When it was my turn to raise kids, I was certain I’d get it all right. That was my first parenting mistake.
Saoirse and I are sitting in our car in the slowly emptying parking lot of the Glenville Courthouse. We’ve driven an hour to attend Joshua Rockwood’s trial, our fourth trip since March. Once again, we watch a young farmer and his family lose yet another productive afternoon and evening in the height of the growing season to a few murmurings between attorneys and a judge that are the result of, in the estimation of farmers and local food advocates nation-wide, a series of inappropriate, misguided, and patently wrong allegations. The entire ordeal, which began way back in winter, has been drawn out by the litigious process, with no resolution in sight.
Everyone else has left the courtroom and headed for home for the evening. Saoirse and I remain. Four different warning lights appeared on our dashboard in the last five miles of our drive to get here. The car is not due for an oil change until August, but the dipstick has come up bone dry. I am leery to make the journey home without an escort, since we have to drive through a few unfamiliar and unsavory urban stretches before we get back to home turf. We are waiting for Bob to come and escort us, watching the clouds that have brought three days’ rain slowly burn away before the setting sun.
“I’m hungry,” Saoirse tells me. I have nothing packed. The closest place for food is a chain restaurant.
“You’ll have to wait ’til we get home. You can have some cold steak and kale salad for supper.”
“So…that’s a long way off,” I can tell by the cheery conversational tone in her voice that she has a plan. She is rummaging through her knitting bag. “So how about I have a little snack instead?” She smiles and shows me a tiny bite-size Snickers Bar that she has squirreled away from a birthday party she attended last March. I frown. “Wanna sniff?” She tempts me by holding the package under my nose. I sigh heavily and drop my head forward.
“What’s the matter?”
“I used to have so many ideas about how I was going to be the perfect parent.”
“Like not letting my kids eat candy bars.”
“Like not taking you to Disney World.”
“We paid for it ourselves. That wasn’t your fault.” That was true. They’d worked hard to earn that cash.
I stare out at the clouds, watching as they turn a candy floss pink, mixed with a pale tangerine that makes me think of Orange Creamsicles. She waits for me to say more. But I don’t.
“That’s not so bad, Mom. You’ve only gone back on two things.”
“Ha! You have no idea how long the list is!”
“We’re not going anywhere. Tell me.”
Where to start? I wonder just how many times I can remember going back on my word. I began the list.
“No fluoride.” I used to bring photocopies of articles about the dangers of fluoride to Saoirse’s pediatrician. I refused to give her the prescribed fluoride pills. I brushed off the dentists as ignorant when they asked about fluoride toothpaste, informing them that Nazis supposedly fluoridated water in concentration camps. But then, several cavities and four dentists later, when Saoirse finally landed in the chair of the most alternative, holisitc dentist I could find, and he recommended flouride toothpaste, I broke down and bought a tube.
“No Shampoo.” I can’t quite remember what all the evils of that were supposed to be. The chemicals were part of the equation. Then there was this whole theory that hair would naturally clean itself if the oils weren’t regularly stripped out of it. We went about six months with seriously greasy and itchy heads before I gave in and sudsed us up with a squirt of Dr. Bronners. Bob, bless him, never gave in to this one, and yet, stayed with me through all that greasy hair.
“You’re up to four,” Saoirse tells me. “We got time. Keep going.”
“No plastic toys.” I really love all those needle-felted wholesome Waldorf toys, but as Saoirse and Ula have pointed out, none of them ever come with breasts. And Barbie does. I still hate her pointy feet and those ridiculous legs, but until some crunchy entrepreneur starts to recognize that children are wild about boobs (and justifiably so, considering the amount of time crunchy children spend latched to them), Barbie’s going to have a place in our household.
“What else?” Saoirse asks.
“This is really embarrassing,” I whimper.
“Who’s gonna know?”
Everyone, I think. Because I get my superior views about how I can do it better, smarter,and more ethically… and then I broadcast them to the world, thinking that everyone else will jump on the bandwagon with me. So everyone can pretty much see when I topple off. I sigh. I would rather turn my attention to darning the socks I’ve brought along, but Saoirse is insistent. I plow forward.
