Crapshoot: The Game of Parenting

Most days, I feel completely unqualified in my position as a parent. I am like a legacy student, getting this job mainly because my parents gave birth to me, and I wanted to follow in their tremendous footsteps. When I was pregnant with my first child, I read the book What to Expect When You are Expecting, or at least I definitely received it as a gift and placed it on my nightstand. However, after moving onto more complex stages of human development, like middle school, I realized there was probably nothing in that book explaining what to expect about a twelve-year-old—your baby is now 97 pounds and knows more words than you do.

When I was pregnant and sober, people told me all about what it is like to have a newborn—things like how to get them to sleep through the night and what is the best breast pump, or if I want to be a worthless piece of shit who clearly does not love her children, then let me tell you about the best baby formula. I bought a rocking chair to put in our bedroom and a bottle drying rack for next to the kitchen sink. Then after all that preparation, it turned out that my babies were only newborns for like a few months.

I do know for sure that not one single parent warned me about the importance of chargers and charger cords in parenting. There is not a chapter in What to Expect about this – once your baby can speak, he will expect you to know where all the chargers are, even if you are sleeping, and he can clearly see your eyes are closed, he will ask you anyway, “Mom do you have a charger?” As my service to new parents, I can tell you what to expect when your child unplugs your phone because, “Well, you were at 87%”. You can expect that you will never see that charger again.  

Most of my parental experience comes from the fact that I have already been every age they have been, so there are some events that I expected, like head lice. I grew up with a thick head of unbrushed hair and was sent home several times after the ladies came to my classroom and went through everyone’s hair with chopsticks. If they found lice, they asked you to get up right then in front of everyone and go to the office. This was the original walk of shame, and I am pretty sure this is why we invented HIPAA. Looking back, I am surprised my mother let me into her car when she was forced to come pick me up, and I would like to take a moment of silence to honor those women who worked at elementary schools and had to touch every child’s hair looking for bugs.

One ailment I was not expecting to expect is pinworms. My child had pinworms in fourth grade. If you do not want to have children, then after reading this you can expect that you will be too disgusted to fuck anyone as your Plan A. For those of you not familiar, pinworms are, medically speaking, tiny worms in your butthole. They are very contagious—the eggs getting on a kid’s hands and spreading through schools. The symptoms of pin worms are to expect your child to wake you up in the middle of the night to tell you his butt itches, “really, really bad.” You can also expect to get your very own set of pinworms.

Luckily, there is an over the counter treatment that actually works, so after only a couple short days of severe itching and living with the fact that there were tiny worms in your butt, you can expect a full recovery. I am assuming that this remedy is over the counter because at one point in history an important man in the pharmaceutical industry was afflicted with pinworms and was like, let’s just make this OTC, and then he checked out with his pinworm meds and a bunch of other random shit to make it seem less noticeable. I will just take this medicine that I hope you have never heard of, this wine in a box, these 35 phone chargers, a can of Vienna sausages, and let’s add this King Size Snickers bar.

With each stage of a child’s development, from pooping in the bathtub, to learning to lock all the doors in your house, to the stage where they wear the same hoodie every day for two years, what parents can expect is that they will be tired. When they are newborns they sleep most of the day like old cats and they cannot even speak, so you can expect to look back fondly on that precious time when your daughter had never slammed a door in your face and then yelled, “Nobody even likes you!” and your son had never said, “You are dressed just like my band teacher”.

I think of my own mother sometimes and what to expect when your baby is 45—your baby now weighs in on all of your issues, is a single mother who cannot find any of her chargers or a good boyfriend, but she currently does not have lice or pinworms. You can expect 45 to be a great year for your baby and for her babies who are now in 7th and 9th grade, which is about two years past the stage of parenting when she first wished she could go back to having a newborn and a toddler because that was much easier than living with two middle schoolers.

A Newborn in its natural habitat. This one now has facial hair.

Dog Days

My daughter has been asking me if we can get a dog since she was a toddler. I took her trick or treating when she was four—she was dressed as Tinkerbell—and she realized that even better than houses with candy, are houses with dogs, or houses that at least have a cat. We have candy at home, but what we don’t have at our boring-ass place is any pets whatsoever. After the third house, she stopped saying “trick or treat” and started asking, “Do you have any pets?”

