“A loving and hilarious portrait of motherhood and marriage…”
The morning I decided to change my life, I was wearing sweatpants and an old oxford of Peter’s with a coffee stain down the front. I hadn’t showered because we’d slept the whole family in one motel room the night before, and it was all we could do to get back on the road without someone dropping the remote in the toilet or pooping on the floor.
We had just driven from across the country to start Peter’s new job. Houston, Texas to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d had the kids in our ten-year-old Subaru the whole drive, two car seats and a booster across the back. Alexander kept taking Toby’s string cheese, and the baby, except when he was sleeping, was fussing. Peter drove the U-Haul van on the theory that if it broke, he’d know how to fix it.
On the road, I was sure I had the short end of the stick, especially during the dog hours of Tennessee. But now Peter was hauling all our belongings up three flights of narrow stairs, and I was at the park, on a blanket in the late-afternoon shade, breastfeeding Baby Sam. Peter had to be hurting. Even with our new landlord helping him, it was taking all day. And I was sitting in the shade, just waiting for him to call on the cell phone when he was ready for us to come home. Or as close to home as a curtainless apartment stacked high with boxes could be.
We’d been at the park since midmorning, and we were running out of snacks. Alexander and Toby were galloping top speed, as they always did. I’m not even sure they realized that they were in a new park. They acted like we might as well have been at home, in Houston, the only place they’d ever lived. They acted like the last five days of driving hadn’t even registered. I, in contrast, was aching with loss.
I didn’t like this park. Too clean, too brand-new, too perfect. The parks at home had character—monkey bars fashioned like cowboys, gnarled Crape Myrtle trunks for climbing, discarded Big Wheels with no seats. And we’d known them backwards and forwards—every tree knot, every mud hole, every kid.
This park, today, felt forced. It was trying too hard.
I surveyed the moms. Not one of them, I decided, was a person I wanted to meet. And just as I was disliking them all and even starting to pity them for having no idea what they were missing, park wise, Toby—my middle boy, my sandy-haired, blue-eyed, two-year-old flirt—watched a younger kid make a move for the truck in his hand, and then, unbelievably, grabbed that kid’s forearm and bit it.
The little boy screamed as Toby pulled the truck to his chest. “My truck!” Toby shouted. (He always pronounced “truck” like “fuck,” but that was, perhaps, another issue.)
And then, of course, all hell broke loose.
I jumped up, startling the baby out of a nap and off my boob. I ran across the park, wailing baby on my shoulder, shirt unbuttoned, shouting, “Toby! No!” Toby saw my horrified face and instantly started to cry, himself—though he was no match for the little kid he’d bitten, who was now screaming like he was on fire. His mother, too, had sprinted from her perch, dropping her purse on the way, and was now holding him as if he’d been shot. “Is it bleeding?” she kept asking the boy. “Is it bleeding?”
It was clearly not bleeding. Isn’t that the number one rule of parenting? Don’t Make Things Worse?
All the other parents, meanwhile, had gathered around us to see what the heck was going on. My shirt was hanging open, the baby was still shrieking, and I remembered from one of those parenting books I used to read—back when I used to do that type of thing—that when a child bites, the parent of the biter must give attention to the bitee. I turned toward the little boy and reached out to comfort him, and, at the same moment, his mother actually tightened her grip and rocked away from my hand so that I missed him altogether. As if I myself had done the biting. As if I were about to attack again.
I regrouped. “I’m so sorry about that, sweetheart!” I said to the son, who was not, you might say, in a listening mode. Next, I tried his mother. “I’m so sorry!” I said. “He’s never done that before!” She was staring at me, but not at my eyes, and it took me a second to realize that it was, in fact, my uncovered magenta nursing bra she was looking at. I buttoned my shirt and started to try again when Alexander took that moment to push Toby down and take the very truck that had started all this commotion.
Toby let out a wail like a scalded dog, and Alexander threw the truck with all his might into a nearby bush. “No biting!” he said, pointing at Toby. “Biting is rude!” Toby got up to run after the truck and soon they were both tangled in the bush, wrestling for it.
Here was a moment when I was truly outnumbered. With two kids, in moments like this, you at least have two arms. With three kids, you’re just screwed.
“Stop it! Both of you!” I shouted, sounding just like my own mother had years ago when she had been outnumbered, too.
And then, I did the only thing I could think of. I set Baby Sam down on the sidewalk—at ten months, he wasn’t crawling yet, or even thinking about it—stepped into the bush, took the truck, and wedged it high in the branch of a tree. Then I grabbed the two boys by the scruffs of their necks, dragged them to our blanket, sprinted back over to my now-almost-purple-with-hysteria Baby Sam, picked him up, put him on the boob as I stood there, and then marched back to where the boys were.
“Anybody who moves off this blanket gets a spanking,” I said in my meanest mom voice, sounding for all the world like a 1930s gangster. It was an empty threat. Peter and I weren’t spankers. And I wasn’t about to spank anybody in front of the still-gaping crowd of Cambridge parents ten feet away. But, honestly, what else was I going to do? Send the boys to their room? I wasn’t even entirely sure where our house was.