“No public school.” I was in complete solidarity with the homeschool movement, sharing and spreading every story I had heard about the horrors of public education. Then, last summer, I began to realize just how severe Ula’s vision problems were. In desperation, I called our local school seeking guidance. They wasted no time arranging for services to help us, and then gave me space in the school library so that I could continue to homeschool Saoirse on the days Ula attended occupational therapy. I actually spent a third of our academic school year homeschooling inside a public school. Ula and Saoirse both love going there, and they’ve made some pretty cool friends. So much for the anti-school stance…
“You’re at six.”
“No caffeine,” I scowl at the travel mug she is attempting to conceal on the floor between her feet. She tries to kick it under the seat.
“This one was decaf,” she assures me.
“No electronic devices.”
“Slow down,” she’s leaning over the ipad propped in her lap. “I’m writing this down, and I can’t type fast enough.”
“We tried. I blame your grandmother for that one going to hell” Everyone knows she has a mouth like a trucker. “I think that’s enough.”
“C’mon, there has to be one more.”
“Promise me we can stop at ten?”
I thought back long and hard to when it all began, when I first thought that parenthood would be my chance to show my parents how much better I could do at all this. “Natural Infant Hygiene,” the words roll out slowly as I re-taste this once-familiar expression on my tongue.
“What. Is. THAT?!”
“That was this thing where you were going to be raised without diapers. I was supposed to be so intuitive and in-tune with your bodily needs that I would simply know whenever you had to go to the bathroom, from the time you were a newborn forward.”
“Did it work?”
“You screamed every time I stripped you down and held you over a bowl to piss.”
“So how long before you gave up?”
“I lasted three days post partum. And I learned you had one incredibly huge bladder that could soak through several layers of towels. But I kept going with catching your poops…Until six months.”
“Then what happened?”
“You had just taken a giant turd on the potty, and the phone rang. I turned my head for one second, and when I turned back, you were smeared head-to-toe in it, and you were about to eat a giant shit sandwich.”
Saoirse’s eleven-year-old cheeks flushed pink. “Okay, I’ve heard enough.”
I knew I could shut her up with that one. Without asking again, she unwrapped the Snickers bar and popped it into her mouth.
Bob showed up a few minutes later, bearing enough oil to get us to a gas station where we could buy more. We limped our way back to our mechanic in the waning light of the day. All the while, I turned Saoirse’s and my conversation over in my mind. I’ve gone back on so many things that I believed. A woman who doesn’t change her mind doesn’t have one, I remind myself. But there was so much value to those original ideas. I still believe screen time is problematic. I still believe that diapers are a form of pollution. I still believe fluoride can be dangerous. I still believe needle felted wool toys are superior to Barbie dolls.
So what happened? I think we start out the parenthood journey with the honest hope that we will do things right. …That we will make this world a better place for our children, and that we will equip them better to live within it. And with that first fertilized egg came my first seed of dogma.
But children, even as screaming infants, have free will and bodies that are different from our own. It is true that we do not have to surrender to their demands. But as they grow older, no matter how much good thought we’ve invested into our best intentions, we must inevitably find ways to accommodate their different needs and opinions. Secretly, I still think many of my ideas were right. But then again, Hitler thought he was right, too. And were it not for the differences of opinion and the free will of other human beings, his tyranny would not have been stopped.
We pull into the mechanic’s parking lot and Saoirse and I climb into the car with Bob for the ride home. He knows I am tired. “Maybe you don’t need to go to the next trial,” he suggests, knowing how full my schedule is.
“But I do,” I yawn. “Because it’s the right thing to do. The judge needs to know that this matters.” He puts a hand on my leg and gives a gentle squeeze. I don’t manage to hold true to all my ideals, but he loves me for tenaciously gripping to the big ones.
We get home, and Saoirse and Ula climb into bed with me. We sit around an old fashioned book, reading the final chapters of a novel we’ve been enjoying together, one of the lingering dogmatic ideals to which I have clung. I read the last page, send them off to bed, close the book, then roll over and gaze at my night table before switching out the light. On it is a motley assortment of whizbangs and doohickeys that are the products of Saoirse’s and Ula’s hands. There’s a handmade bead, a little note with the words I love you scratched out in Ula’s scrawl, a necklace made from an empty snail shell, and a dusty needle felted wool mermaid toy that Saoirse made a few years back. I pick it up and stare at it, reminiscing about our earlier conversation. This handmade creation has a deep maroon tail, flowing hair, and a pendulous set of naked boobs that put Barbie’s absurdly perky rack to shame. Maybe I haven’t gotten this parenting thing quite right, I think as I turn out the light,. but there’s still hope for the future.