It was Tuesday, around 7:30 p.m., and Mel and Norah were arguing. I was in the kitchen grading papers for my second job, and Mel was trying to get the kids to clean up and get ready for bed before their 8 p.m. bedtime. Tristan was in his room, cleaning. Norah was in her ballerina pajamas, her hair wet and combed, and standing in the hallway, her arms folded in protest.
Usually this is my job.
Generally I come home from work, have dinner with the family, and then get the kids to bed while Mel does homework. But Tuesdays were different because that’s when papers were due in the online classes I teach.
And I must admit, that it makes me feel a little better about my role as a father to hear Mel struggle to get the kids to listen as much as I do.
She’s the popular one.
Just a few days ago, Tristan (our seven year old) received enough chore points to go out for ice cream. I asked him who he wanted to go with, and without hesitation, he said, “Mom.”
“You know,” I said. “I’ll let you get more ice cream and toppings. The cone will be a big as your head. I will let you pick the radio station. I might even slip you $100.”
He stuck out his lip and said, “Mom.”
The $100 was an exaggeration, but even if it were real, I don’t think he’d have changed his mind.
This same scene has been played out a million times with both kids. They always want to sit next to Mom at dinner, or while watching a movie. Sometimes Norah (our four year old) will, without reason say, “I only love mommy!”
“But I love you, too,” I say.
Norah usually stomps her foot and responds, “Only mommy!”
I try not to take stuff like this personally, but it’s frustrating as hell. I want to be the popular one. I want the kids to fight over me. I want to go out for ice cream.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason my kids like Mel more than me is because of my nightly duty of getting them to clean up the living room and get ready for bed. On workdays, I really only get about 1 to 2 hours a day with my kids. And half of that time is spent with me yelling things like, “Stop screwing around!”, “It’s not time to eat cheese! It’s time to pick up your crap!” and “WTF kids? (I’m not looking forward to the day I have to explain what that means). Do you realize how fast this would go if you’d just do it! I wouldn’t have to yell if you’d listen to me.” Most days, I feel like all my kids hear is my angry voice, and see my angry eyes.
While in contrast, Mel gets to have a healthy mix of angry frustrated mom moments, with loving, fun, and compassionate moments. I really only get that mix of emotions on weekends. One of the first things I learned about working one on one with students is that sometimes you have to tear them down a little bit when they aren’t performing the way you want them to. But you have to be sure to build them back up before they leave or they will never come back. How this applies to my kids is that I feel like I only have time during the week to tear them down because they aren’t getting their chores done. And by the time everything is said and done, and they are in bed, we are all too tired to build anything, particularly emotions.
That night, Mel was having a particularly difficult time getting Norah to listen. Her room, like usual, was an explosion of baby dolls wearing clothing, and wrapped in blankets. I’m not sure the exact number of dolls Norah has, but it I think it’s somewhere between a million and infinity. And it’s not always dolls that she’s caring for. Her maternal instincts reach out to stuffed animals, remote controls, shoe boxes, really anything that can be wrapped in a blanket. Just last week I found her swaddling one of my work shoes in a Hello Kitty blanket and saying, “You’re just such a cutie! Now go to sleep.” All of this makes me fearful that she will be a teen mom. But that’s another essay.
I watched Mel from the hallway. She kept telling Norah to put the babies away, and Norah kept stomping her foot and saying, “Shhhhhhh!!!!! The babies are sleeping!”
It was close to 8 p.m. now. The two had been arguing for nearly 20 minutes. Every time Mel went into Norah’s room to try and clean things up, Norah started screaming like a protective mother fighting off a kidnapper, “Leave my babies alone!”
They were both standing in the hallway now. Mel’s arms were folded. She’d clearly had it. And I was starting to get frustrated, too. All the yelling was making it difficult to concentrate.
Finally Mel yelled, “You know what. I am giving you until the count of five to start cleaning, and if you don’t, I’m putting all of your toys in boxes. Every one of them. All your babies! Your Legos! Your princess dresses! Everything!” I often describe Mel as a soft spoken introvert, so whenever she yells, it’s really terrifying. Her yelling voice is rather deep and scratchy, and reminds me of the possessed girl in the Exorcist.
I use the "I’m going to count to 5 tactic" all the time, and it has about a 50% chance of working. Only the consequence is always going to bed early, or no story. Sometimes I hand down some crazy threat like, “I swear to you, I will take off your shoes and beat you with them if you don’t get this done,” but both kids never take those very seriously.
I’d never gone as far as to say, “I’m going to take away all your toys.”
I leaned back from my laptop to see how this would play out. I assumed that Norah would get busy, but before Mel had the opportunity to start counting, Norah said, “I don’t care,” in a snarky bratty little voice, her head cocked to the side. Her voice was entitled and irritating. It made me cheer for Mel.
“I’ll just get more toys,” Norah said.
Mel didn’t argue. She didn’t count. She didn’t say a word. She simply walked with heavy angry steps into the garage. We’d just moved, so we still had a surplus of boxes. Mel came into the house with three large boxes, and started packing up Norah’s toys.
I assumed that Norah would step in, throw a fit, get freaked out… something. But she didn’t. She just sat on the sofa in the living room and watched. Her face was soft and calm, and I couldn’t tell if she really thought that we would buy her all new toys, which we wouldn’t, or if she was relieved because the burden of ownership had been removed.
I walked down the hall and stood in Norah’s doorway.
“Do you really think this is a good idea?” I asked. “It seems a big extreme.”
As I said this, Mel put the final baby in a box full of babies. She looked up at me as she taped it shut.
“I’m sick of this crap. She needs to learn.”
“Are you ever going to give them back?” I asked.
She didn’t answer my question. She pushed the box towards me and said, “Take this to the garage.”
And as I hauled the box down the hall through the kitchen, all I could wonder was how this was all going to play out. What were the next few days going to be like? And then I had a selfish thought; perhaps this will make me Norah’s favorite.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley