We Must Have the Manual Somewhere

Posted: February 18th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Husbandry, Miss Kate | No Comments »

Back the summer before last, when I was tres prego and we had no interest in going anywhere for Labor Day weekend, we got together for dinner one night with our friends the Mullins at a local old-timey burger and ice cream place. They live in Sacto, but were in town doing something or other since they already had birthed their two kids years earlier and were mobile and social as young families are.

We don’t see these fine folks anywhere near as often as we’d like, but work and life and their kids’ schools and Deanna’s busy career as a doc and the fact that there’s more than an hour’s drive between us, tend to throw a kink in making casual plans. Their last-minute call to get together was a welcomed surprise.

This dinner was the perfect setting for Mark and I to get us some parenting advice from pros. Dave and Deanna had been waiting patiently for years for Mark and I to even just get hitched, never mind have kids, and finally we were in the home stretch to parenthood. But that evening Mark and I learned the most from them about what our future roles would entail from just observing.

At one point in our meal their youngest, the beautiful Avery (who I’ll take bets right now will be a bigger pop icon than Britney Spears some day), took a bite of her burger which she insisted on smothering with ketchup and mustard, chewed it for a few seconds, then spit it out.

You could actually see Deanna’s blood pressure shoot up.

“We don’t do that, Avery,” she said levelly. “Please do not do that again.”

Well, you can probably see where this is going. Avery of course, took another bite and did it again. And Deanna was as unpleased as a Mama can get.

“That’s it! No dinner for you! We’re going to the car!”

And before we could say, “Hey, so how is work going, Deanna?”–since through all this Mark and I were naively trying to carry on our Grown Up Talk–Deanna whisked a bawling Avery out of the restaurant and into their parked car where they sat for the remainder of our meal. (From our vantage point we could see them in the parking lot, and I remembering being impressed that Deanna seemed utterly calm and relaxed once she addressed the situation properly. In fact, she quickly appeared to get engrossed in a novel we learned from Dave that she kept on-hand for these very reasons. Little did I know at the time, as a mother, a rare opportunity to read is something that must always be taken advantage of, despite the circumstances.)

Inside the restaurant, now a party of four with Dave and his older daughter, Kendra, Dave explained to us that the spitting out of food is “Deanna’s thing.” It’s her hot button. The thing she just can’t deal with. His was, well, I can’t remember what it was that puts him over the edge, but there was something.

Later that evening, like anthropologists furtively recording data in our field notes, Mark and I marveled over our new discovery. These parental hot buttons were both powerful and fascinating. What would ours be, we wondered? Would the same thing set us both off, or would the things that each of our parents stressed we couldn’t do as kids define our personal boundaries of acceptable behavior? Apparently we wouldn’t know until we experienced it.

Well, nearly 17 months into Kate’s life, we can now safely report that we know what at least one of these is for us. Kate does this thing… To even think of it gets my blood boiling, and I actually take it much better than Mark does—though at times an outside observer might witness my reaction to it and beg to differ. In the microcosm that is our blissed-out nuclear family life, a small war is waging, and Mark and I are utterly at wits’ end trying to determine how to put a clean end to it.

It seems silly to even say what it is, because in writing it seems far more benign than the searing frustration it elicits from us. But I guess that’s the nature of these things. You don’t know what will cause your undoing until you’re in the midst of a blind rage.

The thing is, she throws her food off her high chair tray.

See? It sounds so banal.

Whatever. So you have to pick it up. But, no. It’s much worse than that.

It started with her casually chucking things off the edge. A Cheerio or an unwanted steamed broccoli floret. Then she must have seen it get a rise out of us, and she started doing it more slyly. So, while engaging us in direct eye contact, she’d sidle her fist, which was clutching say, some scrambled egg or a chunk of avocado, over to the edge of the tray and release it slowly as if we wouldn’t notice.

Sometimes she’d do it more forthrightly, while saying, “No, no”–baldly tossing our admonishment back at us. The first time it was kind of funny to see her do it while saying no, though God knows we used all our powers of holding-back-laughter-in-church to not positively reinforce it. And the second time it turns out it wasn’t even remotely amusing.

More recently Kate’s Projectile Party involves chucking the entire bowl or dish contents and all over the edge, then taking a sidelong swipe of her arm and sending the sippy cup flying as well. It’s messy and loud.

And the one that really adds insult to injury is when you’re on your hands and knees picking up whatever has been tossed, and you get a fistful of baked beans tossed onto your head. In those instances, if we weren’t already at home, I’d have her in the car seat with no more dinner in no time, and not just because I’m really into the book I’m reading right now.

All this brings to light the stunning parallels between raising dogs and children: consistency and consequences. We have started taking her food tray away when she does this, but we haven’t really made the consequences sufficiently dire. I’m not saying we’d resort to anything worthy of calling Child Protective Services on us, mind you. But just something negative enough so she learns that doing that leads to something she doesn’t want. No more salt lick. No more pellets.

What prevents us from following through with sufficient consequences is that often when The Tossing takes place, she hasn’t eaten what we feel is a sufficient dinner. We can’t bear the thought of sending her to bed hungry. (For the love of God, she might then wake up in the middle of the night!) So the punishment just amounts to a brief interruption in her repast. Eventually the tray comes out again with a different food item on it. We try again, hoping to lure her into actually consuming something, and civilly.

At those times, during Round 2, when she starts sending things flying again, I can only say that both Mark and I nearly combust with aggravation. It’s one part “she did it again,” with one part “she’s still not eaten enough,” and one large part “we clearly have no idea how to handle this situation.”

We’re rational people. We know there must be some course of action out there to manage this issue better. We have a strong suspicion it involves ending the meal then and there even though as an Italian American the thought of that pains me almost as much as The Tossing itself.

And for the life of us we’re unable to find our toddler Owner’s Manual to read up on the prescribed course of action. In the midst of the squash-tossing mayhem we both vow to get some book, or look online, or ask some friend, but once you’re in the trenches and you’re enemy is firing, it’s hard to effectively strategize from a defensive position.

And when it’s not happening, we tend to be off thinking about other things. Like how damn wonderful and perfect and adorable and smart she is. In those moments, the food fights seem to evaporate from our psyches. We live in the moment, in contented denial that nothing could ever be wrong. (Fast forward 15 years to the call from the mall store, “Our Kate? Shoplifting? Never!”)

Ah well. Perhaps we need to take it on with baby steps. For starters, I’m going to start wearing a shower cap at Kate’s mealtimes. It may not get to the root of the problem, but it seems like a workable solution for keeping my hair free of clumps of mac and cheese.

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