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At the grocery store, why are there always five scanners and zero baggers? I’d rather wait a little longer in line, even if I need to play defense in the candy zone and constantly redirect the kids’ attention from the educational headlines: “Improve Your Sex Life With These 10 Tips!”, than be required to bag two weeks worth of groceries myself. It’s not that I’m above bagging; I’m a decent enough bagger (even if I perpetually forget to bring my reusable bags). It’s more that I find it incredibly challenging to organize our stock of go-gurts, goldfish and chicken nuggets while simultaneously riding herd on my herd.

I’m puzzling out how to cram the most groceries into the fewest number of paper bags with Small and Medium shaking the row of but-they-only-cost-a-quarter! toys 20 feet away when the laconic teenager says, “S’that your bread?”

There, at the wrong end of the conveyor belt, is my bread. “Yes,” I tell her. “That’s mine.”

“You want it?” she asks.

We stare at one another. My blood is rushing through my veins so quickly my heartbeat has to be audible. I stomp around to the other end of the checkout, nudge the bread onto the belt, return to my unwanted post and resume bagging.

Again, goth girl stops scanning. “Got ID for the wine?”

Again, we stare at one another. I reach for my purse. Except it’s on the other side of the cashier’s station. The side where the customers are supposed to stand. I put an overly full bag in the cart and scrabble around for my driver’s license.

Once upon a time, I was flattered when I was asked to show ID. Now, I’m just irritated. Someday, my testiness is going to get the better of me and an unwitting cashier is going to get an earful of: Are you blind? Can’t you see how old my children are? I’m not wearing any makeup, I haven’t showered in days and I have thirty minutes to get home and everyone fed before T-ball, so please, don’t delay me any longer! As it is, if I didn’t have to bag my own damn groceries, I’d open that screw-top bottle right here and start chugging!

Oh. Now I understand the dearth of baggers.

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There’s a reason that Victorian-era parents made their children eat in the kitchen with the governess instead of in the dining room with the rest of the family. Maybe it was because children are loud and interruptive. Or maybe those parents didn’t want half-chewed bits of food smooshed into their carpets. There might even have been a few families who wanted to complete a conversation with their spouses rather than have half a dozen failed starts: “You’ll never guess who I ran into today…yes, I heard you say you wanted ketchup.” “The funniest thing happened at work…be careful with that knife! You’re going to cut yourself.” “Did you read that article in the Times this morning? People are saying…will you please stop bothering your sister? And would you like to explain why you’re out of your seat?”

“Experts” tell us that Family Dinner is the most important ritual we can establish for our kids. Indeed. Well. They do not live in my house.

Dinner-time for our clan is chaotic. Adding to the ebb and flow of our non-starting adult conversations are the kid interjections and announcements: “You forgot to pack a snack for me today.” “My pants are wet.” “I don’t like this.” “Stop talking, I’m talking!” And the attempts at family conversation: “How was school today?” “I had a great day!” “Yes, we’ll talk about your day in a moment, but I was talking to your sister.” “Why don’t you like this?” “I just don’t. Can I have dessert?”

I prepare mostly healthful meals; the kids eat mainly bread and butter. I can guarantee they’ll eat only if I serve chicken nuggets, spaghetti with meatballs on the side (no sauce), pizza, or hot dogs (no buns) with french fries. If they discover that I am making something to expand their pea-sized palates such as Caribbean lentil stew or even vegetarian lasagna, they’ll load up on afternoon snacks and whine through our meal. I tend to wine through these meals, too. Red works better than white.

The other night, Small wandered into the kitchen while I was chopping onions and mushrooms for chicken marsala. “Ugh,” he exclaimed. “Can’t we have chicken nuggets?”

I decided then and there that I was done with the clamor for compressed poultry products. “No! You will eat what is put in front of you. I am not a short-order cook and this is not a democracy.”

Large took up the fallen standard for his brother. “Actually, it is.”

“Not in this family, it isn’t.” I chopped fungus with vigor.

“Well, then that’s communism and you’re a dictator. Revolution, guys!”

“Rev-o-lu-tion, rev-o-lu-tion, rev-o-lu-tion…” The three of them crowded around me, chanting.

Victorian-era parents managed to eat a hot dinner in peace. If only I had a time machine.

I’d put the kids in it.

Last week, I went to the “Welcome to Kindergarten” meeting that our elementary school puts on for parents of incoming kindergartners. When the principal asked parents to raise their hands if they were sending a child to kindergarten for the first time, more than half the people in the room had air in their armpits. When he asked for a showing of second-time kindergarten parents, the rest of the room responded. My battle-scarred, oven-burned, cuticle-gnawed hand waved alone when the principal asked for third-timers. I felt like a grizzled veteran.

image from autoevolution.com

Five minutes into the presentation, a young woman slipped into my row with her small son. I smiled at her and nodded when she asked if the seats next to me were open. She sat down. Her son scampered away to play. I have a surprisingly high tolerance for children when a) I don’t know them, b) I have absolutely no responsibility for them, and c) they aren’t close to my person. So, when he started rolling his monster truck across the linoleum ten feet away from us, it didn’t bother me a bit. It bothered his mother.

