We spent last weekend at my friends’ spacious, five-bedroom house. They have four children who, ranging in age from 3 to 11, sit at the table, eat their dinner, dress themselves, brush their teeth, play independently and play together with a minimum of arguing.
This is my version of Nirvana. I was all the more enthralled by the environment when I saw my own kids’ good behavior here. Granted, my son didn’t sit at the dining table for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, but other than that, my two kids fit right in, playing together harmoniously for hours. When I saw my son put on his own socks without complaint, even when he had to readjust the toe seam several times, I was nothing sort of gleeful. Until that moment I had only been able to comfort myself by thinking, “Surely by the time he goes to college my son will be old enough to go barefoot.”
What struck me most about the experience was how little effort was involved. This might have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting around watching other people do the dishes and pick up lunch while I stared at the remarkably crumb-free floors.
Upon closer analysis I knew this was not at the heart of the matter. What was happening was that, the kids were gainfully occupied with each other and there was enough room for them to play. Furthermore, the play area was not the same room as the TV area, and dining area, and home office/laundry area as it is in our apartment.
It is so much more fun to be a parent when you don’t have to be in the same room as your kids!
Then we came home to our two bedroom apartment.
I put our suitcases in the entry foyer, which is also the home office/TV watching/dining/laundry/play area referenced above and I was struck by the irony: nothing like walking into my “living” room to make we want to kill myself.
Then I learn that my in-laws are coming over for dinner. I open a bottle of wine.
As I anticipate the onslaught of subtle but unmistakable critique of my housewifing ability, I realize that I have been too hard on my poor living room. It’s not fair to judge! My living room is just trying to be too much and to do too much on its own–without any help from any other rooms. The bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathroom–they are just too occupied by their own stuff to be of any assistance. So I resolve to be more tolerant of my living room and to make the best of it.
Meanwhile, my son has found a metal chain belt and is dragging it around wood floor. He drags it across a coloring book my daughter is working on. They start screaming. My in-laws arrive with several bags of new toys.
Over the screams, I hear my husband ask his parents what kind of food they would like us to order:
I brace myself for the following exchange:
My husband: “I was thinking Chinese. But we could also order Mediterranean.”
His Mother: “Oh, I don’ t know what would you guys like.”
Me: Silence. (Knowing already that my husband really wants Chinese, his mother really wants Mediterranean)
Husband: “Well we could do either.”
His mother: “Whatever you want.”
Me: Silence. (Knowing that neither will say what they want directly but hoping instead that the other will correctly intuit the other’s wishes, adopt them as their own, and handily state the others’ intent as their own intent, thereby each getting what they want under the guise of giving the other what they want.)
Husband: Okay how about chinese? Unless you really want mediterranean?
His mother: Chinese is fine but what do you think about mediterranean?
Me: Silence. (Thinking about how, this weekend my friends managed to decide what to eat for lunch in under 30 seconds.)
Husband: Okay. How about Chinese?
His mother: Okay. But maybe mediterranean?
The order is placed. We begin to wait for the food. It is pouring rain. It is going to be a long wait. Made more interminable by the fact that the kids are already screaming for food.
My mother-in-law who is genuinely happy to be home after spending a month with my sister-in-law (her daughter) who just had a baby. “I never realized how overwhelming it was,” she said. What does this even mean? She raised two kids? Does she mean she forgot what it was like? Or she never knew? Anyway, to hear a non-critical remark was refreshing so I guess I should hold off on the over-analysis.
60 minutes later, my children have consumed two yogurts each, a bag of cheez its, and 5 hershey’s kisses that my husband gave to them while I was trying to unpack the suitcases. They have not played any of the educational games my mother-in-law has brought. They have also refused to say hello to her. When she asked my daughter what she wants for her birthday (my daughter’s absolute favorite topic of conversation) my daughter says, mouth full of cookie crumbs, “A big, fat, rainbow, NOTHING!”
I shake my head. My daughter’s rudeness is uncalled for. My mother-in-law means well. And all those educational games, while no match for an episode of Spiderman, are given with the best of intentions.
I change the subject. “So how is the new baby?” I ask, remembering that six-week-old babies are seldom fun.
“Well I told [my daughter] that she better start talking to him or HE IS NEVER GOING TO LEARN TO SPEAK.”
I add, “So was the weather nice when you were out there?”
Before she can answer, we get a call from the doorman. Our Chinese food is here.
His mother: (Incredulously, annoyed, to her son) You ordered Chinese?
Before he can begin an explanation, we get another call from the doorman. Our mediterranean food has arrived.
His mother: (More incredulously, more annoyed.) You ordered Mediterranean too?!
We have dinner. My husband east the chinese food. My mother-in-law eats the mediterranean. And my children eat nothing. At the end of the meal my kids go to bed. And my in-laws go home. As my husband and I sit down to watch TV in the now quiet living/laundry/dining/home office room, I appreciate the joys of a two bedroom apartment that sleeps four (and only four) every night.