Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

November 19, 2001

The world's scariest bedtime stories

I am working on a children’s book. Without a doubt it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write.

It’s harder than the newspaper story I wrote about an intricate and boring public-sewer-system payment plan. And it makes a 20-page essay I wrote in college, which explained the shift from Linear A to Linear B during the Minoan palace period, look really simple. Like the recipe for toast. That’s saying something, because 10 years later, I still have no idea what that paper was about.

I’m not sure why writing children’s books is so hard.

It could be because the audience for them is ruthless. If Lucy doesn’t like something I’m reading to her, she walks away and doesn’t look back. She’s let me know that the cat’s rear end is more interesting than some of the books in her library.

It could also be that there are so many great children’s books out there, that the effort of trying to ooze out a new one feels as valuable as trying to reinvent something classic, like the Twinkie. The Twinkie is done, and everybody knows it. No one asked for the Zinger. It doesn’t even matter if the Zinger is better. There’s already a Twinkie.

It could also be that so much is known today about the children’s book market that writing one is like moonwalking through a minefield. Be simple. But use vivid words. Be cute. But not sweet. Be classic. But don’t rhyme. It’s impossible to be all these things and get beyond Once Upon a Time there was a Fungus.

The good news is I’m not the only one who has been bruised by the effort of writing a children’s book.

Even the best authors clearly struggled. This hit me the other day when I was reading The Velveteen Rabbit. I didn’t notice this when I was a kid reading it. But today, it’s clear to me The Velveteen Rabbit is a horror story. It’s just pretending to be sweet literature for children.

Consider the evidence: The book’s defining calamity occurs when the boy gets Scarlet Fever. That’s an awful disease. It can kill. It can blind. It cost Helen Keller her sight and hearing.

And that’s not all. The boy is ruthless about loving and rejecting his toys. Woe to those who aren’t shiny. What’s more, the Velveteen Rabbit only gets redeemed when his body is ruined, then burned.

This is a clear metaphor of the writer’s life. Deadly disease lurks just around the corner, waiting to turn you mute -- unable to tell stories. In all likelihood, your work will be rejected for something more sparkly, fashionable and Oprah-esque. Also, if you spend a long time working on your craft, you’ll develop a hideous crook in your back -– all the better to accentuate your pasty skin. And one more thing: the world probably won’t appreciate you until you’re dead.

And it’s not just The Velveteen Rabbit. Goodnight Moon is similarly scary. The little bunny says goodnight to everything in the room: his comb, his brush, some kittens, his mush. And then he says goodnight to someone named “nobody.” Clearly, the room is haunted. No wonder he doesn’t want to go to sleep.

And even that’s not all. If you want something really scary, read The Runaway Bunny. The mother rabbit follows the baby everywhere. She morphs into things that look benign and then WHAM! She catches him. It’s the same plot as The Terminator. The only difference is the bunny gets carrots at the end, while the Terminator gets crushed and melted. That’s a pretty picky little detail, though, when you get down to it.

Even Guess How Much I Love You is miserable when you peel away the layers. It’s about two rabbits, one large, one small. (What is it with rabbits and literature, by the way? They do nothing but struggle and die. Watership Down, one of my favorite books, has more than 500 heart-rending pages of struggle and death, and maybe a paragraph of the life-affirming copulation rabbits are better known for.)

The Guess How Much I Love You hares come from two generations. They compete over which one feels more love. The young one loses. Again, pure fantasy on the author’s part –- fantasy masking his fear of the hideous, real world where youth is everything. And it is, you know. Britney Spears’ album is kicking Michael Jackson’s where it counts. Right in the cash register. It’s a young world. It’s young, and it’s restless. The TV told me so.

We parents might love Guess How Much I Love You, but only because it plays into our fantasy that we’re the ones in charge. Our kids have us beaten, I promise you. Whose bottom is getting wiped, and who’s doing the wiping?

Even children’s rhymes are hideous and terrifying. Rock-a-bye baby? The cradle falls out of the tree. Ghastly. Ring around the Rosy? It’s about the red face you get when you’re first afflicted with bubonic plague.

Why do we tell kids this stuff and make it all sound like so much fun?