At one house, an older woman came to the door and acted as if she has been waiting her whole life for someone to ask this question. She let my daughter come inside to find her cat, Catfish. I stood by the curb under the yellow light of the street lamp and waited, wondering, what is the correct amount of time to let your tiny daughter go into a stranger’s house at night to find a cat? Eventually, I went inside and found Tinkerbell under the kitchen table with Catfish. The next house, my daughter saw a dog toy barely appearing above the blades of grass—in the dark—and she started running to the door, “Can I pet your dog?”

Since I have understood her love of animals from this early age, when she would ask me if we can get a dog, I would tell her that she can get a dog when she moves out of my house. It was not that I did not want to fulfill her dreams, but I would look at our lives and note that neither one of my kids could even remember to flush the toilet. It did not seem like we were ready for a pet.

Then we found ourselves in the black hole of a pandemic. We went from school drop offs, appointments, meetings, lessons, and events to this odd little group of shut-ins, some of us adjusting better than others. For my daughter, we transitioned from “Let’s look at art schools!” to “Maybe if you could just walk to the mailbox and back today?”

She is in middle school, and she went from being an elementary school girl to a young woman, while trapped at home with just me and her brother. We started going to therapy and after a few meetings the therapist asked to speak to me privately. She very carefully told me that my daughter is lonely.

No shit.

She suggested that I try to do things with her. I told her that after this session, we were going to the grocery store together and that yesterday we went to get coffee. In my head, I was thinking that these choices were better than some of my childhood outings, like to pick up women at the dive bar with my dad or to sit on a curb for four to six hours braiding Bahia grass while my mother and stepfather worked on an old boat—that we never actually sailed. The therapist smiled and looked down at her hands folded simply in her lap, then back at me, “What about things she likes to do?”

It was not long after this session that I decided we should consider getting a dog. Within about a month—after corresponding with some area shelters—we met a yellow lab mix named Bella. She dashed to greet each of the kids and then me, the room overflowing with awes and squeals of laughter, and then she promptly crawled up on the bench between my two kids and turned around as if to say, look at your three beautiful children. We took her home that same day.

Within the first few hours, Bella did a quick scan of our household members and realized that I am the only one who knows how to drive a car and to flush the toilets. She was attached to me right away, even though I am not the kindest or the most playful option, and even though I am not the one who leaves my dishes on the coffee table or drops ice cubes from the freezer and just walks away.

My daughter started taking her on walks, even out past the mailbox, and my son formed a connection with her that is endearing. He has never asked me for a dog, maybe because he was born with wisdom beyond his years and must have known that it would take an apocalypse for me to agree to this.  Bella is one thing that brings us all together. We all love her and take care of her, and after being asked multiple times, the kids pitch in to do their share, just as long as after I go in and have a talk with them I shut their door, and “Can you get Bella out of here?”

Bella sleeps in the bed with me, with her head on the other pillow. I hope that when I find my next boyfriend he likes to sleep curled up at the foot of the bed. Bella also goes with me to the bathroom and stares at me the entire time, which seemed odd until I realized I do the same to her. She must have learned this by watching me. She also watches me exercise, occasionally trotting over to stick her nose in my face, are you dying? We go for long walks on the beach and enjoy fine dining.

Bella thinks I am smart, capable, and has the mistaken impression that I am in charge, something my kids have never been naïve enough to believe.

Yoga buddy.

Homeschool

I have never had any illusions that I would be capable of homeschooling my children. I have enough difficulty just getting my kids to school – the waking up, getting dressed, getting them into the car, and then out of the car (a clutch part of the process) – keeps me completely maxed out on parenting. I can barely get my kids to brush their teeth, so I have never considered that I might be able to get them to graph equations or to log into Google Classroom and just do the welcome video. After I gave birth to my first kid, and we brought him home and realized all that was involved with that situation, my kids’ father quickly mapped out a timeline counting down the days until he started school. T-minus 35,000 hours.

I have often struggled to relate to homeschool parents. For starters, they choose to spend time with their kids when there is help out there for free, in most places the school will even come pick your kid up from right near your house. I have thought that maybe, okay, if I live on a prairie or on some kind of ranch and the closest school is 50 miles away, well then, I guess I will be driving 100 miles per day to take them to that school.

