I played blocks with my one-year-old daughter this morning. Stack them up. Giggle. Knock them down. She’s so easy to play with at this age. The friction is easily managed. She’s just learned the word “No,” but it’s still cute, and I can still scoop her up without evoking a tantrum. And best of all, she’s not conscious enough to realize when I’m watching her with my “You’re Amazing” smile. It’s a smile that says, “I Love You So Much and I Can’t Believe How Amazing It Is That You’re a Real-Live Person with Skills and Opinions All of Your Own.”
My son knows that smile now, and if he catches the glare of it heading in his direction, he almost always looks at me with a sidelong glance, holds a hand up to block my gaze and says “Dooooonnnnn’t.”
Other times, I have to work pretty hard to find that smile at all. Last week, my son decided at the last moment that he did not want scrambled eggs for dinner. I stood in front of the kitchen table holding a pan full of eggs in one hand and a spatula in the other. I looked down at his body hunched over the kitchen table, his whole chest covering the plate to prevent me from putting any eggs on there.
I seethed. The total lack of appreciation. I wanted to scream. The work of preparing dinner for these kids every single night. I felt a ball of rage rising in my chest. I wanted to grab the collar of his shirt and yank him off the table. I wanted to scrape all the eggs from the pan onto his plate and make him sit there until he ate every last bite.
An internal Voice of Reason tried to talk Rage Mama down from the ledge with a smooth calm voice that sounded like a chiding James Earl Jones.
“It’s not like it’s that hard to make scrambled eggs, Rachel.”
“He’s only four.”
I turned away from the table and threw the pan of eggs in the sink, rather more noisily than the Voice of Reason would have liked, and I walked out to the patio, sat down, and closed my eyes. As I closed my eyes, a flash of memory came to me.
I was a kid, maybe seven years old. I slid into the kitchen of my youth in my woolen stockinged feet. My mom stood at the kitchen stove with an orange oven mitt on one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. Snow was falling outside, and my sister, wearing a rainbow stocking cap, threw handfuls of the powdery snow at our dog.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked. Mom bent down and opened up the oven. A rich, thick, meaty, oniony smell wafted out. I moved behind her to peer into the oven. The contents of the blue and white CorningWare dish bubbled with a brown meat covered in ketchup sauce.
“EEEWWW! Meatloaf!” I said crinkling my nose to make sure my disdain was fully understood. Mom’s head whipped up to look at me. In less than a second, her eyes had narrowed and her brow furrowed. She was mad. She glared at me and closed the oven door, rather more noisily than her Voice of Reason may have instructed.
I was hungry and a picky eater and at seven, too young to make my own dinner. I felt trapped and disappointed by any meal that contained items I deemed high on the “yuck meter” — things like, rice, fish, ketchup, onions, fruit, mayonnaise, ground beef, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes — and eggs.
I envied my mother the incredible delight she had every single week of pushing a cart through the grocery store and loading items in the basket without having to ask anyone at all. When she wanted spaghetti for dinner, she could just make it. As far as I could tell, there was nothing stopping her from eating Hostess Twinkies for breakfast and hot dogs for lunch every single day. She had not done it, but I couldn’t figure out why. I was sure that when I was an adult, I’d have Twinkies for breakfast. I was sure I’d never put a limit on the number of candy bars that my kids could consume, and not just on Halloween either. I’d make pizza for dinner at least three times a week and macaroni and cheese on the other nights. Adulthood seemed so rife with privilege. Being a mother seemed the ultimate in freedom.
I sat on my patio, remembering how it felt to be a kid. I took a breath and felt a tap on my leg. My son had appeared next to me. His little hand rested on my knee. There were half-moons of dirt and watercolor paint caked under his fingernails. He looked up at me with wide blue eyes. I leaned forward, putting my hands on his narrow shoulders. I couldn’t help but give him the “You’re Amazing” smile.
“Should we order a pizza tonight?”
He accepted the “You’re Amazing” smile and smiled back.