Looking for small, irrational, incompetent, freeloader roommates with rage issues and separation anxiety? Have kids.
Midnight. A tiny naked boy, red cape looped around his scrawny neck. One wee, defiant fist thrust into the air, the other on his hip, legs splayed. Standing on your bed, on you, bellowing, “Never!!” Into your bedroom, into the wild night. You have dared to ask that he get into his bed — back into his bed — for the third time. The fourth. You sit, bleary-eyed and weak-kneed, beaten to a weary emotional pulp by small, unhinged people.
Your academic training is useless in the face of children. You will explain why we do not put blueberries in orifices other than our mouths. You will field impossible requests from tiny dictators and weave magic for tyrants with attention deficit. You will say “no” in an increasingly callous way and you will hear, a thousand times, “why.” It will buzz in your dreams like a whiny mosquito. You will be dazed by toddlerian twists of logic and tripped up by twisty teen nihilism. One of them will say, “Geography is a waste of time. We only name things so that we can control them.”
You’ll reply, “It didn’t work with you, did it?”
Your athletic prowess will not help you. They are fast and slippery, with the stamina of wild, migrating birds. They are waxing as you wane. The sheer will and hunger with which they attack the day — your day, each day — breaks you, makes you fall, laugh, cry, feel all of it. Makes you remember.
Kids give new life to your childhood fears and illuminate all previously unconsidered danger. Suddenly, the world is a rusty trap. Cars. Water. Pesticides. Bagels. The bigger and faster they are, the more alarming the stakes. Asphalt. Alcohol. Balconies. Trees. Genuine relaxation is scarce in the new hyper-vigilant atmosphere. The air is thin up here.
Many of their books will slowly erode your capacity for intellectual thought. A and B and fucking C. Again and again. The mind-numbing singsong of so much children’s literature is crack to a child. You’ll be forced to say the words so many times, you’ll chant them in the rare silent moments and the drug will wash over your softening brain. “Vera Violet Vinn is very very very awful on her violin.” Don’t read Babar. A pining for French colonialism, an undercurrent of xenophobia, those poor anthropomorphized pachyderms — it will just piss you off. And, speaking of loathsome cartoon characters, you’ll choke on Curious George with his racist captivity narrative. Garfield is an asshole. Don’t get me started with the Berenstain Bears. Eloise is good, though. Eloise is poetry.
Nanny is my nurse
She wears tissue paper in her dress
and you can hear it.
She is English and has 8 hairpins
made out of bones.
She says that’s all she needs in
this life for Lord’s sake.*
They will say things like, “Coke is baby’s wine,” and, “Listen to this appetizer of a song,” and “My green eyes are hungry,” and you will be sure that they are minor blossoming geniuses and then they will ask if west is left or right at an age when they should know. And you will know that they are like you.
Scabies, lice, pinworms, and ticks. Croup, whooping, pox, and fever. Lost testicles, colorful rashes, bite marks, and bloody noses. More blood. Years awash in body fluids. Sour milk smell and baby shit dreams. Gross tolerance quotient rises exponentially. You can smell the parents in the grocery, if you don’t spot the embattled eyes first. They stand still and silent in the first aid aisle, hoping a breeze doesn’t lift. Just seeking one moment alone in the store. A nice smelling emollient, maybe. Or a cookie, not for sharing. Please.
The big one will put the little one through a window. The little one will get his revenge a few years later with another window. So much broken glass. They will weep and scrum and make peace in minutes, no big thing, while you quake on the sidelines and wonder where these wild things came from and how to tame them. They will draw lines and cross for spite, tattle and sell each other out like miniature politicians. You will be the territory they fight over, your very body the spoils. Your lap, your hand, your breast, your bed. The cuddling becomes grasping becomes smothering. You will love them so much it hurts and you will also suffer a slow, lush and delicious suffocation. Don’t. Stop. Don’t stop. The mad pendulum of mother’s love.
