All You Childless Grown-ups Out There Can Just Shut Up
By Rachel Walker
I remember the last time I knew everything there was to know about parenting. It was July 2009, and I was standing in a huddle of adults in a garage in Huntington, Vermont. At the bottom of the huddle, sitting on the cement floor with a piece of fat, purple sidewalk chalk in one hand and a plastic, spill-proof cup in the other was my niece Sylvia, three years old. She drew. She sipped. She did both at the same time altogether ignoring the constellation of grown-ups orbiting her like planets circling the sun.
“Sweetheart,” her mom, Kerry, said for the umpteenth time. “You have three choices. Would you like to go on a ride with uncle Jeff and me; go on a walk with grandma and Aunt Rachel; or go to the hardware store with daddy?”
Staying in the garage and coloring was not an option, and yet Sylvia had clearly chosen that activity by refusing to acknowledge that her mom, my husband’s sister, was speaking to her. Kerry repeated the options. She never raised her voice. She never told Sylvia she was being annoying. She never rushed her into a decision. She just repeated over and over that Sylvia was welcome to go for a car ride, a walk, or to run an errand. And Sylvia continued to ignore her.
Oh for the love of GOD, I thought. How about we don’t let the three-year-old think she’s the center of the universe? Somebody pick her up and TELL her what she will be doing next.
That’s what real parenting was, right? Delineating boundaries. Teaching a kid to step into their place in the hierarchy. The world’s a tough place. Not everyone who meets your child is going to take the time to give a hoot about what she wants to do. Best teach ‘em young to step up, get along, and realize the world does not revolve around them.
Twelve weeks pregnant with my first child at the time, I was at that ripe stage of reproduction where my breasts ached daily, my waistband grew snugger by the minute, and I could fall asleep mid-step if I wasn’t careful. I’d escaped the brunt of morning sickness, but fatigue floored me. Patience had never been my strong point, but since starting to “eat for two,” it had become a mere afterthought. As cells divided within me and I embarked toward motherhood, I experienced irritants at an exponential level.
For instance, I could smell the red onions on the sandwich of someone sitting on the opposite end of the plane from me. I nearly popped the buttons off a shirt when I ripped it from my body because of an errant tag tickling my neck. When the dog whined for a walk, I snarled at her like she was the enemy. When Jeff, my husband, tried to rub my aching back, I snapped that I’d get a better massage from a pot of boiled spaghetti. And when I found myself in a huddle around Sylvia with my sister-in-law, her husband, Jeff, and his mom, Cassie, for what felt like a half hour while the three-year-old was given option after option after option, I bit my tongue until it bled. This was no way to parent and I was absolutely certain I would have handled the situation differently—OK, I’ll say it, better—had I been in charge.
Got that? The person whose only first-hand experience with offspring was retching at the smell of uncooked onions 100 feet away was pretty damn sure she could offer parenting advice that would be more effective than anything coming from an actual mom with years of experience under her belt.
Before I gave birth, I believed that modern parents—which included a good deal of my friends and extended family—had become so indulgent under the pretext of building their kids’ self esteem that they’d abdicated the responsibility of actually parenting. Instead of creating a structure for their kids, they tried to construct one with the input of their children. This was especially frustrating since my friends and family showed so much wisdom in other parts of their lives. Well past the age of beer bongs and one-night stands, these were respectable professionals, wizened 30-somethings, partners at law firms. And many of the kids of these older parents, once they wised up to the dynamic, manipulated the hell out of it for their own benefit. Forget giving them choices, I concluded. Let them know who’s boss. Stop treating him like a prince and he’ll stop acting like one.
Eventually Sylvia stood up and announced she didn’t want to do any of the options, which turned out to be just fine. While we had been waiting for her to choose, her dad had run the errand to the hardware store and returned. He would stay home with her, he announced, a decision I found maddening. Great, now she knows all she needs to do is stall for time and she’ll get her way.
I hadn’t yet learned the phrase, “pick your battles.”
Fast forward four years to July 2013, and I am on vacation in Crested Butte with my own family, which now includes Henry, 3, Silas, 1, my husband Jeff, and our dog, Chloe. Henry is sobbing on the dining room floor of our rented cabin because we did not pack his pedal bike. This would be the mini bicycle that’s been collecting dust in our garage for the past six months. Henry had made one attempt at the whole feet-on-pedals-try-to-go thing, toppled over, and parked the machine behind the shop vac. As far as I knew, he’d forgotten it was even there.
“Pedalbikepedalbikepedalbike!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he wails.
We’ve brought his pedal-free balance bike, the rig he’s logged hundreds of miles with and that’s been his favorite toy for almost a year and a half. I suggest that’s awesome.
“NO!” he screams. “Pedalbikewouldbefineplease.”
“Darling,” I say in my most patient voice, “we didn’t bring your pedal bike. But we did bring lots of other fun things…”
Before I can catalog them he glares and declares that he will not be eating, playing, or being nice to his brother so long as this affront stands.
“Go home and get it, Mommy,” he says. “I want my pedal bike.”
Home is a five-hour drive away and I have no intention of indulging Henry. I say as much. He throws his body to the floor and blubbers without pausing to breathe, “pedalbikepedalbikepedalbike.”
His younger brother, Silas, takes the cue, shrieks, and turns on his own water works. He sprints for me and begins to pull himself up my body like a monkey shimmying up a jungle.
“Mom-meeeeee,” Silas wails.
“Pedalbike!” moans Henry.