I lash out at the idea of homeschooling because I am projecting my own shame about how these parents can actually get their kids to sit at a table and do work for more than thirty minutes, and it is probably because the parents have some sort of discipline of their own. They can also sit at a table and work for more than 30 minutes. Perhaps these are the types of parents who actually completed their science fair projects. Even if I got some bread to grow mold (or just found some in the pantry), completing the backboard in addition to that was just too many steps. One year I completely forgot about the science fair until I got to school and saw all these kids and parents toting large backdrops, papier-mâché volcanoes, and glass jars of crystals. Oh shit. I told my teacher I tried to hatch baby chicks but they all died.

I am also assuming homeschool parents do not enable their kids with electronics like its crack so they can have time to themselves for recreational activities like folding laundry or doing the dishes. I have been a single parent since my youngest started kindergarten – I guess the marriage was also part of the timeline – so I often make parenting choices that are based on making my life easier. I use electronics as baby sitters, and I am not ashamed. Now my kids are in middle school and they are still alive, so I feel like the evidence is there that this is completely fine.

My daughter spends most of her time watching feminist videos, so that at age eleven she notices things like gender bias in school dress codes, and she recites lines she memorized from spoken word poetry videos, “Somewhere in America a child is holding a copy of Cather in the Rye in one hand and a gun in the other and only one of those things is banned by his state government.” My son spits out facts about World War II like he is a boomer with a pipe in a walnut library. He makes references to events happening in the Middle East that I do not understand. Of course, also, my kids go to school.

Or they used to. Now they are stuck at home with me. Their teachers are still preparing all the assignments and doing all the grading. I am not homeschooling. I am just in charge of making sure they have access to Wi-Fi and they get their assignments done. We are failing at that by the way. The Wi-Fi isn’t the problem. It is definitely human error. My best skill in this new role of running an entire school, except that I am not doing any of the actual curriculum preparation or assessment, is as the lunch lady. I am great at making lunch. For two kids.

I have never questioned the value of our educators. I cannot do what they do. All of the teachers we have had also know this. My parent teacher conferences usually involve teachers using a lot of sentences that start with, “Well, have you tried . . . ?“  At some point we will look back at this and my kids will laugh about when mom had to try to (not even actually) homeschool them. Unfortunately, they will not be able to use this hardship for their college entrance essays because every kid in America is in the same situation, so they will have to dig deep to find some other obstacle to write about. I think they will be able to come up with something.

Homeschool

None of my students have shown up yet.

Yes, I Like Piña Coladas

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, like when you think you found a roly poly, but it turns out to be just a bug. Or when you think the air conditioner repairman is flirting with you, but he is really just asking if your air conditioner is working properly because that is his job. Or when you answer a personal ad because YES, you like piña coladas, and then you get to the restaurant and it is the guy you are already dating, which is a real let down for multiple reasons, all related to the fact that it is the guy you are already dating.

If you watch television, then you might think getting your kids ready for school is just about leaning against the kitchen counter with a smile while your kid gets a pep talk from his Frosted Mini-Wheats. The morning routine in our house involves very little smiling and almost no nutrition, but is instead a rigorous process of pressing the snooze button and crying. Once I get the kids out of bed it gets even worse. With my daughter, the mornings start out like the movie Weekend at Bernie’s, except without the white sand beaches and the witty side kick. It is just me trying to dress and feed a completely limp body, dragging her around the house as her legs leave a trail on the dusty floor. Then I try to brush her hair, and it rapidly turns into a scene from the Exorcist.

We have thick hair in my family. When I was a child, I remember fighting with my mother about brushing my hair, and I also remember getting large knots cut out from deep inside the layers where there was probably a family of larks living and making a nest. I once had a bird chase me down the street, swooping and diving at my head because she thought she found a nest-making jackpot, just walking down the street, completely unguarded by predators. Getting my daughter’s hair brushed is the most important part of our morning in the sense that people will actually notice if it is not brushed. Nobody will know that she had a Sprite Zero for breakfast, but they will see that her hair looks like she was recently involved in a shipwreck.

