Apr 12, 2007

Painting Faces

I was walking down the block with my pregnant belly and my two children when a neighbor called me over to introduce me to his friends--a stylish Euro-couple with a sour-looking blonde boy in a stroller.

Number three? the woman asked me nodding dryly at my tummy.

Yes, I replied, number three.

Wow you must really love children she responded, incredulously.

Love children? Yikes, I thought. I don’t think I do.

I remember loving children. I love some children. I love my own children. I used to love other people’s children--you should see the essays I wrote back when I was applying to masters programs in education. Children this, children that... I could go on forever about how important and interesting they were. I used to volunteer (volunteer!) to teach school groups who came through a local zoo. I worked at FAO Schwarz. I collected children’s books. I wrote children’s books. You could say I was child-centered.

Before I had kids of my own.

Before I had kids of my own--I was the fairy god-grownup, always stealing away from my friends to spend time with their kids, planning puppet shows, inventing games, reading books. Their parents would say to me oh don’t feel like you have to do that, or to their children, maybe she doesn’t want to do that right now. But I always did want to ‘do that.’ No matter what it was. I loved kids, and often preferred their fresh unbiased company to that of adults.

One of my special gifts was that I didn’t see them as small creatures. I refused to condescend to them in that awful sing-songy way we all pull out on occasion. I had that awful sound in me--an incredibly unfortunate ‘well hel-LO there!’ popped out one time when I discovered that the customer service woman at my bank was a dwarf--I leaned way over the counter and addressed her in the most ‘well aren’t we adorable’ kind of way--not one of my finer moments and certainly not wise in the midst of what was a pretty serious complaint about my checking account. But I never did that with kids. Part of my schtick was that I recognized them as being their own individual people deserving of nothing but no-nonsense eye-to-eye peer-to-peer treatment from adults. I understood them like no one else could.

I couldn’t wait to have nieces and nephews. I used to bug my sister and my sisters-in-law. Would someone have a kid so I can be an aunt? I was so ready to be the revered aunt, the grownup ally to kids sick of their boring old parents, maybe I’d even be eccentric like Jan’s lookalike aunt on the Brady Bunch. I begged my siblings to multiply. And they did, eventually. The problem is, I beat them to it, and got consumed by my own kids first.

Once mine arrived I was done with everyone else’s.

My distaste for other people’s kids grew gradually. I adored the other tiny babies in our life but suddenly couldn’t be in the same room with them once they’d pooped. My baby’s poop didn’t stink--even when it did. Snot was honey on my babies’ upper lips; poison on the noses of others.

Ever the kid-lover, I’d search the other babies for signs of what kinds of adults they’d become, and discover that they were all destined to be easily agitated, neurotic, and grabby. Only mine seemed reasonable, compelling, headed for greatness, worthy of thousands of photographs and seven hours of videotaped footage before they could even lift their heads.

When Amos was seven days old I stared into his milky eyes for several minutes and then burst into tears at the thought of anyone EVER picking on him in a playground (in the future I envisioned he was holding a violin case in the midst of this taunting, which was my brain working overtime since no one in my family has ever ever played the violin). Unbearable. Instantly all of the other babies became his potential aggressors. I’d have to keep an extra eye on them...

Now that I’m raising my own wonderful creatures, I seem hard-wired to notice other kids’ faults. And even though I’ve fallen in love with several of the neighborhood kids--the less complicated playdates who do come and go, the children of friends, the playground chums--it’s a love that has proven to be shockingly conditional. One minute I’m thinking now there’s a fabulous kid and the next minute, after I’ve discovered they’ve bossed my kid around, broken something on purpose, or hissed some nasty threat, I’m done with them. Completely and unemotionally done. In my mind they’re reduced to just bad parts.

Amos is in kindergarten now and is not headed the violin case route. But he is getting picked on by the same group of boys we’ve delighted in all year long. One part of me wants to implore Amos to see the good in these mostly friendly friends--to see them as whole and flawed and to avoid writing them off for the kindergarten kidstuff they’re engaging in (you’re on the little dude team was the latest scathing insult from his tall pal)--but most of me just thinks I knew it, I knew it was too good to be true, I knew that kid was really awful, and wants to counsel Amos to keep away.