They will eat everything in your house. Or nothing, and you will embark on the mad search for the one thing that suits. You will find food in your pockets and your cushions, your purse and your car. Loose, crushed, old, mushed, often rotting edibles, mingling with your hair and your essentials.
They will weaponize speech.
“You have a really big butt.” At the beach.
“This is the most boring house in the most boring town in the world.” To your visiting friend.
“Now you’ve ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving.” Because you’ve asked him to turn Eagles of Death Metal down.
“You’re just like Nana.” That’s the one that really hurts. It’s not true.
You will say regrettable things, as well. You will bite your tongue and wait ten seconds and rehearse the good, kind, responsible thing but the regrettable thing will fall out, instead. It will sit there, ugly, and shame you.
They will throw all manner of things: horse chestnuts, wet towels, false accusations. Quick to generate filth, they will never embrace the doctrine of tidy. Born hoarders, they will dig literal garbage from the dirt and squirrel it away in a giant plastic bin, push it into the back corner of a closet. Can’t get them in the bath; can’t get them out. They will paint things that should not be painted and they will tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. You will feel small and misunderstood.
Your heart will break and maybe some of your fingers. Their fingers will find a way into your eyeballs and your cheesecake. Their hearts will break and then yours will break again. They will tell strangers embarrassing lies and some equally embarrassing truths. You will cringe and compare your team to others, calculating kindnesses and wits, stamina and grace. The voice inside that used to read real books and converse with large, thoughtful humans will tell you that, “comparison is the thief of joy,”** but that language is forgotten. The one you speak now is guttural, monosyllabic, and not friendly with aphorisms. The one you speak now is all business and would say something like, “aphorisms can kiss my ass.”
There will be mean girls and stupid boys. Dim-witted girls and brutal boys. Yours will say, “Not me.” You will believe them or want to believe them, but you will see the grafitti and know. You will have bully talks and drug talks and sex talks and long talks about things like “respect” and “responsibility” where it becomes quickly apparent that you are the only engaged participant. There will be bullies and drugs and sex. You will walk the finest of lines with regard to your own history. “When I was your age, I discovered psychedelics.” Straight-up lying is one possibility.
The only thing worse than imagining your parents having sex is imagining your kids having sex.
They will sneak out and cry wolf and make you whiny and worried, a floor-pacing hand-wringer. A stop sign — a real, honest-to-god stop sign — will show up in your son’s car. Another son will walk home one day carrying a big reflective sign with the name of your road on it. These signs are much larger than you would think and their presence in your house is possibly a legal problem. Judgement is terrifyingly slow to build. You wave and smile at the road crew as they replace the sign, picturing the original in the back of your closet.
They will cease to exist if you do not listen and watch. Their trials will be yours, times ten. Your heart will now forever be pinned on the outside of your body and you will only ever be as happy as your least happy child.
One day, they will show you a brilliance that you, yourself, have aspired to but not achieved. This will blow you up with pride but will also confuse you with its vague, unintended challenge. The child in you will call it insolence. The adult will tell you to grow up.
One night, your grown baby will creep into your bed in the dark and whisper the tale of the boy that fell from the balcony and was carried away in a helicopter. In the morning, someone else’s child will be dead and yours will be warm and weeping on your shoulder. There can be no god.
They’ll leave and soar and fall and run back and leave again and your hair will gray and you will begin to rub your knuckles the way your grandmother did. You’ll wake thinking of them and they will populate your dreams. You’ll ask, “Could I have done better?” They’ll smile and wave and pixelate away.
If they don’t kill you, they may actually save you.
*Kay Thompson, Eloise.
**Teddy Roosevelt, according to many.
Lisa Renee is a poet and essayist, living near a big lake in New York. Find her writing in Exposition Review, The Hairpin, The Billfold, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. And, of course, here on Medium. She is also managing editor of nonfiction at daCunha.