After a few weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had tried polite refusal, contrived excuses, even pretending we weren’t home. I knew I had to confront the situation head-on – but how exactly do you confront a six-year-old?
Neighbor Girl lives across the street, and she used to walk into my house every weekend sans invitation, helping herself to my refrigerator and my daughter’s toys. This situation is foreign to me, considering I grew up on a farm in Iowa. My only neighbor kids were my cousins, and – because we were related and all – my parents had no problem shooing them away like pigeons when they’d outworn their welcome. Besides, we’re Lutheran, and Lutherans don’t go anywhere without calling first.
I’m a woman who likes privacy. Having small children whom I didn’t name building dams out of my shoe collection unsettles me. Actually, it evokes a visceral reaction not unlike my response to petitioners and mimes. After I left Iowa, I lived first in Chicago and then in Kansas City, where I didn’t know my neighbors, and my neighbors didn’t know me. Even after my daughter came along, we never had other children around. It wasn’t until we arrived in suburbia that we noticed those people who lived in the other houses on the street actually talked. And sometimes (gasp!) crossed our property boundaries with extensions of friendship. I found it quaint and old-timey – the way a neighborhood should be – as long as I could control the length of the interactions.
When Neighbor Girl’s family first moved in, my husband and I rejoiced. A six-year-old! Across the street from our five-year-old! They’d be best friends and make mud pies and lo, our daughter would be so entertained! It never occurred to us that we would be peeling Neighbor Girl off our home-loving, individualist daughter as she staunchly refused to play dress-up when she’d been happily coloring up until the knock came at the door. Our daughter likes Neighbor Girl a lot, but she doesn’t appreciate being barged in on any more than I do. Therein lies the rub.
The Neighbor Girl situation came to a head one Saturday when I foolishly answered the door at 8 a.m. to find a freckled face staring up at me. “Can I come in and play?” Neighbor Girl asked. My daughter stood behind me on the stairs, hopeful this would mean she didn’t have to clean her room. I looked down at my pajamas, felt my unwashed hair. I caved, and with that, I lost The Force.
Flustered, I continued to clean the house. But these children! They dragged out every toy! They messed up every room as soon as I moved to clean it! I could feel the corners of my mouth tightening as my voice took on an edge: “DO NOT MESS UP THIS ROOM!” I said in my sternest mommy voice. “CAN’T YOU SEE I’M CLEANING? GO OUTSIDE.”
My husband had gone to get an oil change or this never would have happened. The seventh of eight, he grew up in a town, accompanied by a roving band of pirate children who raided and plundered kitchens until one parent or another would chase them out with a broom. (Maybe I exaggerate, but not much.) When he returned home two hours later to find me shaking in my closet, a bottle of glass cleaner gripped in one hand like a weapon, he was shocked at my frustration.
“Why didn’t you just send her away?” he asked.
“I did! Five times!” I wailed, crumpling in embarrassment.
It’s true. I did send her away. She would walk across the street to her house, and then ten minutes later the doorbell would ring as she pleaded with my daughter to join her across the street. My girl was having none of it. She wanted to stay in her own house, play with her own toys, and I didn’t blame her. We didn’t ask for an 8 a.m. wake-up call – why should I force my natural hermit out if she wanted Barbie to do Jazzercize in her own bedroom?
Finally, my husband put an end to the madness and firmly sent Neighbor Girl home. He used the same exact words that I did, but she accepted them from him. She left. I cried. Apparently, I thought, I’m not cut out for this suburban stuff after all.
We tried various techniques to contain the visits. My husband promised to be my partner in Operation Neighbor Girl. We tried various techniques to contain the visits:
Good cop / bad cop: This timeworn technique works in several ways. First, it rids us of Neighbor Girl for the rest of the day. Second, it keeps my reputation as friendly mommy intact for the occasions on which I have to talk to Neighbor Mommy, who is a delightful person and no doubt unaware that her child roams freely on the days she’s out of the house. Third, it reinforces my husband’s Man Card should we ever need someone to get a kickball off the roof or rescue a cat from a tree.
Timers: Whether we set the timer for a half-hour or three hours, the timer functions much like a clipboard at a fraternity party, providing instant, third-party authority. I’d love you to stay another six hours and force me to spend my Saturday dividing up toys, but my lands, the timer! We certainly can’t argue with a piece of ticking plastic.
The word “hosting”: Neighbor Daddy seems not to notice when Neighbor Girl rambles over, or else he thinks we don’t mind. I mentioned the last time I saw him that we wouldn’t be able to host his daughter before noon on the weekends, as that was when we polished our silver. In our current-day, business-casual world, the mere formality of the word “hosting” strikes fear into most people’s hearts, because God forbid they have to return that sort of favor.
Calling ahead: I mentioned to Neighbor Mommy that it would be good to call ahead in upcoming weekends as we had some dangerous house projects coming up and wouldn’t want the girls to get hurt. Of course, the most dangerous thing we’re doing is planting thyme, but it’s far easier to say, “No, not right now, dear,” over the phone than to an upturned, freckled face at your door.
It’s been a few months since that fateful Saturday morning when I found myself questioning the benefit of living without a barbed-wire fence, and I admit, these techniques have worked. The neighbors are good people; they simply didn’t realize the constant visits bothered me. Since then, the knocks at our door have mostly been invitations for our daughter to play at Neighbor Girl’s house, and I’ve made it a point to show up within the hour to tote my girl home under any pretence necessary.
And what do you know – when Neighbor Girl’s visits slowed down, I actually enjoyed them.