I’d already had a minor-league stressful day when I picked my kids up from daycare last Monday evening. Work had been a pain in the ass, the weather was freezing and unpleasant, and the tasks I needed to accomplish were stretching out on my mental to-do list, making the rest of the week seem like it would be bonkers no matter what I did.
I’ve found one of the hardest realities of parenthood is that after “work,” the actual work of parenthood lands at your feet whether you like it or not. And sometimes that work is fulfilling and touching, like television commercials and articles in fluffy magazines would have us believe. Like the other night when my son Milo was falling asleep; he asked to hold my hand and actually said, “I love holding your hand, Mama. And tomorrow I’m going to help you make some pancakes for our family.” And I cried sweet, sentimental tears because I’m a complete wimp when it comes to parenting emotions.
Other nights, though. Other nights are not so sweet. Last Monday was one of the better examples of why people choose not to have children.
Let me start by saying these kinds of nights come out of fucking nowhere. You cannot predict them or plan for them. If I have time, I do small tasks before my children come home from daycare that sometimes make things run more smoothly, like I try to get dinner as close to finished as possible so I don’t need to spend the early evening trying to cook while dealing with two demanding small people. I had done this on Monday, in fact. And, having accurately predicted Milo’s complete refusal to eat the vegetable soup and chickpea salad sandwiches I’d prepared for those of us in the family with normal taste buds, I’d cooked a few ears of corn on the cob for him. Corn on the cob is one of the very few vegetables I can get Milo to eat without cleverly blending them into other foods to make them unrecognizable. Milo is very enthusiastic about corn on the cob. He doesn’t really understand why everyone else in the world doesn’t share his enthusiasm for out-of-season produce.
Unfortunately for Milo, he has a younger brother who wants to do everything Milo does and who will also eat anything. With gusto. When I told Milo he was going to have to share corn with Joey, there was instant refusal. I suggested a few options, which is what you do when you are negotiating with the terrorist that is an angry three-year-old. Could I cut one of the ears of corn in half? No. No this would not be permitted. Could I then, I asked, cut the kernels of corn off a portion of the ear, thus leaving the cob intact for Milo? No, and how dare I even suggest such a thing.
Having failed at negotiation, I then issued an ultimatum. Share the corn or have no corn. Milo, now whimpering and whining in the way that portends a tantrum, reluctantly agreed to share and attempted to facilitate that by pinching tiny bits of corn from the cob and flinging them at his brother. I took the corn away.
Cue complete, utter freakout.
I did what I usually do when a meltdown occurs. I talked quietly, I ignored most of the behavior, and was neutral when I asked him to stop trying to rip my cardigan from my body. My cousin was over for dinner and luckily she’s very relaxed and already likes my kids, so I just asked her to hold the baby, now happily chewing on half a cob of corn like some sloth in a viral video, while I went into another room to deal with Milo. Despite screaming his favorite tantrum phrase: “GO AWAY, MAMA!” several times, Milo followed me around the house while continuing to cry and scream. Eventually the tantrum ended as all tantrums do, with a request for his security blanket and stuffed monkey. It ended faster than many of his other tantrums, so I counted myself lucky. My husband David got home from work. We all went back into the kitchen.
As David disappeared upstairs to change his clothes, I sat the kids at the table and served them both dinner. This included the remaining cob of corn. As I was setting it down in front of Milo, it slid off the child-sized plate and landed on the floor.
Now is maybe a good time to tell you about our terrier, Oreo.
Oreo came into David’s life several years before I did and with a much more troubled past. As a result he remains, for lack of a better word, bitey. He’s also fast on his feet and always lurking near the table when the kids sit down to eat (read: drop) their food. Before I could grab the corn, Oreo was on it. He seized it between his jaws and ran around the far side of the dinner table. Milo screamed. Super loud. I grabbed Oreo by the scruff of his neck. He turned and growled at me. I knew I couldn’t rip the corn from his jaws without him biting me. However, with every minute that the corn stayed clearly in the dog’s mouth, Milo’s frustrated screams got louder.
Some part—or perhaps all parts—of this situation alarmed Joey, who burst into shrieking tears of his own, reaching out his tiny arms and wailing for me to hold him. My cousin attempted to pick him up. He just screamed louder. Milo was still screaming. The dog was still fiercely growling. And now I was yelling for David to get downstairs because he is the only member of the family who can take food out of the dog’s mouth and maybe not have to get stitches as a result.
David appeared; some kind of negotiation/wrestling match happened offstage in the laundry room. David emerged with the corn. Oreo slunk away, disappointed. At this point, the option of saying to our child, “You cannot eat this corn. It was in the dog’s mouth and also on the floor of the laundry room where earlier the cat might have thrown up,” did not ever occur to us. David calmly rinsed the corn off in the sink. At Milo’s request, he buttered it and brought it back to the table. Milo took one bite and resumed wailing. “It’s NOT GOOD!” This helpful critique reminded me that I usually put coconut oil, not butter on his vegetables. The corn was washed for a second time. Coconut oil was applied. The corn was served. Milo took a bite.
“I’m all finished.” He said, hopping down from the table to go watch Busytown Mysteries in the living room. The mangled corn was quickly hustled off the table because there was no way I was letting that dog eat it. I left it on the counter until Milo was in bed. Then I put it in the compost bin. My cousin watched me. “I feel like you should have some kind of ceremony for it,” she said.
