Monday, March 23, 2009

two's the limit

At the playground the other day, the weather was warm, sunny and breezy, one of those magical, unseasonable days where the air got balmier instead of cooler as the sun sank in the sky. I had my two kids there from about one o’clock until four-thirty. At around three I started weakly rounding them up, mostly because there was a lull in mothers that I wanted to talk to. But the kids were having fun climbing the monkey bars, digging in the sand and inspecting the new baseball turf. I was a little hungry, a little ornery, but not dead-set on leaving, especially as it would mean more work for me. Baths. Dinner. Picking up toys. Refereeing fights.

When four o’clock rolled around, a close friend of my son’s showed up with his dad, so I was happy to hang out more, but I made jokes about how now we’d never leave. Another mom had just arrived too, a friend of the dad's. She had three kids—two thuggish boys with chestnut mops, and a freckled little girl who busied herself burying her mother’s Dansko clogs in the sand, which the mom allowed happily. As my dad friend is about to become the father of three, the conversation turned to the difficulty of adding another member to the family. “Going from two to three is SO MUCH HARDER than from one to two,” the mother of three lamented with some discernible pride. “You always have to leave one to tend to the others.” I thought that seemed fairly obvious in that ‘duh’ kind of way, given the number of arms, legs and laps two parents possess, not to mention seats in a car, that three would pose a problem, simply for the math of it all. The symmetry.

The mother of three struck me as a vegan hippie-type, even though when I asked, she told me her kids sometimes ate a concoction she created, a mixture of ground turkey, cheese and an assortment of fresh vegetables. I thought almost shamefully, my kids would never eat anything that wasn’t completely disassembled, deconstructed, and on separate plates. In other words, she irked me, with her sand-filled shoes, her three well-fed angels, her carefree arrogance, and insinuation that my life wasn't hard because I only had two kids.

As time wore on and I ran out of snacks to scarf from my mini-cooler, I tried gathering my tiny flock again, and upon witnessing my failure to get the kids moving, the twirling earth mother asked, because she wanted to help me, and oh how every mother I know loves unsolicited help! She asked, “What if you just leave and say, ‘bye’?” And I told her that I read a while back in oh, I think it was Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, that saying things like that to kids who don’t yet fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality sets up an abandonment complex, and so I have never done that. And she said, well, I’ve done it a thousand times and it always works! So then, partly to dislodge the foot from my mouth, I admitted that upon subsequent readings of Miller’s books, I wasn’t sure I agreed with her assessments anyway.

I must have fallen under the spell of this quinoa queen’s spell of smugness because I gave her suggestion a whirl. After five years of actively not saying, ‘Bye!’ and walking away, I marched over to Hamish and said, “I’m leaving! Good bye!” and walked away. I threw my whole philosophy out the window, not that I so much believed it anymore, but why now? For what, to gain the approval of someone who annoyed me? And after selling my soul down the Schuylkill River, my son didn’t bat an eye. Stayed right where he was, clinging to the freshly raked earth.

Getting advice implies that you have a problem. I bristle at these times, because I don't like other people treating me like I have a problem that can only be solved with their help, even though I've certainly been guilty of it myself. So it's with some irony that I say, not to get too Buddhist on you, that I know that my kids are not supposed to listen to me, especially if they don't. Therefore, there’s no problem. If I weren’t being witnessed, it could have taken another hour to get out of the playground and I wouldn’t have cared, but it was like someone was standing there holding a stopwatch to my face, and every second that ticked by without my family exiting the park was a mark against my very character. So my problem really was believing that my kids were supposed to make me look good in front of judging witnesses. And that I needed this woman's approval. And I guess I could extend this spiritual wisdom to include the aggravating know-it-all, and I don’t just mean me. As in, mothers aren’t supposed to be condescending one-upping bitches. Really? Since when? What planet am I living on? Of course mothers are supposed to be condescending one-upping bitches. And I am supposed to bristle at them. And give a shit about them. Until I don't.

So with Stella at my feet begging to be carried because she's about to go narcoleptic on my ass, and Hamish twenty yards away rolling around in the dirt with his pal, the millet mistress said brightly, “Have you tried bribing them?” Bribing them. Well, didn’t I just roll off the turnip truck. Did she say bribe them? Where did she come up with this brilliant idea? She must have invented it, since she has THREE kids and I only have two, otherwise I would know industrious little secrets like bribing my kids. And, no, I don’t think I gave her the evil eye when she offered me this golden nugget of mom-expertise, but I am now, recounting this scene. At least I’m looking at my monitor all funny. I replied with a touch of disdain, just a touch. I said, “I’m already threatening to take away the treat I bribed them with an hour ago!”

Now I know I'm being petty, but sometimes petty can be fun, even for the almost-forty set. Because the next tremendous bit of sage wisdom my frenemy spouted forth moved the earth beneath my Chuck Taylors. In fact it was the profound truth that inspired this whole blog. She said, and I do believe I quote, “I have a friend who has five kids, and she is so BLUNT with them, because, like, she just doesn’t have the TIME, and they are the GREATEST kids!” Yeah. Her friend has no time for her kids, because she has so many of them, and they're great, because their mom is blunt with them. She don't dress it up. No sir. She tells it like it is. I just had to repeat the highlights.