The bitee and his mother eventually gathered themselves up and limped out of the park, giving us the cold shoulder the whole way. It occurred to me that park etiquette probably dictated we should be the ones to leave. But, since we were waiting on Peter, we stayed. We ate our remaining snacks and drank our remaining juice boxes. Alexander and Toby soon forgot about the whole thing—though not until after I’d given them the best talking-to I could muster about how we all had to work together in this time of transition—and they were back on the swings in no time. Alexander, sweetly, got down from again and again to give Toby another push.
The old crop of parents trickled out, replaced by the after-work crowd. This batch was preppier and wealthier—pushing Bugaboos and carrying 200 dollar diaper bags. One woman caught my eye as someone I might like to be friends with. She wore stylishly frayed khakis and clompy leather sandals. I kept an eye on her and willed her to come over and talk to me. The bitee’s mother excepted, I hadn’t talked to an adult since ten o’clock that morning, when we’d said goodbye to Peter.
And then she did come over. Her daughter toddled up to our blanket wanting to look at Baby Sam, who was now eating from a spilled constellation of cheerios in front of him. The mom stood beside us, and I squinted up at her in the late afternoon sun. I could tell she wanted to ask me a question. And from the way she was composing herself, I guessed it was a good one. I was hoping for, “You’re new here, aren’t you?” or something like it. Something that might lead to a real moment of exchange between the two of us, or, at the very least, a phone number from her and an invitation to call. I’d only been away from home six days, but already I was hungry for friends.
She did have a question for me, it turned out. And it was not about diapers or wipes. Here’s what it was: Tucking her hair behind her ears, she squatted down next to her toddler—who was now picking up our Cheerios one by one, too—took a gander at me, sitting next to my ten-month-old, and said, “When are you due?”
Here is my policy on that question: Don’t ever ask it. Even if you’re talking to a woman who is clearly about to have quintuplets. Just don’t ask. Because if you’re wrong, you’ve just said one of the most horrible things you can say to a woman. If you’re wrong, you’ve ruined her week—possibly her month and even her year. If you’re wrong, she will go home and cry, and not even be able to tell her husband what she’s crying about. He’ll ask over and over as she lies face down on their bed, and she’ll have no choice but to say, “It’s nothing,” and then, “Please just leave me alone.”
This woman in the khakis, she was wrong. And I did go home and cry, but not until much later, because just at the moment she spoke, before I had even settled on a response, another woman approached us and leaned in to peer at me.
“Lanie?” she asked.
I met her eyes. I was pretty certain I didn’t know a single person in Massachusetts, and, so, given the circumstances, it was amazing, even to me, that I recognized her. It was Amanda Hayes from Houston, my high school’s favorite cheerleader, and, even fifteen years later, she had not changed at all. If anything, she looked better. But still exactly as blond, lean, and smooth as she had been all those years ago. She might as well have been carrying pom poms.
“Hi!” I shouted, too loudly. “Hello!”
I might have been fueled by my fight-or-flight reaction to the woman in khaki pants, but I stood up and gave Amanda Hayes, who I’d barely known in high school, a hug. Then I threw myself into a kind of conversation-on-steroids with her, acting far more delighted to see her than I might have otherwise. I would have been friendly in any situation, just as we’d always been friendly to each other during assigned seating in Chorus, but I might not have been quite as riveted.
I was hoping that, witnessing a reunion of two women who had a real connection to each other, the when-are-you-due girl might feel out of place and wander off. She didn’t. Her child continued to eat my cheerios, and she continued to stand there, smiling as if she were a part of the conversation, as if the three of us moms were friends, drinking mojitos and whiling away another afternoon with the kiddos.
I asked Amanda every single question I could think of, trying to fill any conversational pauses before Khaki Pants started up again with her pregnancy topic. What was Amanda doing in town? How long had she lived here? What were her thoughts on Middle East peace? Where did she get those great sunglasses?
And Amanda, bless her, met my enthusiasm for our chat head-on. She answered all my questions, and volleyed several back at me, and just when I was starting to feel like we’d built a conversational wall that the woman in khakis couldn’t scale, Amanda’s daughter, Gracin—who was almost four and, it turned out, exactly one day older than Alexander—came running over to ask for a band-aid.
“Did you get an ouchie?” Amanda asked.
Gracin pointed at her arm. There was no ouchie.
“Oh.” Amanda peeled a band-aid from a stash in her pocket, then put it on Gracin, who ran off. Watching her go, I noticed she had band-aids all down her legs.
“She loves band-aids,” Amanda told us, with a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug.
And then, in that moment, Amanda paused to gaze at her daughter, now climbing up the ramp of the slide, and to take one of those small moments that parents sometimes indulge in when their children are a little at a distance. She was admiring her, and possibly even wondering what stroke of insane luck had brought that exact child into her life, and feeling grateful for all her blessings. Amanda got caught up watching her daughter, and I got caught up watching Amanda, and so I was a split-second late cranking up the conversation again—and into that little gap, Khaki Pants leaned in, touched my sleeve, and said, “So. When are you due?”