I also have a son. He gets dressed by himself and is mostly self sufficient, but he complains from the moment he wakes up about the atrocity of school. He usually flings himself back onto my bed just moaning as I try to choose an outfit from my slutty professional collection. As I put on my make-up he has usually slid to the floor and is lying on the carpet telling me about how recess is only ten minutes long, no actually five minutes, actually now that he thinks about it, they have not even had recess in twenty days.

Right now we are at the end of the summer and preparing to go back to school. It is that time of year when the denial phase is waning, and I am entering into the chugging piña coladas phase. I do have some mixed emotions about back to school because there is the joy that comes from knowing my children are embarking on another year of learning and growing in the care of qualified strangers, but then there is also the fact that I am a teacher, and soon I will have to pry the piña colada out of my sunburnt hand and put on a slightly more appropriate outfit and get back to work.

I have a lot of expectations for this year about getting up earlier in the morning, being a more organized professional, being a better mother, and most importantly finally finishing the entire series of Sons of Anarchy on Netflix. But life is full of surprises. How could you ever know that the woman you have been with for years and who seems like a total bore really does like making love at midnight in the dunes of a cape, unless you run a personal ad and try to cheat on her with someone else? And it is probably best that I am not playing out my fantasy of hot sex with the air conditioner repairman with the actual air conditioner repairman (it should obviously be someone who is not an air conditioner repairman but has played one on TV), and roly polies are fascinating but frighten easily, just like my ex-boyfriend.

As I try not to let the stress of the arrival of another school year swallow me whole—by firing up the blender one last time—I try to remember that we all survived the last school year. Also there is therapy. And maybe the reason I haven’t finished Sons of Anarchy is less about my ability to finish things and more about the fact that I don’t like all the misogyny and the murder and the leather vests.

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Precious Cargo

Whenever I see a headline about somebody who drove their car full of kids into a lake or some other body of water, I never wonder what could possibly compel them to do that. Every time I drive with the kids and I do not end up in a large body of water I take it as a small miracle or as a really terrific coincidence. Most of the time, driving around with my two kids reminds me of that scene in Tommy Boy where the dead deer in the backseat wakes up and thrashes around the car, kicking out windows and sticking his horns through the soft top, except the deer yells, “Mom!” and then tattles on his sister.

I have tried telling the kids, “Don’t make me pull over!” because I have seen that on television, but none of us really knows how that will help. I think the point is that I would pull over on the side of the road and beat my kids into submission, but I feel like that is frowned upon and that I would eventually regret it. I have considered pulling over and just getting out and hitching a ride that is less taxing for me, like with an old blind lady in a Cadillac or with a middle aged white guy with a mustache driving a van with blacked out windows and an axe in the passenger seat, but I never make it more than a few feet away from our parked car. I have found myself a couple of times standing alone in an abandoned parking lot while the kids press their little faces to the window and watch me, knowing very well that I have no clue where this is headed. Realizing their mom might really have gone crazy is the one thing that seems to bring them together. They aren’t stupid, so I think they clearly understand my value, which is that I am the only one of us who has a driver’s license.

Raising kids is hard. And like wild animals, it becomes even more difficult when we choose to bring them inside, especially if they have siblings. My kids sometimes get along. They know how to make each other laugh, probably more than anyone else, and when I hear them giggling uncontrollably in the other room, I start to think that maybe I should keep them both. Their animosity comes from the fact that they are fighting for the same resources. Space in our house. My love and affection. Food. My daughter gets frustrated by the sound of her brother’s voice and for once in her life she would like to listen to “All about That Bass” without him talking through the entire song. My son thinks his sister is a great target for Nerf darts. Neither has any interest in sharing their popcorn. Not one single kernel. I tell them that deep down they really love each other and they assure me that is not true and then they lunge at each other the way a cheetah might lunge at a tiger who has just eaten her cubs or at least just turned off the bathroom light while she was obviously still in the bath tub.