Maybe because that’s the ultimate truth of children’s literature. That life, especially when you have kids, is often difficult and frightening. Terrible things beyond our control can happen, even to the tiny people we love most. But somehow, even if it requires cartoon physics and fairy dust, everything’s going to turn out all right in the end.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my book. There’s one thing I can take comfort in: writing it will probably be far less scary than finding out the cat’s rump has more interesting things to say.

November 12, 2001

The Mommy Stigma

There is such a thing in this world as a job that will forever blight your resume. Once you’ve signed up for it, everyone will know you’ve done it, and no one will look at you in the same way again.

While it sounds like I’m talking about being a porn star, or maybe a meter maid, or maybe a porn star playing a meter maid, I’m really talking about becoming a mother.

It changes everything about your life, and it also makes you either selfish or stupid.

Allow me to explain.

For some reason, motherhood is supposed to leave a woman with two choices: Either go back to work and achieve great things. Things like being able to pay the bills, for example. Or, stay at home, barefoot with babies, and throw away all the opportunities feminists ever sacrificed their perfectly good bras to grant you.

When I was obviously pregnant with Lucy, people asked me all the time if I was going to stay home with her, or go back to work. I’m sure every pregnant woman faces the same question.

As for me, I didn’t know the answer. I had a great job that paid well and supplied me with conversational tidbits during parties, which otherwise tend to make me feel like a rough-handed rube. What’s more, I never quite knew what people wanted to hear: that I was devoted to doing great things in the world, or to doing great things for my child.

I think this really stinks.

Motherhood shouldn’t be a choice between work and children, between guilt and -- well -- guilt. And yet, it is made out that way all the time. No matter what you choose, someone will disapprove.

You read about women who stay at home because they don’t want strangers raising their children. What does that say about the mothers who have to take a job because that’s the only way those children get to eat? Or about women who can make great contributions to the world through their work? Also, what does that say about the good people who work as caregivers for children, making a pittance, just because they love doing it?

The truth is, many children benefit from going to daycare. For one thing, they get to spend time around other kids. Lucy loves this. I can remember loving it too, when I was little, although it wasn’t daycare; it was just my many brothers and sisters.

Also, childcare professionals sometimes know more about development than parents do. They know how to ward off a tantrum because they’ve seen thousands of them. They know what makes 2-year-olds laugh. They often have a fresher perspective on adventure. For example, I see the cardboard boxes in my basement as something I need to break down and recycle; Lucy’s nanny sees them as mini racecars.

Finally, many women are better mothers because they’ve gotten to work. If you have a passion that’s not compatible with small children – let’s say you’re a chemist – you can come home feeling tired but replenished, and eager to see the faces that cause fizzy, magical chemical reactions in your heart. I know that without being able to write, I’d feel like there was a part of me that was withering away.

On the flip side, you read about so-called feminists who look at stay-at-home mothers as traitors to the cause of women’s rights. I read an interview recently where a whiny academic was wringing her hands because her daughter had left her career to raise her children. “Is this what we made all this sacrifice for?” she said.

Of course it is.

Raising children is vital work. The human race depends on it, and this includes hand-wringers who claim to be feminists, but who really just want other women to be just like them. It’s no betrayal to stay at home. Feminism is about choice. It would be no gain if women earned the opportunity to have a career in an office, but lost the choice to make a career out of a family.

Similarly, it’s not a luxury to stay home, as people sometimes describe it. Tending children is like running in the chore habitrail. You go as fast as you can, just to keep up. It’s diaper changes and laundry and shedding pets and grocery shopping. It’s full of sweetness and love and occasionally the blinding light of wonder. It’s also sometimes full of loneliness, despair and great, great pressure. Children bonk their heads, eat rocks and run full-tile toward worse dangers than these. Just knowing you’re totally responsible for keeping them safe and shaping their minds and personalities – things that will determine the course of their days to come – this is overwhelming.

I stay at home with Lucy, and for the sixteen hours a week we have Laramie, our precious, brilliant nanny, I work. I also work after Lucy has gone to bed at night. So I know a little bit about life from both sides.

I just wish there weren’t these sides at all. I wish that stay-at-home moms and working moms, and everyone who ever judged one as better than the other, would recognize that there is no perfect life. There is just the life you can manage to lead, as well as you can.

It’s hard not to care about what other people think of the life you’re living. It’s hard not to think, “If only I were…” But this is what really gets in the way of being a good parent: the doubt.

