In honor of the first day of school, I'm including a snippet from my upcoming novel, which I'm hoping will resonate with anyone who has ever suffered a dysfunctional morning with their school-aged children. (That's everyone, right? Right??) This excerpt may or may not make it into the final version of the book, but I read it to my own children, and--not having mastered the concept of irony--they found it hilarious. Hope you enjoy.
Disclaimer: This certainly would never occur at MY house...
Downstairs, I hurriedly set out bowls, grabbed the milk, and examined the pantry for options with a decided lack of enthusiasm. I normally enjoyed being in the kitchen; it was a pleasant, light-filled room with a rectangular nook enclosing a huge old farm table, and a massive marble-topped island. The children, who were now sitting dispiritedly at the table, voiced their utter disdain of all proposed breakfast items with the exception of doughnuts, which were not allowed on school mornings, and Bisquick pancakes doused in a gallon of syrup, which required actual cooking, and were nutritionally ghastly anyway. I pulled rank and served scrambled eggs, along with Cheerios and milk.
“I hope you can do better than this for lunch,” groused Finn, staring at his egg like it was a pile of vomit.
“Yeah,” seconded Eli, although he was eating his eggs.
Calm parenting. You were supposed to acknowledge their feelings, thus communicating that you accept their personhood. At the same time, you should allow zero tolerance for rudeness, while exhibiting an authoritative but calm demeanor so as not to escalate the battle. No raised voices, no passive-aggressive muttering. Calm.
“I hear you that this is not your favorite breakfast,” I said quietly but firmly. “However, this is what I am serving, and there will be no other food given.”
Finn was investigating his lunchbox. His mouth dropped open in abject horror. “Mom! What is this? You know I don't dig on pretzels!”
Eli backed him up again. “Me neither.”
Now Rowan was butting in. “Mom, we told you that we were sick of turkey sandwiches! You never care what we want.”
In a low pleasant voice, “May I remind everyone that you asked for turkey and pretzels yesterday?”
“No, we didn’t! We hate turkey and pretzels!”
Delaney, whose head was ping-ponging back and forth between her sister and brothers, suddenly threw her plate on the floor and burst into shrieking tears. “I don't like it! I telled you already I don't like it!”
Ed, the golden retriever, trotted in smartly, alerted by the siren call of plastic toddler bowls hitting the ground, and gobbled the egg and cheerios before I could stop him. I grabbed a paper towel to wipe up the milk dripping off the counter, onto the chair, and all over the floor. Calm. A raised voice would only escalate. Calm.
“Delaney, we do not throw food,” I said. “Ever. You need to help wipe this up, and then you will get a new bowl from the drawer.”
“No! I won’t!” Delaney screamed.
Still pleasantly, “Then I’m afraid you will have to stand in the corner.”
“I will not! I will not stand in the corner!”
With a desperately pleasant smile plastered on my face, I wrestled the shrieking, spitting Delaney into the corner, and tried to hold her in place. Zero tolerance; you had to train them the first time it happened that intolerable behavior would be addressed, promptly and without negative emotion. For a person three feet tall, Delaney was shockingly strong. I felt a stream of sweat snake its way down my temple.
Delaney got an arm free and smacked me in the face, still screaming. It actually hurt quite a bit. I was still processing this, fighting the overwhelming temptation to smack back, when Rowan said snippily, “You bring this on yourself, Mom. I bet she’d be better if you fed her something more good.”
I let go of Delaney. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU UNGRATEFUL HORRIBLE CHILDREN?” I screamed, loud enough to hurt my throat. “I HAVE SPENT THE LAST HOUR WAKING YOU UP, MAKING YOUR LUNCHES, FEEDING YOU BREAKFAST, FIXING YOUR HAIR AND GENERALLY TENDING TO YOUR EVERY STUPID NEED, AND ALL YOU DO IS ENDLESSLY COMPLAIN.”
The children stared at me, shocked. It felt good to yell, but I really was hurting my throat, so I continued at slightly lower volume: “You have no idea what it is like to be hungry, to have parents who mistreat you or can’t afford to feed you; you think everything you have appears magically and your slave of a mother will get you more and more and more. Well, I’m done! I’m done!”
The children’s eyes were so wide they looked like they were in the grip of a hyperthyroid storm. There was silence.
Finally: “I’m so sorry, Mommy. I love turkey and pretzels in my lunch. I won’t complain anymore.”
I looked at Rowan with gratitude. Eli and Finn were still silent, but they were nodding metronomically, their eyes locked on me. Delaney, her big eyes still dripping tears, padded over and began stroking my leg, repeating, “It’s okay. It’s okay, sweetie babe,” over and over.
Hmmm. So much for calm parenting. Maybe I could write a book called Volcanic Parenting: The Explosive Method of Intermittent Control. It would probably be a bestseller.
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