Sunday, September 2, 2007

Truth or Consequences

"What if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would break open."

--Muriel Rukeyser

Last night at dinner, Danielle told us about an old friend from high school who recently got in touch with her via e-mail. The first couple of exchanges were bright and cheerful. Life? Wonderful! Kids? Perfect. And then Danielle made the daring confession that her life was in fact is not always wonderful. Her children are in fact not perfect. She herself may be somewhat flawed as a parent and a human being.

Her friend wrote back along the lines of "Thank God!" and "Me, too!"

Isn't it a relief when someone tells the truth about her life? Because then you get to tell the truth, too. And you know you're not alone when it comes to having a flawed, problematic existence. It's nice not to be alone.

Of course, there will be times when you tell someone the truth and they reject you for it. They look at you like you're an alien because you've admitted that your child has some issues about bed-wetting or nose-picking ("Does Lester wipe mucus on his walls, too?" you ask oh-so-innocently, only to receive a cold stare in reply).

Now, frankly, I don't trust my fellow moms who can't give it up when it comes to admitting her child does strange things. Because as a mother and a former strange child myself, I'm of the opinion that most children, especially those under the age of six, are stark, raving mad. They engage in so much antisocial behavior it's amazing we don't institutionalize them until they can prove they're capable of going out in public without showing off their new Star Wars underwear to complete strangers.

Conversely, I owe a debt of gratitude to every human being in my life, male or female, who has made such daring confessions as sometimes their kids drive them so crazy, they have to lock themselves in their rooms for ten minutes just so they won't do something they'll regret later. I am grateful for every "me, too" I've gotten in response to some shameful admission on my part. I'm doubly grateful for every "Oh, you think you're an awful parent? I can top that easy."

The other day I read a blog where the writer said, "I never yell at my children. They're little for such a short time, and I want their childhoods to be happy."

Confession: Sometimes I yell at my kids so hard and so loud, it makes my throat hurt.

I've been meaning to mention a book I read recently called Dinner with Dad by Cameron Stracher. I picked it up at the library, thinking it would be a browser--a book I brought home and read a few pages of it before moving onto something else. But in fact, it was a keeper. There are a lot of reasons I'd recommend it: it's funny, it's well-written, and most of all, Stracher nails the life of the middle class, overeducated, overbusy suburban parent.

Here's the gist of it: Stracher is a law professor and a practicing lawyer who travels frequently. He commutes to Manhattan from Connecticut and often doesn't come home until after his children are in bed. One day it hits him: he's missing his children's lives. In fact, his family seems to be functioning completely separately from him.

So he makes a change in his life: he pledges that he will be home for dinner five nights a week; and on most of those nights he'll cook. He quits one job, works from home some of the time, tries hard to get home on time on days when he has to go into the city.

So you're expecting a heartwarming tale of a dad reunited with his family, happy dinnertimes filled with good food and lots of laughter. What you get instead is real life. A son who's a picky eater, a daughter who loves pasta with butter one night, hates it the next. Stracher works hard to make delicious meals and is constantly rejected. He gets mad. He yells. He stresses everybody out. His wife starts to complain about too much togetherness.

What I love about this book is Stracher's honesty about himself. At one point he writes, "Could it be that in trying to change my life I have accentuated the flaws I was trying to change? Before I started making dinner I was impatient, moody, and unavailable. Now I am impatient, moody, and available."

A little later he writes,

Instead of exercising patience with my daughter, her whining sets my teeth on edge, like nails across a blackboard. When she spills water at the table I take her to task for her clumsiness. When she leaves her markers uncapped, I make a show of tossing them into the garbage, even though they could probably be revived with a little water and a good recapping. I buy her a three-dollar bracelet, which she loses, and I give her a stern lecture about treating gifts with respect.

I am, in short, the father of my nightmares.

I love this kind of stuff. Not because it makes me feel superior. On the contrary, it makes me feel like I've found a comrade, a compadre, a partner in crime.

The good news, is slowly, over time, things improve. The kids become more adventurous in their eating. Stracher chills out. He's grateful for success, more philosophical about his failures. So ultimately it's a satisfying book, even a hopeful one. And it's an honest one.

Which is all I ask for.


VictoriaE said...

Hi, nice to meet you! I love books about people being terrible, or a little bit terrible, or simply normal parents, it always cheers me up (not in a feeling-superior way, like you say). One of my kids got sent home from school in the middle of the day with nits today - I think I better write that on my blog tonight! p.s. My taly of rootcanal treatment for my teeth has gone up as of today, so maybe one day I will have many crowns also..

VictoriaE said...

oh and I like your writing.

jillypoet said...

Wow! One more thing we have in common--I just picked that book up at a used book store. I've been looking for something new to read, so I'll have to go with that.

My son, almost six, has indeed shown his Star Wars underwear to people. And just tonight he was so upset about his first day of first grade, he cried, nose ran, finger went up nose and in mouth. I was totally disgusted, but the poor little guy was so bereft, I couldn't say anything. Well. anything but very quietly, honey I love you, you are good at things. Don't eat your boogies.

One more thing. Totally have morning anxiety. Usually, and I, too have done this since I was a child, I wake up, and while still in bed, immediately think, now what was wrong yesterday? What do I need to be worrying about?