One of the reasons parenting is so exhausting, in addition to all the usual running around, is that you’re giving your all (and then some) to teach your kids how to live. I was struck by this thought today: it’s all up to Paul and me. Yes, other people come into play: grandparents, friends, teachers, other people in the line at Starbucks. But for the most part, the shaping of their character — the teaching of right from wrong — is in our hands. With newborn babies, our main job is simply keeping them alive. But later on? You have to teach them how to be.
I am in charge of making these two beings into good humans. Their psyches! Their souls! Their ability to be sympathetic, loving, morally upright and happy human beings! How on earth can I possibly be up for the task? It hit me in a new way this afternoon after the following conversation:
Liz: I’m getting some B’s. I’m not going to get into a good college.
Me: You’re going to get into a great college.
Liz: But I have B’s! And I have no extracurricular activities!
Me: Um, you have acting. And choir. And musical theater classes.
Liz: But that’s all in the same area. And no sports. I hear you need sports.
Me: Look, Liz, unless you want to go to, like, Yale, you’re going to be just fine.
Liz: But I do want to go to Yale.
Me: Oh, really? Why?
Liz: Because you just mentioned it.
Mike: Look, Liz, it’s really simple. If you want to go to Yale, all you have to do is stop watching TV. It rots your brain. And get a job. McDonald’s looks good on a college application. They love that. And you’ll need at least a C average.
Liz: Right. Thanks.
Me: Lizzie, if you want to bust your ass to get into an Ivy League school, you could get into one. And we’ll help you and support you. You have to decide if that’s the kind of high school career you want.
Liz: It’s not. Mike, stop!
Me: What’s he doing?
Liz: He’s stroking my toe.
Me: Um, okay. Liz, you have great grades and a lot of extracurricular activities. You’re going to be better than fine, I promise. OK?
Liz: OK, Mama.
[The conversation shifts with a comment about the tackiness of some sophomore girl having sex with some guy in the backseat of a car.]
Me: Well, to be honest, teenagers don’t have a lot of choices on that front. Though on a blanket under a tree is more fun.
Mike: That sounds romantic.
Me: Oh my God. Why do I open my mouth and say these things?
Mike: I have no idea.
Me: Though really, under a tree is a better choice. But you have to be at least 18! And in love!
Mike: I’d be terrified to have sex if I wasn’t at least 16. I just know someone would pop out immediately and be like, “Busted!”
Liz: I can do a Chewbacca scream. [Demonstrates]
Me: Not 16! Eighteen!
Mike: Why do you have to be in love?
Me: Because otherwise it’s not meaningful! You don’t have sex until you’re in love! And you’re not mature enough until you’re at least 18. You’re too young to know what sex is all about.
Mike: It’s about orgasms.
Me: [long, drawn-out groan while pulling hair with both hands]
Mike: Liz, can I try one of your Cheetos?
Liz: What do you mean, “try” one? It’s not like they’ve changed since the last time you ate them.
Mike: How do you know?
Liz: Actually, I’ve never heard what Chewbacca sounds like. I’ve only heard people imitate him.
Me: So you’re imitating an imitation.
Liz: Right. Can you cut me some strawberries?
Me: In a minute. Mike, it’s about love, OK? And Liz, can’t you see I’m chopping garlic? Cut your own strawberries.
Liz: No, thank you. I’ll just keep eating Cheetos.
Me: Stop eating Cheetos.
Liz: No, thank you.
Mike: I’m eating more Cheetos, Liz.
Me: Fine, then, I’ll cut ’em with the knife that I cut the garlic with.
Liz: Good! Oh, right, the strawberries. I thought you meant Michael.
Me: Be nice. We’re kind to each other in this family. You know you love your brother.
Liz: Yeah. You’re right. Really, really, really deep down.
Mike: Thanks, Liz. Mom, can we have garlic bread with the spaghetti?
Me: Spaghetti is a carb. We don’t need another one. And I don’t have any good bread.
Liz: You can make it Grandpa Matt’s way.
Mike: That has no culture! White people have no culture!
Me: That’s inappropriate. I think. Wait, is it? Besides, you love Grandpa Matt’s garlic bread.
Mike: Well, yeah. I do.
Liz: Me, too.
Me: Fine. I’ll make garlic bread.
[Kids head upstairs.]
Me: Wait! Liz! Come back! Why did you leave your snack all over the place?
Liz [calling down the stairs]: I don’t know! [Door slams.]
Me: I should make her come back down. But it’s more trouble than it’s worth. And I’m already right here. So fine, I’ll clean up after her.
Well, I got in a couple comments about love during the short sex conversation, and strongly suggested that they wait a bunch more years. And maybe I helped with college angst. But I think the kids came out on top in terms of the food stuff, and taking responsibility for one’s own strawberry tops and crumpled Cheetos bags.
But you know what? I do what I can, and that’s all I can do. Maybe I’m not perfect. Or even very good. But I do my best and pray that it’s at least good enough. I think I’m doing okay.
Have fun until next time,
PS: Cheetos and strawberries is a better snack than just Cheetos, right? Reminds me of my college days, when I’d go for a brisk three-mile run, then light up a cigarette in the elevator on my way back to my dorm room. My friends laughed at me, but I said, “Better to run and smoke than just smoke, right?” Who can argue with such logic?
PPS: Here’s Grandpa Matt’s recipe for the garlic bread he sometimes made when my brothers and I begged for something to go with our spaghetti and we didn’t have a loaf of French bread lying around: Cut a few slices of white sandwich bread in half, overlap the slices on a piece of foil, drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with garlic salt. Pop it under the broiler until the edges turn crispy. (I loved this treat. I also loved following my dad around the kitchen and jumping on his steel-toed shoes while he made it. He’s this brilliant chemist guy and worked in a lab and I always got a kick out of stomping on his toes and seeing how much it didn’t hurt him.)