This was originally written about nine years ago.
Puppet Masters: Kids Make Me Say The Darnedest Things
Let me assure you up front that I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don't believe, for example, that the footage of 1969's mission to the moon was merely a clever fake. Nor do I believe that Elvis is still alive and in hiding somewhere--if he were, surely he would've done something when, in the '80s, the song "Love Me Tender" became the name of a dog food: Love Me Tender Chunks. ("Love me tender/Love me true/Feed me something new...")*
That having been said, it should be all the more alarming that there have been times when I've been completely convinced my children were plotting against me.
I crossed the threshold of parenthood--an institution if ever there was one--fourteen years ago and haven't had a day of peace since then. It is not merely that I haven't slept through the night in all this time, not merely that I haven't performed bathroom functions without company on one side of the door or the other in years. It is far worse than that. It seems I am at my children's mercy in more than just the usual ways.
Somehow--maybe a chemical agent in their construction paper creations--my children have gained control of my mouth. They make me say things I never dreamed I would say.
We all had lists of things we swore we, as parents, would never say to our children--things we heard often growing up: "Because I said so." and "If you all don't straighten up, I am going to turn this car around right now." and "If you're not careful, your face will freeze like that." That's just a partial list of things we knew for a fact we wouldn't stoop to say to our own children. Of course, the list and our principles often go right out the window when we're face-to-face with a three-year-old screaming at a pitch that could shatter glass or we find ourselves driving around town with a car full of children who, from the sounds of it, are reenacting the gorier scenes from Lord of the Flies just beyond the sight range of the rearview mirror.
Things have gone a step further than that in my house, though. In the past fourteen years, not only have I said--often loudly--all the things I promised never to say, I have said things that, were they overheard, could earn me a quick trip in a tight jacket to a soft room.
I have said, "What would you like me to do, write Disney?" when my oldest son, at age eight, repeatedly pointed out that the parrot in Disney's Aladdin had teeth, when real parrots so clearly do not. To which my son replied, "Yes, please, and while you're at it, tell them the lobster in Little Mermaid would only have been that red if it had been cooked."
To the emergency room staff, I have said, "My son swallowed a boutonniere pin." about this same son, who, at twelve, should've been well beyond the stage where choking hazards consume a parent's every waking moment. I was comforted to hear that my son wasn't the only one to carry the oral fixation past toddlerhood and into puberty--only the week before, a woman across town had had to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her six-foot-two-inch, seventeen-year-old son, when he accidentally swallowed a Lego building block he'd been absent-mindedly chewing while doing his homework. I can only imagine the sentences that came out of her mouth, once the danger had passed. Both boys escaped without permanent damage. Two years later, the verdict is still out on their moms.
To my second son, then eleven, who was repeatedly and fruitlessly running over the same piece of string with a soft-sided vacuum cleaner that clearly had no suction for a fairly obvious reason, I blurted, "When the vacuum cleaner looks eight months pregnant, it's probably time to change the bag." It's an indication of how far things have deteriorated that the phrase sounded perfectly logical in my brain. It was only after the words were loose in the open air that it sounded a bit, well, off.
Over the years, I have also said, "Son-Three, don't milk the dog." In my defense, my youngest son was, in fact, milking the dog. Our beagle had had puppies a few weeks before. Son-Three, then four, came upon her while she was resting on the sofa, the only place she could get any peace from the constant demands of her litter. She was lying on her side, teats exposed. Son-Three squeezed the nearest teat and a stream of milk shot across the coffee table. Still, "Don't milk the dog." is not the kind of thing you're prepared to hear yourself say.
To this same child, around the same time, I said, "Son-Three, don't swing from the chandelier." I felt I had stumbled into the punch line of a bad parenting joke when I came upon him literally swinging from the chandelier in the dining room. We moved the dining room table after that, and raised the chandelier, just to have to avoid speaking that sentence again.
My daughter, at eight, the youngest of my children and the only girl, has only recently come into her own in this department. Just a month ago, I had to say to her, "Don't rub bread on your face." She was standing in front of me holding two slices of bread, waiting for a gap in my phone conversation, apparently intending to ask what sandwich fixings were available when she began rubbing a slice of bread on either side of her face. Strangely, in all the years I devoted to daydreaming about the warm, wonderful, soul-searching conversations I might have with my children, and all the hard-won wisdom I imagined I might one day pass on to the next generation, the phrase, "Don't rub bread on your face." didn't play a major part.
When these illogical and unexpected phrases began popping out of my mouth at an alarming rate--looking back, around the time the first of my children became mobile--I couldn't help but be a little concerned. Was parenthood too much for me? Was my mind going? Worse, were the increasingly odd things coming out of my mouth an indication that our lives were spinning completely out of control?
With each passing year, though, I've come to see the odd phrases and the moments that inspired them not as symptoms, but as gifts. No, I am not exactly the parent I dreamed of being, nor are my children the spunky, but angelic tykes I fantasized giving birth to in my pre-parental days. But the reality is so much more entertaining, educational, and, yes, soul-enriching than the cardboard cutout daydream version would have been. And, maybe my kids are making me say this, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
*This was not part of the original essay, but as I was typing this, it occurred to me that even if Elvis were willing to let the damned dog food thing slide, Lisa Marie's bizarre and blessedly temporary marriages to Michael Jackson and then Nicholas Cage would surely have spurred him into revealing himself.