When my kids do something in public that embarrasses or otherwise annoys me, they get the Mommy Glare. It’s a freeze-you-in-your-tracks look that can be thrown over great distances such as across a crowded cafeteria or it can be focused like a laser beam such as when employed in a restaurant or a church pew. My Mommy Glare is given with a furrowed brow, gritted teeth and cement-lips. It is normally followed by a just-wait-until-we-get-home speech. I won’t guess at its rate of effectiveness since I use it, regardless of its efficacy, 100% of the time.

The mom next to me fidgeted in her seat, sighing. Here it comes, I thought. Instead, she did something surprising: she leaned forward and smiled. She held this position until her child looked over at her. When he did, she wagged her finger at him while shaking her head and mouthing, “No, no, no.”

The little boy paused before he shrugged and resumed his monster truck rolling.

I stopped listening to the principal so that I could concentrate on watching this woman without appearing to watch her.

Where was her Mommy Glare? Why wasn’t she springing out of her seat? Which Mommy tactic would she pull from her toolbox?

Without taking her eyes from her son, she waited for him to look at her again. When he did, she smiled and crooked her finger at him. He picked up his truck and walked over to her slowly. She continued to smile benevolently. I waited for her to rip off her mask but the moment never came. When he reached her, she whispered in his ear and kissed the top of his head. He rolled his monster truck on the palm of his hand and leaned into her.

I tried not to gape.

I’ve thought about this mom many nights since. I wish I had her patience. I wish I was quicker to smile and less quick to scold. I wish it wouldn’t bother me when my crazy–as it inevitably does–shows.

When I first started blogging (lo, twenty-one moons ago!) I posted about how quickly women – and particularly moms – judge one another. What I didn’t mention is how harshly we judge ourselves.

Piggy is our family’s mascot and Small’s near constant companion. She has become so threadbare that I fear it will not be long before Small literally loves her to pieces. I have patched her, re-stuffed her, and darned her to the best of my abilities. When I am outside of Small’s hearing, I refer to her as “Frankenpig.” I’m quite sure Piggy doesn’t mind; she cares only for her kid.

A couple of weeks ago, Medium went to Disney World. Without us. She didn’t go alone (obviously) but she wasn’t with any of her immediate family members. She accompanied our friends and their seven-year-old son, A, who are friends-like-family or “framily” to us. (See how I can make up words just like the media? Brangelina, what?) According to her own and eye-witness reports, Medium had a ball and hardly missed us. It’s possible that she didn’t miss us at all but I’m unwilling to consider that because I missed her terribly and couldn’t wait for her to come home.

We live about four hours from Boston, and she flew in and out of Logan International Airport. The day before she was scheduled to return, my husband and I drove to Beantown with the boys and painted the town Piggy-pink. We hit Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, the Boston Museum of Science, Harvard Square and the Hilton Boston Financial District. We rode the “T” multiple times, much to Small’s delight, and listened to a lecture on rockets given by MIT students. We also terrorized the staff at the Harvard Coop Bookstore but there’s no photographic evidence and some things are better left unsaid.

I put together a short movie of our trip as much to document our family’s experience as to record Small’s first love. Music is “Fall Creek” by Bill Hammond downloaded via freesologuitar.com. Enjoy!

Piggy’s Adventures in Beantown from OINKtales on Vimeo.

There are so many things I ought to be doing now, but instead of tackling any of those MUST-DOs, I am sitting at the computer, writing, which is a decided NICE-TO-DO. Writing eases my mind; it puts order to the chaos. When I am stressed or even just busy, I make lists. I feel a ridiculously deep sense of satisfaction when I cross items off a list. Done. Done. Finis.

I am trying to get Large to embrace list-making as a way to manage his anxieties but so far, it’s not working.

He’s ten and a half years old. He is a smart, funny, socially-aware kid. He loves to read, tell stories (replete with sound-effects!), sing, dance, and do anything technology related. He is also a tougher critic of himself than anyone ever could be, including me. And I’m no picnic.

Every mother wants success and happiness for her child. But what I’ve come to realize is something I’ve known all along: Wanting isn’t enough. We can’t just want for our children to grow up and become confident, well-adjusted, compassionate adults. We have to actively help them get there. It’s what we do, as mothers – as parents – that counts, if not now, then later on.

Being a parent is often mind-numbing. The stalling. The bickering. The whining. The slammed doors and the I-hate-yous. I am far from being a perfect mother (or wife, but that’s another post) and I am embarrassed to admit how frequently I delve into my fiction cocoon or retreat onto the internet rather than engage, comment and interact with my offspring. Even so, I hold fast to the belief that good parenting is a cumulative process. Consider the little things parents do every day, even when our patience is spread as thin as peanut butter on a piece of Weight-Watchers’ toast. The gentle reminders. The sit-and-do-your-homework speeches. The pep-talks. The these-are-the-consequences dictums. The smiles and hugs and cuddles. The I’m sorrys. The I’m proud of yous.

God, I hope I’m right.

Liam, every one of us learned to walk one step at a time. The luckiest of us had someone’s hand to hold onto. Your family loves you! Don’t ever forget it.

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