By Elizabeth Beller
Sometimes she says, “Who’s in charge?” Sometimes our four-year-old daughter puts it more bluntly. “Who’s the boss? Who’s the boss of the family?” She knows this gets a rise out of us, so it’s usually in jest. But sometimes she means it.
When she means it, we are often abashed at the implication of mixed messages coming from her parents. We try to diplomatically explain our egalitarian co-parenting. Once she said, “I think mommy is in charge because she yells the loudest.” Oof. Another time she said, “I guess Daddy is in charge, because he is tall and can squeeze the hardest”.
When the interrogation is in jest, we all chime in.
“I’m in charge!” Tom says.
“No way,” I say. Loudly. “Clearly, it’s me.”
“Me!! I AM IN CHARGE!” bellows our daughter, one measured decibel louder than me.
It’s all fun and games until it ends in tears. The truth is, our family is engaged in a power struggle, sometimes played out gently, sometimes with a ferocity usually found between rebel military factions or campaign managers. We’d been told about the “F-you Fours,” but nothing prepared us for negotiating with a small, needy, irrational person who is simultaneously quite logical and craving independence. Admittedly all this was exacerbated when her little brother arrived. She wanted a sibling until she was told she was getting one. After years of IVF, last January I was finally safely into the second trimester, and we told her the news. I asked her if she wanted it to be a boy or girl.
“I want it to be a duck.”
A different tack. “What do you want to name him?”
We sometimes walk in Audubon Park and watch the ducks. Whenever one plunges its head underwater, ungainly feet and tail feathers wriggling, we call out, “Duck Butt!”
Thus, Duck Butt Beller.
Once he arrived, she realized there was no squabbling or negotiating his needs. Diaper, nap, nurse. Non-negotiable. On the other had, he has no say about anything else. We can take him anywhere and often do. I still get extreme pleasure from the befuddled and slightly dismayed look on his face when he wakes from a nap to find himself at the park, in his sister’s schoolyard, or even another state. But his sister can express her desires about extracurricular activities, and often does so simply to contradict her parents. And not surprisingly, she treats her brother like a prince and reserves her rancor for the pawns driven by the desires of these small despots.
“Can I have a movie?”
“Not today. Movie day is Wednesday.”
“Why does it always have to be that way?! Can’t I just have one today?”
“Please! Please! Why? Why? How far is Wednesday?”
“OH!!! That’s like forever. Why do you get to say when everything is? Why do you get to make the rules? That’s stupid! Please!”
“MOM! IF YOU WERE A KID AND SOMEONE WAS ALWAYS TELLING YOU WHEN AND WHERE YOU COULD DO ANYTHING AND YOU WERE NEVER IN CHARGE HOW WOULD THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?”
Well, it would make me feel beleaguered and fairly hysterical. In fact, that’s exactly how I felt as a kid, which is probably where she inherited her fine sense of indignation at the slightest hint of coercion. When I was nine, I announced that I would would no longer go to enforced Sunday church with the family, because it wasn’t like we were religious any other day of the week. I knew this would be a particularly provocative statement for the opposing cultural forces of my mother and father — Southern Methodist and Roman Catholic, respectively — that often ran in cross currents in our house. Or maybe she learned from my husband, who has his own hysteria toward authority: His first headline for the school newspaper he started was “Student/Teacher Animosity: Whose Fault Is It?”
I want to tell her the bad news is that we are always under someone’s thumb: parents, teachers, bosses, lawmakers, the IRS, and, as we have heard so often these past couple of years, less clearly defined forces in the intersecting worlds of finance and politics. Being told what to do never ends. Or the end is nigh. It works both ways.
But instead I say, “When you get older, you will be able to make your own decisions.” It’s said less than halfheartedly, since I once read that the part of the brain responsible for rational decision-making doesn’t develop until 25. I think about how recently it kicked in for me, and add “Daddy and I will do it for you for a while, though.”
“Like you guys decided I wasn’t allowed on a ladder during Mardi Gras, and then I fell off Daddy’s shoulders and had to go to the hospital?
When she stumps us, my husband and I do a check-in, like nervous chimpanzees patting each other for comfort. We struggle to find a way to be in charge. We can’t figure it out.
“Well,” Tom says. “In the end, like all of us, she is responsible for herself.”
A beat of silence. Then we convulse with laughter at what this might look like. Movies 24 hours a day: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Backyardigans, Word World, Spiderman. Meals consisting solely of marshmallows, Gorilla Crunch. The occasional strawberry milk. Never bathing, ever. No, she cannot be left to her own devices.
None of us can. I would consume scads of Ativan at the baby’s every ear infection (of which there were many) or our daughter’s uncanny ability to shake her booty since toddlerhood like a pre-Baby Blue Ivy Beyoncé without Tom to talk me down. And he, in turn, wouldn’t be able to leave the house, at least not with keys, laptop, phone, etc., which he delights in putting in obscure places — glasses have been found in the pink and green toy kitchen’s microwave — or refrain from satisfying a po’ boy craving in the French Quarter minutes before a meeting in Uptown without my help. Most importantly, neither of us could function without the boundless love we have for the tiny crazy people we are bringing up.
We’re all responsible for each other. There is no ringleader. The rings lead us, tether us to one another, a shield from the circus outside.
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