Something about today is not going well. I’m puttering around the house, cleaning, dusting, organizing — some of my least favorite activities. Every few minutes, I go into the kitchen to send the fax I’ve been trying to send for the last day. Finally, it occurs to me to check the jack with an old rotary phone I keep around for its vintage charm. Nothing. I try the jacks in the dining room and all of the bedrooms. Nothing. I say the F word every twelve seconds, sotto voce, because my son has a friend over.
Perhaps it’s the presence of the friend that has me off kilter. Play dates: There should be a special place in hell for whoever invented them. “Hey, why don’t you trap yourself in your house all day with your own kid and someone else’s. And try not to go insane!”
Just when you’ve figured out a few things about your own child, he enters the era of play dates, and you have to figure out all of his friends. Some of them are picky eaters. (“You’ve never had a cherry?” “You don’t like pretzels?” “You won’t eat anything green?”) Others, more irritatingly, want to be fed all the time. (Your son has learned not to expect food very often, and when he does, his standards are low. Buttered noodles are haute cuisine. High-fructose corn syrup and Red Dye No. 5 are frenemies.)
Some children are rude, asking pointed questions about things that are none of their business, like why your dog is so badly behaved, or what that funny smell is in the basement. One wants to know why your teeth are so crooked; another wipes a booger on your front door, where it bakes in the sun and you can’t get it off for several weeks, because every time you try, you gag.
Still others want to sit on your bed and watch TV, and the sight of their dirty socks makes you tremble and shake. They eat Doritos and touch your couch. One does not seem to be accustomed to benign neglect, and follows you around the house wanting to know what you’re doing and why it’s taking so long. Perhaps he thinks the play date is with you, rather than your son.
Some kids seem to think you come from another planet, a very distant one, where customs are different from their own. Every question, no matter how innocuous, will be greeted with a blank stare, as though the poor child is trying to figure out the right thing to say to prevent the alien across the table from sprouting tentacles and eating him.
You are not used to these kinds of kids. You are used to kids who are tiny 40-year-olds. Kids who read the jokes in "The New Yorker" and laugh, even if their interpretation is not the same as yours. Kids who profess to like the taste of coffee and declare that the one sip of wine they had was “fruity!” You are used to kids who play video games rated “M” for mature (“The blood’s fake, Mom!”) and who proofread over your shoulder, pointing out typos.
When a friend recently asked me if I knew anybody who might want a job teaching at her son’s preschool, I said, “What about me?” It sounded like a cushy job, a cute job. Toddlers would hug and kiss me, cry when we had to be parted at the end of the day and they were returned to their mothers, with whom they’d grown bored. I would never, ever be bitten, vomited on, or pooped on. Plus, every two weeks, someone would give me an envelope with a couple of bucks in it. Sweet!
“You have to like kids,” my friend said dryly.
“Oh. And I guess it’s in the morning, huh?” That left me out.
Still, I was stung. I’d always assumed I was a good mother, a loving mother. It’s not that I don’t like kids; I do! I just like them just fine … from afar. I like them the way zoo-goers like their lions and tigers and bears—behind glass. I like them in small numbers, ideally one at a time. As the mother of an only child, I’m easily overwhelmed when small creatures, no matter how dear, outnumber me. Bunnies are adorable, but I don’t want them crawling all over me. Mice are adorable, but put me in a room full of them and I will faint dead away.
If you’re a friend of mine, I’ll forgive your kids for their little peccadilloes, like correcting me when I say “crap” or when I introduce topics of discussion they don’t think are appropriate, such as when I point out “the boobies” on the figurehead of the pirate ship ride at an amusement park.
If I really like your kids (or you, more accurately), I will suck up to them to try to make them like me. I will — as with my imaginary preschoolers — hug and kiss them, buy them presents on their birthdays and at significant milestones. I will “like” their funny anecdotes on Facebook.
But today, well, I just can’t seem to get my groove on. Maybe it’s that my husband’s out of town and I haven’t spoken with another adult for more than five minutes, except the woman behind the counter at the duckpin bowling alley.
Whatever the reason, I think wine-thirty should start a little early today. Say, right after I take that the nice little boy home to his mother, who he’s pretty sure is not going to sprout tentacles and eat him, no matter what he says.
Lisa Beyer of Baltimore is a freelance writer and mother at work on a novel titled "There's Only You."