Putting them together in a car is not a great idea. For several years I drove a minivan, which was basically just a DVD player on wheels, and something about the padded headphones and the fact that my son, sitting in the back row, was so far away from me that even though I could see his mouth moving in the rearview, I could not hear him. “Sorry buddy,” I would say as I pointed to my ears and shrugged, turning up the radio. After I got divorced, I traded in the van for a crossover SUV, which more accurately represents my current lifestyle by making the statement that I am almost 40, and I buy a lot of groceries. Once I got the new car, the kids had to learn how to be human in a motor vehicle again. “You just look out the window,” I tell them. They also have to sit on the same row with only a leather arm rest with two cup holders between them, taking turns using the IPOD and Kindle.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I sat three across (best case scenario) in a 1984 Honda Accord, and on long road trips we had to ride in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top. Our travel plans never included layovers at roadside motels, instead we traveled like refugees, leaving at odd hours and sleeping in rest area parking lots, eating what seemed like at the time as one meal every few days. We did not have movies to watch—we only had three to five Cabbage Patch Dolls per person and some am/fm walk-mans that we could occasionally tune to a static version of Eddie Murphy’s “Party all the Time.” The truck had one of those tiny windows between us and the cab that locked from the inside. If we wanted to talk our parents, we had to knock on the window. Sometimes they would open it, but more often they just made a series of unproductive gestures and then shrugged as if there was nothing they could do.

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Parenting Wins

The single most difficult moment in parenting happens right after your kid draws the gingerbread man card in Candy Land. When my son was little he would sob uncontrollably, and I would have to spend my entire afternoon rocking him to calm him down. My daughter just screams and then sweeps everything off the board like she is Godzilla terrorizing a sleepy fishing village. I have considered removing that card, but then I feel like I would be cheating them of a valuable lesson. Also, it keeps me from dying of boredom while playing.  As my kids near the candy castle, I wince each time they draw a new card, and then let out a sigh of relief when the card is a single orange square. When I draw the gingerbread man, I exaggerate how accepting I am of my fate. I shrug my shoulders and say that it is just part of the game, “Oh well. I can still catch up, or whatever, King Kandy is not really my type.” It is very similar to the way I act when someone dumps me. “I totally understand. Good decision. There are still a few good years left before I just give up, move to Florida, and become a crack whore.”

A similar parenting danger zone is when we play a game and I win. This happens all the time because I am smart and great at games. Also I am 39. When my son was little I took him to a child therapist because he was so competitive and would get crazy mad whenever he lost. She played a game of Uno with him while I watched. She let him win. “Oh,” I said.

When I was growing up my mom never let me win, and we weren’t playing games like Candy Land or Uno. We were playing Spades and Gin. She knew every card that had been played and what was still left in both of our hands. “You know the Ace hasn’t been played yet, right?” She would say. No, I did not know that because I was five. After my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I played a game of Gin Rummy with her and my mom. It was my mom’s idea, and I was not sure it was a great idea because my grandmother had spent most of the afternoon telling me to get the baby out of the bathtub, which was terrifying until I remembered we did not have a baby. My grandmother won, and then she lit a cigarette and fell asleep in her chair.

After you have survived watching your children deal with the pain of being a loser, everything else in parenting is easy, as long as you can get a good night’s sleep, which is never going to happen. Before you have a baby, people warn you about the sleep deprivation. I don’t blame them. It is sort of like if your friend survives climbing Mount Everest, and you mention that you are planning to attempt a similar quest, he doesn’t just say, “Meh. No biggie.” He shares his experience to prepare you for the physical and mental challenges. Maybe the impetus to share is based a little more on bragging than sincere concern for your well-being, and maybe he is a little bit of a condescending asshole, but he survived, and he earned it. However, what people do not tell you is that you may never actually sleep through the night again, the way someone who recently climbed Everest might not mention that there is not actually a bar with tank top wearing models serving ice cold Coors Light at the top.

Yes, sleeping with a newborn is tough, but as kids grow they just continually reach new milestones that interrupt your sleep. There is the crawling out of the crib stage, the bed-wetting stage, the scared of the dark phase, and then there is the stage after your kid learns about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, and she is too terrified to sleep, or you really slip in the parental control department and your kid watches The Hangover 2 and has nightmares about one crazy night in Bangkok. Then apparently there is the stage where you don’t sleep because your kid is out driving around doing all the things you definitely did while driving around as a teenager, and you question how you could get that lucky twice.