The unexpected but not surprising product of all of this is that other people’s kids don’t adore me anymore. Even though I have been steadily souring on them as a population I never considered that my magic touch on them would wear off. It had been as much a part of who I was as my shoe size or my sense of humour. Five foot three, Sagittarius, adored by kids. No more.

My first hint at this slippage came several years ago when I walked into my son’s playgroup with a mom named Suzy and the kids all started shouting--Suzy’s here! Hooray! Suzy! Suzy!--and no one said anything about me. I hadn’t been looking for their approval, but didn’t realize
how much had changed until I saw someone else getting it. I’m not even sure these kids knew my name, knew me as anything other than Amos’s mom. The fact that Suzy has been able to raise her own kids and remain interested in and attractive to this flock of other women’s children baffles me.

I accepted it--like accepting less sleep, less time to thumb through magazines (all those sorts of mom-specific things that involve the word 'less'). It didn’t really bother me. It became a curiosity--something to mention in an offhanded way to other moms--hey you know kids used to LOVE me--so they wouldn’t see me as purely self-consumed and apathetic.

Then the other day the strangest thing happened. I got roped into face-painting at my three year old daughter’s school fair. I plopped down to turn Amos into a vampire (the self-consumed and apathetic mom whose job it really was announced it was her break just as he reached the front of the line) and kids began to queue up behind him. Two hours and twenty-three faces later I had a different take on these terrible children.

Two dozen trusting little faces turned up towards me, following my chin-up, chin-down instruction, provided me with a new view of these otherwise bratty kids. They are small and they rather like being talked to in a loving voice. Moving a brush over their strange and severe features--those upturned noses and impossibly tiny chins, tender crepe eyelids and smooth cheeks--was interestingly intimate. Each time a child plopped down into the chair across from me we entered into a creative and trusting partnership that reminded me of the old days when I actually sought out the company of creatures like these.

Do you want to be an orange dinosaur or a green one?
Shall we paint a mean-looking scar on your cheek?
What color spots should your butterfly have?

Later in the day I watched as a pirate and a rattlesnake I’d created played an unfair game of keep-away with my vampire son. My dalmation daughter and her cat friend fought over who was going to stand closest to me as I put the finishing touches on a butterfly that none of us knew. I enjoyed the scene for awhile and then the bad taste came back. Within an hour I hated them again.


Anonymous said...

Not replying to the American Girl post, I see?

Mary said...

I know exactly how you feel. :) And I think a lot of moms do the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Yes - I think those of us who find the story very, very easy to believe would still like an update. How is Etta?

Anonymous said...

hmmm, now you hate other children? I can see you as one of the bitter moms in the American Girl blog. easy to dish out, isn't it?

interesting that you refuse to post an update.

Audrey said...

I think your story accurately sums up why I want to adopt. There are plenty of moms who are more than willing to love their own kids. But the world needs mothers for children from other families. And while I don't love kids in general, I still want to be able to love the strays and misfits out there...the bullies who need a real role model...the kids with behavioral issues who clearly need a hand in their raising...the ones that other mothers may hate because they aren't like their own precious jewels.

Anonymous said...

I find it VERY interesting that she wont produce an update.

Anonymous said...

You see ETTAS MOM is a COW and a liar and can't see the harm she has done.

Why don't you own up you selfish beast

Anonymous said...

After reading this post, it makes me wonder if some of this "hatred" towards other children fueled your blog on the whole American Girl incident. Do you think you might have imagined the reactions of people towards your daughter?

Anonymous said...

Revisit the American Girl issue, already.

Start a new post and address people's very legitimate doubts and questions.

By the way, I'm buying everyone I know an American Girl doll for Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Hey! How's it going? How's the American Girl Doll-Lie going?

Any updates?

Any acknowledgments?

Any more lies to tell?

Any conscience?

Anna, mom of two said...

Please update us moms on how AG has responded.

Anonymous said...

People wanted an update because your story was clearly an embellishment of an occurrence at which you were NOT present. You wrote the piece with a particular brand of soft hysteria and energetic hyperbole. Of course people would react - the situation you described was worthy of reaction.

Many people contacted the American Girl company - the reaction from them painted a much clearer picture - the customer service was not the problem, the "hyping it up" was. You told a second-hand account of something that can never be verified, then left people to wonder what the hell happened.

Grow up - even now you're ignoring the situation and taking a CYA attitude.