He is a chocolate sandwich.  He is gorgeous.”)  Why, given that I genuinely like hanging out with kids, am I sometimes driven ape-feces loony by my own? 
Nice Parents definitely do not offer to sell, barter, or trade their children. 
Or… do they?  Maybe I’ve just been focusing on the positive.  I have a problem with that – always seeing the stupid glass as half-full, even when someone has clearing been filching my lemonade. 
Ok, I told myself.  Let’s go back and dig deeper.
In the past few weeks alone, two different friends of mine publically confessed (with photographic evidence) that their toddlers had decided to “decorate” the family car by creatively engraving its exterior with a rock.   One mom shared deadpan and marvelously unsympathetic reports on just how often her three sons were vomiting.  Another parent offered dark humor regarding little-kid nightmares and being woken from well-deserved slumber for the eleventeenth time.  And one, a peculiarly honest fellow, suggested that he would like to divorce his ten-year-old. 
I commiserated with a coworker whose two-year-old will not put on his snow boots for her, although the same task goes over just fine at daycare.  Why, she sighed, were all his meltdowns directed at her?  Another office-mate chimed in from behind the next segment of carpeted wall: “It doesn’t get any better as they get older!”  She just sent a kid off to college.  “It just shows they’re normal.”
Normal?  Someone out there has kids who are “normal”?  Then again… if every kid is abnormal in a different way, perhaps it makes sense that dealing with someone else’s normally-abnormal child feels like a gulp of fresh oxygen after being locked in a gym locker room for a week.
A couple of weeks ago, our family headed out on a three-day 20-mile hiking excursion that included nine adults and six (six!) kids between the ages of 6 and 10.  Although I wouldn’t bet my life on it, I’m pretty sure all fifteen of us managed to have a (mostly) good time, despite mud, hills, the ultimate inevitability of bedtime, and the innate unfairness of being between the ages of 6 and 10.  And for me, one of the greatest things about the trip (besides the hot tubs, because I can’t let this go by without mentioning the hot tubs) was the constant and sometimes hilarious shell-game of siblings and parents. 
For example, at one point, a kid from family A and a kid from family B were grooving together in the somewhat distant charge of the parents from family C, who had left their teenager at home in the nominal care of family D.  An extra adult with no kids of her own was happily hiking with the other kids from families A and B, who were getting along marvelously with one another, despite wanting to have nothing to do with their awful, terrible, respective siblings.  Meanwhile I hiked with Child E, who even ten miles into a long day was unfailingly charming.  Child F was the only one hiking with a parent.  By mile nine, she was moaning piteously.  However, she was sweet as a snickerdoodle a very short while later, splashing in a hot tub with me -- because she is normal.
Yes, it seems that this is precisely correct.  So says the Official Psychology Literature, and so says the common wisdom, and so says my cubicle-neighbor.  Kids do their very best whining, sniveling, and sociopath-impersonations for their parents – and only for their parents.  The teacher who thinks they are angels is not lying.  Neither is the neighbor, the friend, the anybody-but-you person who gets all the pleases and thank-yous and holding-together-of-emotions.  The tedious complaints?  The screaming, door-slamming awfulness?  Those are just for you.  Why?  Well, because your little Beelzebub knows you love him unconditionally.  Even when he’s lying on the floor shrieking.
Part of me wants to greet this harsh reality with a wail of my own:  “That’s not faaaaaair!”  But… in my heart I know it is fair.  For one thing, it’s payback for what I probably did to Dear Old Mom and Dad three decades or more ago.  But I also realize now that it’s more than fair – it’s actually good.  There’s a silver lining somewhere in the cumulonimbus of parental despair.  Because, ok, you can’t actually sell your kids, but occasional trading isn’t just a-ok, it’s necessary.  Kids have something to learn from Other Grownups.  And grownups have something to learn from Other Kids.  Somewhere out there is an adult with new ideas, a novel perspective, and some thoroughly exciting snacks to share.  Somewhere out there is a grownup who hasn’t been worn down by this particular child’s set of idiosyncrasies.  Somewhere out there is a grownup who has not yet heard those three knock-knock jokes.
A couple of days after the trip, Jay and I received a kind-hearted and eloquent thank-you message from the parents of family F:  Thanks… for giving a parenting break: most times, [Child F] did not even want us around, and we indulged in that freedom for a bit.
Oh, you are very welcome, my good friends.  I’m always happy to hang out with your imaginative, energetic, sharp-witted kid – on a hike, on a bike, in a show, on the go… (but keep the green eggs and ham out of the hot tub, okay?)  Besides, you are among the ranks of those who have spent their oh-so-valuable time with our own children.  To you – and to all who have talked to them, babysat them, taught them, or even biked around Iceland with them – thank you.
Today, by some peculiar serendipity related to half-written blog-posts, another friend made this comment on Facebook, directed at family A:  You should follow Nancy's advice precisely… Just keep her away from your girls or they, like ours, will suddenly find themselves happily involved in Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater productions for the next decade or two!
You hear that?  Lend me your kids, and I will corrupt them with four-hundred-year-old plays full of bloodshed and sexual innuendos!  Meanwhile, I’ll send you the twins.  I hear that one of them “speaks up” and that the other “always strives to do her best” so I’ll bet they’ll make a really good showing when they tell you those knock-knock jokes.

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