In my house, we are currently in the nightmares and fear of abandonment stage. Earlier this week both my kids were in my bed in the middle of the night, like a couple of 50-pound newborn babies. My son had a bad dream. He said, “You know the conductor from Dinosaur Train?”

“Say no more,” I said.

My daughter whimpered in the background, “I can only sleep if I am with someone.”

“Say no more.”

I led them back to their rooms and spent time passed out in each of their beds. We all switched places multiple times, our three paths crossing up and down the hall like our own little disoriented trail of tears—mainly mine. Finally, as my daughter stood in the hallway holding her blanket, sucking her thumb, I just got up and shut my door. In her face. I found her the next morning in her brother’s room. There will come a time when I am no longer around, and they will have to take care of each other, and maybe that time is 3 a.m.

The next day I was tired, but that is just the parenting new normal. Maybe we will get through this stage soon, but there is just another one gearing up right behind it. I remember when my daughter used to bite people, mainly adorable little babies. She would grab their cheeks and then just go in for the kill. When she was in preschool they moved her up to an older age group class because those kids were better able to defend themselves. I told everyone she was just really advanced. I tried a lot of different methods to get her to stop: I removed her from the situation, I bit her back, and then I even resorted to something I like to call “deliberate ignoring.” This is my favorite style of parenting where I just pretend like nothing is happening. I like to think that it keeps the kids from getting attention from bad behavior, but also I am pretty lazy. Eventually she stopped biting, and we moved into a new difficult phase. I know that eventually my kids will not care about winning Candy Land. They will move onto bigger and better games, and it will be even more exhilarating for me when I win.

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Sleep Like a Baby

There is one major challenge that I face each day: putting the kids to bed. I look forward to it because sometimes that is the only chance I get to spend quality time with them just reading a book or talking, and because once they are asleep then I can relax on the couch with a bottle of champagne and binge watch episodes of Weeds on Netflix. With my daughter, I have battled the bedtime ritual since she first crawled out of her crib at fourteen months old. I remember finding her standing in the hall and then closing and frantically rubbing my eyes, hoping that when I opened them again she would be gone, but it didn’t work. She was real. She was out. She was awake. That was five years ago. She has only gotten stronger and more determined since, while I am only getting lazier and more decrepit. My daughter will use any excuse she can think of to get out of her bed. She has to go to the bathroom. She heard a noise. She had a nightmare. I walk her back to her room, tuck her into the covers, and whisper, “You can’t have a nightmare until you actually go to sleep.”

If they offered an advanced degree in effectively and easily putting children to bed, I would enroll immediately, even if working towards the degree took years of intense training and cost millions of dollars in tuition. They don’t offer this degree, though, for the same reason they don’t offer degrees in time travel or relating to your mother-in-law because these skills cannot be taught. Nobody knows how to do this—or if it is even possible—even people who have kids that go to bed easily and on command are probably just lucky enough to have kids with severe narcolepsy. I can see this as a trait we could pick from a genetic menu. I would like a male child with blue eyes, a high IQ, and a sleep disorder. If you are still trying to find the perfect mate for procreation and you find someone who falls asleep during your first dinner date and then sleeps for eight to ten hours straight, you should never let that person go. Especially if you are a woman because once you have kids many men develop sleep disorders anyway, so you might as well cash in on the congenital version and get your money’s worth. If you do not have children and you have a male partner who bolts awake ready to protect and serve when a branch falls on the soft grass three houses down, you will be constantly surprised at how he can so easily sleep through a child screaming in the room right down the hall.

Being a parent, it seems completely normal to hear footsteps running towards my room in the middle of the night. It is also normal to wake up and find someone standing next to the bed staring at me. If I woke up and there was a murderer in my room instead of one of my kids, I would probably be relieved. That would be a lot less work for me. My kids need me to be in charge, even at three a.m. They wet their bed. They are afraid of zombies. They can only go back to sleep while kicking me in the spleen. Most of my overnight parenting involves me acting really annoyed. My son will come in crying and shivering to tell me he peed in the bed, and I will just make a loud huffy sigh. Then I wander into his room, like a blind drunk person, and he follows me. I throw him some dry underwear and somehow change his sheets without really opening either of my eyes. Then I grab his shoulders, lead him back to his bed, push him towards a sleeping position, pull the sheets up, and wander back to my room. Then I suddenly feel wide awake, and I lay there for the next three hours worrying about whether or not I wrote down that we are out of soy sauce on my grocery list—all the way in the other room.

