“Did you hear what your aunt was saying about kids?” My husband asks me as he navigates the van back onto snowy, dark roads for our journey home.
I had heard. We’d just concluded dinner with my mother and her oldest sister, a joint effort for both families. I have to confess: my mother, and several members of my family, are hard for me to be around when they are drinking. Not because this ignites my own urge to drink (which has diminished with abstinence) but rather the way the family behaviors come out; some of them hurtful, prideful, ugly; woven throughout my youth in ways that to this day make me uncomfortable. The very fact these behaviors emerge primarily during drinking episodes results in them being untouchable: impossible to ask for (and get) change while the subject has a few belts under their belt; and my family – like many others – never, ever apologizes for or even references their rudeness while under the influence the night before.
What Ralph is referring to is the episode at the dinner table where children’s dining preferences were discussed after Sophie declared her aversion to the spaghetti squash I had cooked. Ralph and my preference is thus: take a bite if you would like to have ice cream later (Sophie later, much later, acquiesces). At the table, in the moment, first my mom and aunt cajole Sophie and deny her preferences or her right to them (“Oh come on, don’t make a fuss”). The story then hinges on the folly of cooking expensive or elaborate dishes for children (this discussion is what my husband later references) . I love my mother and aunt very much and don’t doubt their love for my own children. However in these tales which incorporate derision for the preferences and dignity of wee children I hear echoes of my grandmother; a woman I loved fiercely but who I place as the family architect (of course she herself must have inherited a component) of a worldview I have taken to calling “authoritarian douche”: children are second-class citizens; we trouble ourselves over them so much they should be grateful and do what’s convenient (or “polite” for our comfort). And if they don’t, they are bad children (endless variations on this theme: “selfish”, “rude”, “socially retarded”, “a dork”, etc).
I have heretofore just listened in to these stories but, since everyone is sharing, I finally speak up. “I think it’s disrespectful to trick someone into eating something you know they don’t like.” Look: I’m a mother too. This is how I do it. At my statement my mom and my aunt puff like adders and finally something or other is grumbled; surely I’m being mocked for my panty-waist deferment to these (spoiled, ungrateful?) children. Maybe they feel shamed at being called out. I don’t know. I’m not trying to change them (don’t even believe that’s possible), but in this case I’m being public about our differences.
They had their turn and raised their children. I’m raising mine now.
In truth being here in my hometown and now closer to my mother – and sometimes seeing her several times a day – has brought me closer to peace: with the past and present alike. I am becoming a kinder parent; a parent who doesn’t need to “win out” against her children. Sometimes I hear from this side of the family that if you defer too much to young ones, or are too kind to them, you are not preparing them for the “real world”. And I myself bought this concept for many years.
I’m different now. I don’t much try to shelter my kids from the “real world” (which as it turns out, is its own teacher) and I don’t need to because they’re tough little fuckers. I don’t need to toughen them up; nature does it on its own. Yes, in life there are people you will run into who will be gruff, rude, who won’t be polite or kind. And then there are people that understand you don’t care for squash, and so far you never had, and they aren’t going to mock or shame you for that preference. I get to pick who I am; my children can pick who they are.