Jeff and I make eye contact and share the glance that’s defined our silent communication for the past three years: What the fuck do we do now?
Choices. Three-year-olds want choices.
“Henry, sweetheart,” I say, “you have two choices. You can either cry about your pedal bike in your room until you feel well enough to join the family, or you can help me unpack our shoes.”
I realize this must sound like complete jibber jabber to my distraught preschooler because he punches the air between us and says, “nononono!” Then, in case I missed it the first 20 times, he lets me know exactly what he wants: “PEDAL BIKE.”
I try to sweeten the deal.
“Henry, if you calm down, you can watch Sponge Bob Square Pants.”
This is a high value bribe. Since we don’t own a television at home, cartoons are a rare novelty, and he would be absolutely thrilled to spend our entire week glued to the screen.
“Pedalllll biiiike,” he sobs.
“Henry,” I say, firmer now, but still trying to sound nice, “You have three choices: go to your room, help me unpack shoes, or watch television.”
Henry ignores me. Continues his temper tantrum. I’m now holding Silas, 22 pounds of chub with red cheeks, red hair, and a sharp set of teeth. He’s alternating between shrieks and trying to stick his hands in my mouth. I’m swaying him back and forth, and with each rotation I feel the muscles in my neck and back tense from the weight and the repetition. Three years into this parenting thing and I’ve got guns like you wouldn’t believe. My back, neck, and hips, however, have gone to shit. I hit my limit.
“Henry, are you listening to me?” I’m not even trying to be nice now. “Get over it. We didn’t bring your damn pedal bike. Now stop crying. It’s really obnoxious.”
I wouldn’t recommend that tactic. Henry wails harder.
“I’m serious,” I declare. “Calm down or I’m going to carry you to your room and leave you there until you stop crying.”
Jeff backs me up with a definitive, fatherly, “Henry, listen to your mother.”
I would love to take credit for Henry’s about face, but I’d be lying. My illogical three-year-old simply tires of screaming and yelling and trying to explain to his doltish parents that he wants his PEDAL BIKE. His wails mellow to whimpers. Within minutes his face is no longer the color of a fire engine and he snuggles up to my leg. A few more minutes, and he’s pretending to be a helicopter buzzing around the living room. Finally, a solid half hour after his melt down, Henry wraps his lanky arms around my leg and squeezes tight.
“Mommy, you know what?” he asks.
“I love you.”
Had we been in a movie, I would have knelt down and looked my sweet blond boy in the eye, laid a tender hand on his shoulder and told him I loved him right back. I kind of did that, but not really. Balancing Silas on my hip and trying to shake the achy tension from my neck and shoulders, I stooped over, gave Henry a stiff hug—not because I was feeling distant (at least not entirely because of that) but because I didn’t want to drop his brother or make myself fall over—and said, “Feeling better, buddy?”
Truth is, I was tired and grumpy and pissed off that Henry demanded so much energy and attention over such a trivial thing at exactly the same time all I wanted to do was crack open a bottle of red and toast our first night of vacation. Not that it mattered what I wanted. Having been immersed in this parenting thing for the past four years (and yes, I’m including my first pregnancy in that timing), I’ve come to realize that being responsible for little people who are completely dependent on you for everything means that they come first. Always. And sometimes that’s a royal pain in your ass.
I no longer think I know what Kerry should have done or said to Sylvia all those years ago. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, and I am absolutely certain that if it had been Henry at the bottom of the huddle, I would have reacted differently than if it had been Silas—because they are two distinctly different people. In fact, the only thing I know today is that there is no right way to parent. We are all muddling through, it can be frustratingly hard, and, most of the time, we are doing our best.
And that should make us parents proud. Hell, we should be shouting from the rooftops, high-fiving each other in the street, tossing out thumbs up like a fireman in a 4th of July parade. We may not know exactly what we’re doing, but we’re doing fine! We’re still here! We will survive!
And that’s what parenting is: surviving the hard parts to be able to treasure the magic that comes from the alchemy of creating someone out of two cells. Parenting is not all drudgery, dirty diapers, and discipline. As tough as parenting can be, it is immensely fun, silly, and, yes, rewarding. Once I got over my snit about Henry’s temper tantrum in Crested Butte about a bike he hadn’t mentioned before—and hasn’t mentioned since—I swelled with love for the little guy. How wonderful to feel so safe that he could lose his marbles when he felt out of control or sidelined. What a sweet kid to circle back and express his love. And, wow, look at Silas follow his brother around and try to play helicopter, too.
I could have watched them for hours. Don’t believe me? Wait until your progeny does something cute, like show up on an ultrasound scan in utero or smile as an infant for the first time; you’ll be ready to grab the popcorn, lean back, and enjoy the show with a rapt interest you didn’t know you possessed. Truthfully, there’s nowhere else in the entire world I would have wanted to be than with my family in a beautiful mountain town in Colorado. It took a few deep breaths to gain that perspective, but gain it I did.
If I could go back and time, I’d tell my childless, smug self to bugger off. Parenting is hard enough without know-it-all clueless DINKS judging those of us who’ve spawned. I’ve been on both sides of that fence and I’m proposing a truce. You (without kids) try to temper your know-it-all-ness. And I (with two unpredictable little boys) will try not to sit next to you in a coffee shop when you’re clearly trying to work (even though it IS a coffee shop…but I won’t go there). Now, if you don’t mind, I have to either put away some shoes, stop crying, or go watch some T.V.