At the exact second that I drift back to sleep, my daughter dashes in and crawls over me, kneeing me in the face. Right when we both get resituated, she asks if I can get her some milk. “No,” I say with my eyes still closed. Then she starts to cry about how she is so thirsty. “Fine!” I scream. At night I am like the DMV clerk of parenting. I am not being paid enough to pretend like I want to be there. Then when I get back with her milk, she is sound asleep and has completely taken over my spot in the bed. I try to slide her over, but she is like a body of water, always taking up whatever space is presented.  The more I push her away the more she somehow spreads out so I have even less room available than I started with. I just lay down in the two inch space she left on the edge, propped up on my side like a two-by-four. I sigh loudly and then the alarm goes off.

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Fantasy

This week for a bedtime story my son and I read Rocks and Minerals, and I learned everything I know about rocks and minerals from that book. Why wouldn’t the rock with the black spots be called a Dalmatian? I totally buy it. With my daughter I read a book called Forever After which includes four stories about Disney princesses and answers the question that has been lingering on all our minds since the happy couples kissed at the alter and the screen filled with hearts: how did they plan their weddings?

These weddings didn’t just happen sans adversity. Happily ever after might mean weaving the queen’s pearls into your veil because the weight of them around your neck was too heavy, sort of like chains. It might mean surprising your former dog-beast prince by inviting all the villagers to the reception to show him that he is loved, now that he is not a drooling, maniacal killer and because you are now his emotional support princess. Maybe, if you are the only black princess, it means catering your own wedding by cooking gumbo for all your guests.

I read with skepticism (and occasional eye rolling). I know too much. Usually my voice trails off at the last line of each story, “Cinderella had the wedding of her dreams,” and I close the book, letting out a sigh and putting up my middle finger. I still read her the book, though. I know it is wrong, and I should teach her to be offended, but those tiny-footed princesses make her smile. It is sort of like when a creepy meth addict calls out from behind a garbage can lid, “Nice tits,” and I am outwardly offended, but inwardly quite flattered as I look down and whisper, “Thanks for noticing, man.”  Then the rest of the day I have unrealistically high self-esteem.

Princesses get to be pretty and wear fancy dresses, and they have pure hearts, and they get to use all the animals as their personal servants, and they don’t have to date. They don’t have to check their phone every thirty seconds to see if he called, when they know damn well that he didn’t because he is too busy boning a peasant. The first guy a princess meets is eternally devoted and devoid of personality, unless he is a monster who imprisons her, or a lying thief, or a womanizing frog, but she can change him. She must. She is stuck with him either way. The end!

The Disney dudes are all just versions of Ken with different colored plastic hair. I was not into the princesses as a girl because they were too puritanical for me, but I loved playing with Barbie. Ken was usually just lying on the floor, face down and naked. I liked to do Barbie’s hair, and by “do” I mean that I cut her hair and tried to give her bangs, which never worked, but I kept trying with each new Barbie I received or that was left momentarily unattended by one of my sisters. I also liked to set up Barbie’s house with beds made out of maxi-pads.

For little girls, playing with dolls and watching or reading about princesses is tied up with the fantasy of being an adult. For me, being a big girl was about having killer bangs and a really absorbent bed. I have not yet made either of those fantasies a reality. My daughter is fascinated with weddings and brides. Her favorite princess is Ariel, who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams-slash-the first and only human she has ever met. She gets her voice back, but then she has to change species in order to get married. I feel like there are some major issues here that I need to address with my daughter. For starters, I will tell her that she should never give up her voice under any circumstances, and second there are plenty of fish in the actual sea who will love her just the way she is.

