Note: Our oldest kid is about to have a kid of his own. This heads-up is for him.
By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, June 28, 1987
Jon and I have not made eye contact since we went out for dinner the other night. We have not exchanged more than three complete sentences in as many days. There just isn’t time.
Does this mean we are headed for the divorce courts?
If so, I know what the social workers will say when we get there.
They will want us to reassure our children right off that the break-up is not their fault.
Small children – and large children, for that matter – labor under the illusion they are the center of the universe, the social workers will explain.
When their parents’ marriage fails, children think they made it happen. They feel guilty.
And well they should.
It’s the Kid’s Fault — Really
The fact is, social workers notwithstanding, children do run the world. And every parent with 24 hours or more experience under his or her belt knows it.
It is the children who determine what time their parents will go to bed at night, what time they will get up in the morning – and how many times they will wake up in between.
They determine whether their parents will have the time to watch the news this evening or the energy to make love tonight.
They decide whether the couple will vacation in Rome, or spend still another summer at the beach with long-suffering grandma and grandpa.
It is the children who decide whether avocados and anchovies will be allowed in the salad, whether cats are permitted to sleep on beds and whether the family will dare eat at a white-tablecloth restaurant tonight.
It all starts at birth. The child begins his career as Numero Uno by coming out of the womb an utterly helpless, utterly adorable being.
He looks into his mother’s eyes and knocks her socks off with his soft, trusting gaze. He is heaven-sent.
In a single day, he soils 14 diapers, three stretch suits and two of the three frumpy outfits that still fit his mother’s forever altered, post-partum body.
But he is heaven-sent.
He keeps her awake night after night and day after day. Excruciatingly tired, she lets a few carefully chosen chores slide. She stops making the bed. Dust collects beneath it.
Her husband notices.
Heaven-sent remains adorable. He inspires in his mother a passion unlike anything she has felt since her infancy.
Her feelings for her husband, that mortal with the receding hairline and sandpapery cheeks, pales in comparison to her unmitigated love for this new, perfectly formed, silky smooth entity.
Her husband notices.
Dad Falls for the Kid
Fortunately, however, he too enjoys feelings of unsurpassed sweetness in the presence of his baby.
Numero Uno was born to a liberated family. And, no slouch, he has made the most of it. When it is daddy’s turn to give the 3 a.m. feeing, little Heaven-sent blesses his father with the same soft gaze that suborned his mother.
Now he has not one, but two, slaves for life.
By the time he is 3 years old. Numero Uno has mastered the words he needs to manage his environment.
If his parents should attempt to have a conversation with each other in his presence – indicating that perhaps he is not the center of the universe after all – he can quickly return their attention to Numero Uno by uttering something like, “Mommy, my apple juice spilled on the floor.”
If that doesn’t work, there is always, “Mommy, my pants are wet.”
In the fullness of time, he finds ever new ways to retain his position at the center of the family universe.
He chips a tooth, loses his backpack, presents his mother with a handmade Mother’s Day card
signed, “Love, Peter.” He is distraught to find his goldfish belly-up in the fishbowl. He sprains an ankle. He lets dad teach him “Chopsticks.”
He flunks a midterm, has appendicitis, runs away for a weekend, breaks up with his girlfriend, gets admitted to Cal, and calls home at 2 a.m. to say he has stripped the gears on his father’s car.
Even when he is not in the room, he remains Numero Uno. Deep into the night, his parents discuss the virtues of T-ball vs. soccer.
Ten years later, the midnight conversations grow heated and turn to the necessity of a midnight vs. a 2 a.m. curfew.
Another 10 or 20 years later, if they still remember the appendectomy, the “Chopsticks” and the frightening weekend without him – they don’t mention it in their child’s presence.
With any luck at all, he is getting ready to make the same mistakes they made.
© 1987 The Oakland Tribune. Republished by permission.
Update: Fortunately, my 1987 predictions for the future were way gloomier than they needed to be. The centers of our universe flunked no midterms that we know of, and neither of them ran away from home. But the gears on their father’s car did get stripped.
If you enjoyed this story you might like “The Quilt From Hell — 42 Years Later It’s Still Not Finished.” Also, “For China’s Young Fashionistas, the Cultural Revolution Is So Over.” More about my book at WrestlingWithGodBook.com.