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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.

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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.

I have been debating whether or not to post this as I want to maintain custody of my children. I’m only half-joking. No judging.

The babysitter hasn’t shown up, the older kids are still in their pajamas, and I am running late. Although I managed to get Henry dressed, he found—and is enlarging—a previously unnoticed rip in his pants while regarding his uneaten breakfast, now congealed and unappetizing. Today is Henry’s first day of preschool; the one I picked based on the school’s reputation (excellent) and proximity to our house (close).

I am feeling a bit apprehensive on his behalf in spite of my confidence in his social skills. After all, until recently, he has attended an all-day daycare, four days a week. He’s a social butterfly—I’ve witnessed it. No, my butterflies must stem from something else. Perhaps my awareness that a responsible parent eases her child through the transition to a new school. Henry missed both of the school-sponsored playdates due to our family’s packed summer schedule. He knows no one and hasn’t even seen his classroom. The closest we came to visiting this school was to look at the outside of the locked building from the inside of our vehicle. Sure, I talked with him about leaving his old daycare and tried to excite him about going somewhere new. But talk is not action. Any anxiety he is now experiencing is my fault. My plan is to make-up for my deficient parenting by spending the morning with him exploring his new space, facilitating conversations with his peers, helping him accept this change that was out of his control.

Of course, things do not always go as planned. Reality dissipates my vision. My choices: 1) Leave Medium and Large seated comfortably in front of the television at home; or 2) Bring Medium and Large with me and allow them to bicker and complain in the school’s parking lot. Neither of these options appeal, but I am out of time.

I hastily run through the list of admonishments: Lock the door behind me; do not answer the phone; do not answer the door; do not operate the stove; do not touch the computer; stay away from the windows; and remember to dial 911 if there is an emergency.

Henry protests that he wants to stay home and watch TV too. Tossing him into the vehicle, I buckle his seatbelt (I am not wholly irresponsible) and then recall that I have forgotten to tell Liam that I will be back in half an hour. I race up the front steps and ring the doorbell. I hear the patter of little feet and then the door is unlocked and opened. “Yes?” Liam asks.

I unthinkingly do a poor imitation of Edward Lewis: “I told you not to open the door.”

“Oh, right,” he says, before slamming the door in my face.

I knock and yell for him to re-open the door. When he does, I tell him not to worry and that I will be right back.

Henry sucks his thumb in the backseat. He clutches Piggy to his nose and inhales what I suspect is the scent of sweaty little boy with undertones of yesterday’s entrees: pizza, peanut butter and banana. He is silent.

Starting the engine, I murmur a brief prayer to whomever might be listening to protect my children from the monsters that hide in plain sight.

My guilt is monstrous. I have never left my children alone in the house before. I know that if my husband did this, I would be furious with him. I try and convince myself that the kids are safe; that I am not a bad mother.

Is it acceptable to assuage one guilt by accepting another?

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