Parents often say that parenting is hard, but they wouldn’t trade it for anything. What I think they actually mean is that they wouldn’t trade it permanently. Of course I wouldn’t give up my kids. Living without them, even theoretically, is unfathomable. But would I trade them sometimes? Would I give them back to the universe on short term loan? In exchange for a mellow end to a workday where David and I eat strongly flavored foods in silence while reading novels at the table? Yes. Yes I would.
A colleague of mine who has three children in their twenties was sympathetically listening to my tales of tantrums and sleep disturbance the other day while we waited for the elevator. “You know, I like having older kids,” he mused. “They make dinner for us and text me funny jokes and call me at work to tell me about their university courses. But, yeah, sometimes I’d trade it for one more nap with them small enough to be held in my arms.” I blinked back tears. The elevator arrived.
“But, only for a few minutes,” he clarified as we stepped through the doors. “I’m not ridiculous.”
* * *
Last column I interviewed Lauren Moses-Brettler and she, in turn, recommended her friend Lauren Riot for this column. One Lauren led to another. Getting in touch with new punk parents who I wouldn’t have met otherwise is one of the best things about doing this column. It is so inspiring to hear other parents tell their stories and describe their struggles and triumphs. I’m so glad this second Lauren was willing to share her stories and thoughts with me.
Jennifer:Hey! Who are you?
Lauren:I’m Lauren Riot from Oakland, Calif.
I am a late-diagnosed autistic, and I identify my current occupation as hausfrau, although I do appreciate the resurgence of the term “homemaker.” I’m also a birth worker on hiatus, and a semi-retired Port of Oakland shutstress*. I am transitioning from a time of intense activism to building up my home as an urban farm and adjusting to stability for the first time in my life. I married the lead singer of the band that played my sixteenth birthday party, and we have kind of done it all as a family—poverty, hospital stays, separation, young parenting, getting beat up by the cops in the streets together, supporting each other through major loss. Now we are trying out this new thing where we have a house with eighteen chickens and two goats. We drive a minivan and… wait, am I still even allowed to be in this column?
Jennifer:Who are your kids?
Lauren:Persephone, who is thirteen, is an incredible vocal artist. She really elevates her craft with all the study and work she puts into it. She thinks about things more critically and deeply than anyone I’ve ever met, and I can pretty much guarantee you her politics are better than yours. She also does a killer Miranda Sings impersonation.
Dubhlainn is sixteen months old and focusing heavily on learning American Sign Language. He will try any sign once, but his favorites are his sister’s name sign, and FISH. He has really taken on the role as the heart and gravitational center of the family. It was his impending birth that pushed us all to refocus our family energy inward, nourishing the roots of the tree, so to speak.
Jennifer:How does your background in the punk/underground scene affect your parenting?
Lauren:I guess I would describe my parenting as consensual, child-led, fuck-the-rules parenting. Punk led me to anarchism, even though I was pretty terrible at it for a long time, and that had a big role in shaping the non-hierarchical parenting style I try to have. When my daughter was five, we were discussing how utterly unfair the rules were at a local playground. She paused for a second and said nervously, “Yeah. Fuck the rules.” My reaction in that moment was going to matter to her a lot, and I knew it. I could laugh at how cute it was to see her swearing, but that would show her I didn’t take her seriously. I could chide her for swearing, or tell her rules are rules and we follow them. But that’s not what I’m about and certainly not what I want her to be about. I leaned down, took her hand, and said very seriously, “Yes. Fuck the rules.” We walked the rest of the way, planning how we’d go break all those rules one day when there were no employees there.
I never fit into the regular world, and I never fit into the punk scene, but punk did give me a script to say “fuck the rules” and go my own way. Now my way is alongside kids who I hope do the same.
Jennifer:What quality of yours do you most hope to pass on to your kids?
Lauren:My best quality is a fierce passion for justice and fairness. It makes oppression of anyone so intolerable to me that I can’t not act. I have long seen it in Persephone, and I expect to see it in Dubhlainn too. I take my kids as they come, but for them to be apathetic to the oppression of themselves or others would be very difficult for me.
Jennifer:What music are you most excited that your kids are into?
Lauren:When Persephone was younger, she went to queer-feminist dance punk shows with me a lot. She loved listening to my old music. I really thought all the Spitboy I had played for her in utero was paying off. Then she got into mainstream pop and I had a moment of panic, but it was short lived. Now she has me listening to pop! I love that as she enters her teen years, she can enjoy Broadway show tunes, pop, old R&B, riot grrrl, and political punk. Music sustains her, and I get excited about that in general.
Dubhlainn mostly listens to children’s folk music, which I enjoy too. The fact that he is so young and already quite interested in music is awesome.
Jennifer:Describe the last time your kids made you laugh really hard.
Lauren:We laugh so much in this house, it’s a wonder we get anything done. Almost every night at dinner, the baby gets up to some shenanigans. He likes to pucker up for kiss, draw you in, and then fake you out and laugh when you get close enough for a kiss. Once he gets us all laughing with this trick he moves on to more sophisticated jokes like stealing your fork or bib peek-a-boo.
*Shutstress—It is a nickname I acquired because I did a lot of activism work where we did direct action to shut down the Port of Oakland. Notable times were the Occupy Oakland general strike, Occupy Oakland’s December 12 port shutdown over a longshoremen dispute in Longview, Wash., and then a handful of times with an organization of Oakland port truckers working as independent contractor status under deplorable conditions. –Lauren