In general I am as lazy a parent as I can get away with being. I ardently want my kid to entertain herself and bother me as little as possible. I don’t want to play with her most of the time; I am her mother, not her playmate, after all. But it’s difficult for her, as it is for us: she’s an only child, and one can only play alone in one’s room for so long. And right now we’re in that horrible long phase of the summer where there’s no summer camp, there’s no nothing to break up the days, and I am on my own with the kid 24/7.
Tensions are running high. We are both very deeply sick of each other. It’s been ugly. And yet, she cannot leave me alone; when we’re in the house, she insists on being in the same room I’m in. She cannot stop chattering at me; I want it to be quiet so that I can think. I can’t focus enough to even pay bills online, my daughter so consumes all the air around me. I mean, the bills are getting paid, but I don’t actually have confidence I’ve done it correctly, and I guess I’ll find out come September if we suddenly have no electricity or cooking gas.
A lot of parents in this circumstance go to great lengths to Do Things with the kids. I guess the idea is, you wear the kid out, outside the house, such that when they get back home, all they want to do is lie on the couch quietly. For various reasons, I’m not game. I’m not taking my kid to water theme parks, to the Pez factory, or even to the playground — normally I wouldn’t mind the playground, too much, but it’s 100 degrees and humid outside. Neither of us wants to be outside; we want to be indoors. The problem is that it’s just the two of us rattling around in here.
I decided last night that the smart thing to do today would be to shake up our routine. Instead of waking up and making a pot of coffee and spending a bit of time reading the papers and drinking coffee while my daughter lolled on the couch watching Mr. Bean cartoons on YouTube, I announced that I had another plan for how the morning would go. I informed my daughter of it to get her ready for the shock to her system. “Tomorrow morning,” I said, “When I get up, we’re gonna get ready to leave the house immediately and we are going to go out and get coffee at East Rock Coffee.” This was a big deal. I almost never go out for coffee, and even less often do I go to East Rock Coffee. I resent spending money at cafes, particularly when I’m with my daughter. Going to a cafe should be a relaxed luxury but instead, going with a child, it’s just stressful and annoying. I resent paying money to be stressed and annoyed; but for the change in routine, and save myself the effort of making a pot of coffee, I was willing to chance it. Predictably, my daughter reacted to this news with excitement and delight, and I thought, “There is hope.”
This morning we washed and dressed with astonishing speed and assembled our supplies to take with us to the cafe. I had three days’ worth of unread newspapers — newspapers have piled up at an appalling rate since my daughter’s stopped going to camp — and my daughter had two ancient issues of Cricket Magazine. In her tote bag was a board game, too: a moment of inspiration had led me to suggest we take my ancient travel Scrabble set with us. We got drinks (a lemonade for her, a tall iced latte for me), I paid a criminal $8 total for them, and we found a nice place to sit outside. There were many people at the tables around us: retired men with their dogs, workmen having breakfast sandwiches before heading to renovate nearby houses, and grad students complaining about the crap grad students complain about. So many grad students. This is why I don’t go to East Rock Coffee. So many grad students.
But I was not going to be brought down by the presence of so many grad students. This is my neighborhood, I feel, more than it is theirs. We imperiously arranged ourselves. My daughter read her Crickets and I read three days’ worth of Wall Street Journals. And then, around ten o’clock, I was the incredibly pretentious annoying parent sitting outside at a cafe table playing Scrabble with her daughter and demanding that she calculate the scores and add them up.
I disgusted even myself. I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been sitting there teaching her to play Bridge or Backgammon. But Scrabble is bad enough.
A woman with two children, aged maybe five and three, came over and sat down at the table next to ours. Her children looked at us and said loudly, “Are they playing Scrabble?” My daughter looked over at the five year old, a girl, and said, “Yup! It’s Scrabble!” and I think she was proud to be doing something as grown-up as playing a real, grown-up style game, not some baby game — which is fair.
The mother, having given her children pastries to eat, took out a notebook and began to write a letter to a friend. While she wrote, her children ran around loudly singing nonsense songs to each other. She didn’t pay much attention to them, and while I understood the desire to not pay much attention to them, obviously, their hubbub made it difficult for us to play our Scrabble game. “I can’t concentrate,” my daughter complained, whispering into my ear, “because those kids are making so much noise.”
“I know the feeling,” I said. I was sympathetic, to put it mildly.
Long, annoying story short: We played about half a game. When my daughter’s attention span had dwindled to the point where she would just shove her rack of tiles over to me to figure out words for her, I gave up. It was eleven o’clock. “Let’s just go home,” I said. “We’ll go home and you can scrub potatoes so that I can set up the potato salad we’ll have for dinner.” “Okay,” she said.
I now theorize that part of why we see parents pretentiously playing grownup games, or doing stretch your brain type exercises with children when out in public (“is the font on this package of Oreos sans-serif or not? Come on, you know this one, Spencer!”) is not merely that they’re trying to make their kids better prepared for applying to Harvard; they’re trying to keep themselves from losing their minds altogether.
It’s not going to work, folks. But I’m now marginally more sympathetic toward those parents, who, till now, I’ve mostly regarded as pretentious twits. Staying home with a child can make you do weird things. It took me eight years to get this weird.
In the afternoon I posted to Facebook, wondering if anyone would be willing to babysit my daughter for a couple of hours sometime on Thursday or Friday. I explained that we really needed to get out of each other’s hair for a tiny bit. I said I couldn’t really justify the expense of paying a sitter, but that I would, because I can’t legally kick her out of the house yet, and I didn’t feel it was wise to just leave her alone. My friend Eliza, who is much more good-humored than I am, but is also spending far too much of the summer with her own only child (a nice little boy who my daughter enjoys hanging out with), said, “Have your girl come hang out with us for a couple hours. We have to go to a farm to pick up tomatoes for canning. She can come with and feed some goats.”
I said, “That would be awesome,” and told my daughter that she’d be going to this farm with Eliza and her son. “You’re not coming with us, are you?” she asked darkly.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “So you will be on your own. Please help Eliza if she needs help carrying boxes of tomatoes.”
“I will!” she said cheerfully. “Thank god I’m getting away from you.”
Eliza has sent me numerous photos and videos of my daughter horsing around with her little boy. At the farm, she fed goats and crawled around on a tractor. Back at their house: She’s got an Incredible Hulk mask on. She’s jumping on furniture. She’s having a grand old time. Soon, she’ll be returning to our house, and I’ll feed her lunch and we’ll fold some laundry. She’ll grouse about how boring it is at home. I will try to not argue with her about it. This afternoon we’ll go swimming; this evening we’ll eat sandwiches for dinner. Tomorrow will be another day. I promise I won’t make her play Scrabble. And soon it will be September.