The children we raise aren’t objects we can perfect by doing just the right thing. They are like slim arrows we launch into tomorrow and beyond. Wind and other forces unseen will carry them places we cannot imagine, and cannot go ourselves.

In becoming parents, we are a bit like stars, blasting forward light that will travel beyond our span of years. And this is why we must not doubt ourselves and our choices. The steady light will travel unimaginably far. And from wherever you see it, it is so beautiful.

November 04, 2001

The Punishment Room

Back when Adam and without child and living like spoons in our condo, we bought some software to design our dream house. This was how we learned we have all the architectural ability of rabbits.

Nonetheless, our pretend house had everything we could possibly have needed: a kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and, naturally, a Punishment Room.

The Punishment Room was a windowless closet just wide enough for a chair, but not tall enough to stand up in. It was awfully fun practicing lines we’d use to teach our future children right from wrong: Take out the garbage, young lady, or it’s off to the Punishment Room with you!

Now that we have Lucy, I’m starting to realize why Adam and I found the idea of a punishment room so entertaining. We’re both very bad when it comes to maintaining law and order. It doesn’t work on him, and it works too well on me.

When I was about Lucy’s age, all you had to do to make me cry was say my name sternly and glare like the Great and Powerful Oz. My Dad, who glares quite well, once made me cry on purpose, just so he could make a fun home movie. Even today, I hate it when people are mad at me. Almost as much as I hate being filmed.

Adam, on the other hand, is immune to the disapproval of others. He doesn’t see it, hear it, smell it or run screaming from the room when he encounters it.

I’m not sure about this, but it’s possible he owes this quality to his mother, whose mission in life is to improve her children’s lots by channeling Joan Rivers and offering career, fashion and weight-loss advice. I suppose I can’t fault her method. It worked really well for her four children. But I will be sucking in my gut and getting contact lenses before I go to Ohio for Christmas this year.

For these two very different reasons, Adam and I stink at discipline. This puts you in a tough spot when you have a 15-month-old with a huge appetite for dog food.

Up until her passion for kibble blossomed, Adam and I had been teaching Lucy good from evil using the age-old technique called avoidance.

When Lucy wanted to touch the fireplace, we taught her the word “hot.” Now, whenever she seems a coffee cup, the oven or the fireplace, she uses her donkey voice to say, “HOT!” For whatever reason, reporting the facts is enough for her. Who knows, maybe she’ll grow up to be a meteorologist. “IT’S RAINING OUT. AND I AM LUCY BERLIANT. HEE HAW.”

It’s the same way with the staircase. Lucy initially wanted to go down headfirst. Instead of banning her from the stairs, Adam taught her “the safe way.” All we have to do is say, “Lucy, go the safe way,” and she turns around and slides down on her stomach, feet first.

As long as we give her an alternative, we’re in great shape. Some things have no alternative, though. One of these is the dog bowl. What are we supposed to do, say, “Try the water dish instead?” She does that on her own without any prompting from us.

At least 10 times a day, I have to whisk her out of the kitchen and over to an alternative toy. The distraction never lasts. At her first opportunity, she’s back for more brown pellets.

I’ve tried dirty looks. I’ve tried reasoning. I’ve tried yelling, “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” I’ve also tried making dog-food-is-gross faces, as well as jumping up and down and waving my arms, in the hopes that she associates eating dog food with me doing embarrassing things.

Adam, meanwhile, has tried reverse psychology: Go ahead. Chow down! If you like it, that’s FINE BY US! The problem is, she does like it. A lot. We’re just hoping the dog food contains some vitamins along with those pig lips and chicken beaks.

One afternoon, I got so frustrated with Lucy that I gave up and got the camera. I photographed her with her face in the dog food bowl. I too pictures of her with brown pellets tumbling down her chin. And I snapped a couple shots of her rinsing off in the water dish.

Years from now, when I look at these pictures, I will look at them as proof of my early failures as a parent. My child eats dog food. I am a bad mother.

But I’m no dummy. When Lucy contemplates a life of teenage hooliganism, I will be ready for her. I’m not promising that I’ll have mastered the art of saying no. But I will have a weapon in my arsenal that will make her think twice about doing something naughty: a stack of pictures of her eating dog food, pictures that I’d love to show all her friends.

It’s no punishment room, but I think it’ll do.