I still read my daughter the books. I let her adore the princesses, mainly because I know she is smart enough to enjoy them without being consumed. I am going to tell her that if she ever decides to get married, she should consider eloping. Not because it is easier, but because it will be a good barometer for how she feels about the marriage itself. Does she still think it is worth it without the big white gown and party? Maybe even more controversially, I will tell her that she doesn’t have to get married at all. (Gasp! Tiny princess hands rise to cover tiny rosebud mouths. “Mouse! Get me a paper bag! I need to hyperventilate.”) I will tell her that she doesn’t need to be rescued. I will tell her that she should not have to change herself or the person she loves to find true love. I will also tell her to avoid cursed men who attempt to trap her in a dark, damp castle filled with talking, singing dishes. Then I will tell her that she is a beautiful princess as I brush her hair with a fork.

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Muse

A good friend recently asked me how I get inspired to write, and I said that I don’t get inspired. I just sit down and start typing. I say things like that because I am a narcissistic asshole.  Secretly there are all sorts of things I do to help me feel creative. For starters, I listen to ridiculously loud music every time I drive my car. My kids scream at me to turn it down. Sometimes they cry about it. Maybe when they start driving they will rebel by listening to light jazz at a barely audible level, like a boring old grandma, but for now they are forced to ride with me. Lately, I have also been really into songs that have the word “motherfucker” in the lyrics. Saying motherfucker is great, but singing it is truly inspiring.

The result is that I love going places. Maybe I can hear one song between my house and the grocery store, but it is enough to recharge me. By the time I hit the produce section I am feeling pretty great about myself. What a bad-ass motherfucker I am picking out this bunch of kale! When I get home and sit down to start typing I remember that feeling, and I get the insane idea that I am putting on some kind of show with my words, even if I am the only one in the audience. I love it when I make myself laugh or, even better, when I make myself uncomfortable. If I cringe, then I know it is good.

I also like to go for long walks, while listening to loud music. When I am on a walk with my headphones, I feel completely transported into the music and into my own imagination. It is an absolute miracle that I have never been hit by a car. Maybe I should start wearing a helmet. Sometimes I will get a great idea, maybe just a line or two, and I will type notes into my phone, while walking and blaring music. When I get back to the house I am all revved up (happy to still be alive), and I scroll through my notes and try to craft something from the scraps. Sometimes the notes are abstract, and I don’t know how they connect, for instance right now I have a note that reads, “I saw the Pieta in a moldy porch screen.” Then after that I have a longer reflection:

“You know when you walk through a spider web and then freak out, start swatting your hair, spinning in circles, stomping your feet and screaming, and then you fall to the ground and the spider eats you alive? That is what divorce feels like.”

There is a story there. I can see a thread between seeing something beautiful in an unlikely place and the discomfort and fear that comes with getting divorced. But I also have to make it funny. Fuck. Then I scroll down and under the spider web note I see a third entry that says, “I was disappointed there were no good looking guys in my mandatory divorce class.” Somehow the pieces start to pull themselves together like magnets. If I say that I just sit down and start typing—as if it is that easy—then it is only because every other minute, when I am not writing, I am preparing to write. That is the dirty secret that is too scary to say.

 

Don’t Mind Me (as I write down everything you say)

I have been into lists lately. Sometimes I take notes when my kids say funny shit. I like to think this will not be damaging to them, but who am I kidding? My seven-year-old boy is a serious mix of ambition, angst, and affection. He will definitely have road rage as an adult, but he will also be the first person to reach out for a hug. In the meantime, he makes me laugh. Here are some things I have heard him say recently:

I like Hailey. I would never fart in front of her.

It is a good thing there are squid or else I wouldn’t have anything to hate.

Do we have any Kaboom with Oxi Clean?

If we ever go to war and have to use fruit, we are going with pineapple because if someone threw a grape at me, it wouldn’t really hurt.

Going to bed is my worst enemy.

When we don’t have any Gatorade, which is pretty much every day, then I like to drink water.

But seriously what would happen if there was no sun?

The baby was pooped out, just like mom did to us when we were born.

I also have notes from my five-year-old daughter, and I have thought about writing a list with her comments and asking people to guess who said it, either some old man pervert or my adorable girl. I am pretty sure most people would guess wrong. Here are some of the memorable things she has said to me recently:

Can I touch your boobs?

Girl, get in here and let me see your style!

Those pants make me like you more.

I farted.

When can we have some drinks?

I am pretty sure that when she is older we are going to be great friends.