I picked my jaw up off the sandy ground, uncrossed my eyes, swallowed back the daggers in my throat and said, “Oh, so now I’m the bad guy for only having two kids, because I have so much TIME on my hands, that I must spend hours fluffing each instruction, direction or disciplinary action into a cotton-candied euphemistic Shakespearean sonnet since I have TIME? And since I only have two kids, they’re going to turn out to be maladjusted, spoiled, irresponsible criminals with no concept of reality because I have so much TIME to give them? Is that what you’re telling me, you arrogant c-word? And by the way you don't even KNOW me.” And then I spit on the ground and hopped on my horse and rode away, kicking up clouds of dust that clogged her throat and made her gag.

No. What I really said was, “Oh yeah, I live for blunt! Blunt is my middle name! I LOVE blunt! I’m like, SO BLUNT with my kids, like, all the time! You should see me sometime when I'm being super-blunt." And then I picked up my daughter, hoisted my tote-bag, and graciously, bluntly accepted the practical help of my dad friend, who offered to carry my son to the car, since he would rather shout “poopy head!” into the sewer grate than come with me, with or without the bribe of television, candy or hookers. No, just kidding about the candy.

And so it seems there is little status in having one or two children in my neck of the woods. Two is as common as having two eyes, two legs, two get the picture. Nobody looks at you twice! And the poor souls who only have one child, one of my dearest friends among them, a working mother, are almost looked upon with pity, as if they'd surely have more... if they could. On some level I can see why this would be so. The real estate here is simply too affordable to have just one child, and career-minded moms are fairly scarce.

When I used to live in Brooklyn, no one I knew had three kids unless they were rich, planning to move away, or their second child turned out to be twins. I didn’t travel in the same circles with the uber-wealthy, whose broods of three or more graced the pages of magazines like Cookie and Elle. But where I live now, on Philadelphia’s tony Main Line, three kids in a family is typical. Respectable. Four will get you a raised eyebrow. Five gets you two eyebrows and an impressed nod. Six is where the eyes begin to widen. Seven, eight, nine gets a wince, a grimace, and an assumption, from me anyway, that you’re either a fundamentalist or a crazed maniac, and maybe there's not much difference between the two. You're certainly not an environmentalist! But you never know. Maybe the mother of eight, nine or ten is addicted to the oxytocin that courses through her body upon giving birth, or maybe she adores the specialness of being pregnant, or the writhing pain of birthing babies, or maybe she and her husband simply think that they are so effing special that the world would simply rot without as much of their DNA as they can pump into existence. It’s enough of a mystery for me to go out there and gather quotes.

But that ground turkey guru got me thinking after I unclenched my fists hours later. Are we in clubs, we parents, without our even knowing it? Clubs based solely on the number of kids we have? I hate to believe it's fully true, but I can't help but think the mother of three is onto something with her smugness toward those who have less than she. Sadly, I suspect that she's not the only one. But then again, we're just doing what we do. Until we don't.


Amelia Plum said...

I think that, unfortunately, the pettiness of high school never leaves. I see it everywhere; work environment, mommyhood, I'm telling you there are cliques at the home for dementia patients where my Grandma lives. Maybe you could think of some catch-all to say that will totally wipe the smugness off of the proselytizer's face. We'll have to brainstorm some gems to keep in your back pocket for just such situations. BTW hope you're feeling better & that you liked Rachel Getting Married.

kristi said...

i try to stay away from moms in general, and this is exactly why. last time we were at the park after school, we kind of had the place to ourselves at first. when other mothers and their kids starting showing up, i totally panicked and starting chasing the kids to "hurry up, let's go." i just didn't have the courage to chance having to listen to them talk about plastic surgery, how smart their kids are, how fast they lost THEIR baby weight when i still have 10+ pounds to go and my youngest is almost 2...

and for the record, i have 3 kids, but the 3rd was an accident, so i still kind of think of myself having 2 and a half. our middle son, who is in kindergarten, constantly draws pictures of our family, sans bebe. i often wonder if somehow, silently, i gave him this complex of the disappearing younger sibling?

i have thought a time or two "oh you only have 1 kid, stop complaining about how hard everything is." all directed at my sister...but anything more than 1 is hard, no matter how you look at it.

oh, except once we had the 3rd, we had to buy a new (very old) car because we had a car--the ONLY car--that had only 4 seats (a honda element). and it IS hard as hell to cram them all side by side into the backseat of a volvo wagon that is slowly falling apart.

eyond that, i actually feel less wise, less equipped, less knowledgeable, less in control than i did when i had less kids. :)

Larissa Phillips said...

So funny! I hate moms! No, I hate that kind of mom. I'm surprised a mother of three wouldn't have picked up by now that not every trick works on every kid. Or that some moms have different things they're working for... like, trust... Great post. I think you should write a fairy tale about the evil Quinoa Queen.

Z OHora said...

Hah ha ha ha. This is hilarious! I can't count how many times this very scenario and the mindfuck it induces that you described perfectly has happened to me/us. As recent transplants from Brooklyn we are grappling with the cult of more.

We had different headtrips in Park Slope that followed the same trajectory and we thought we had escaped them by moving to Narberth. Only to find out they have merely been exchanged for another useless currency.

devney said...

fuck this mom. look at kate from jon and kate plus 8, who doesn't hate that fucking bitch?

even one kid is super difficult (I have two)'s your 1st kid and everything they do will be their 1st time and your 1st time...

chin up Elise, and let me know next time you're going to the park...i'll show you how easy it is to roll your eyes and walk away!