Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Grass is Always Greener.

About six months after I moved out of my mother’s house, I was back home for the afternoon. I don’t remember exactly why but I’m guessing it had something with being able to do laundry without having to hoard quarters. While grabbing some ice for my drink (another benefit to home-laundry: free drinks), I observed the Lean Cuisines in the freezer. In fact, I observed the freezer had become a sort of elephants' graveyard of branded low-fattitude -- Lean Cuisines as far as the eye could see. I astutely noted to my mother, “You seem to own a lot of Lean Cuisine.” She nodded, smiled and replied blithely, “Yep, that’s dinner most nights. Lean Cuisine and a glass of wine.” She then added with a happy sigh, “It’s wonderful.”

I was shocked. I sputtered, “But where’s the salad?” Nearly every night of my childhood, there was a salad on my plate, usually cozying up to another vegetable and some form of protein. I had to make serious inroads on the green stuff if I had any hope in hell of getting dessert. My mother said casually, “I haven’t eaten a single salad since you left the house. Not one. I only did that for you.” She thought for a moment and then said with a certain buoyancy, “I never have to eat a salad again if I don't want to.”

I was, in a word, stupefied. Only a few days earlier, had you asked me how my mother felt about salad, I would have predicted she'd be moving to a more tolerant state to marry lettuce. At the very least, she was a lifetime member of the Salad Bar Association. Now it seemed my mother had viewed eating salad in the same category as wearing cheap shoes so one could afford to send one's child to cotillion, or becoming Classroom Mom, or trick-or-treating -- just another noble sacrifice on the altar of parenthood. Suddenly, having inculcated me into the World of Romaine, she had gone back to the swinging single-gal diet of her pre-Quinn life, minus the cigarettes.

In politics, a grass-roots organization is a collective effort which springs up from the needs and desires of a motivated segment of the population. Sometimes, a movement appears that resembles a grass-roots organization but is, in reality, underwritten and managed by a large corporate sponsor or a well-funded lobby. These are known as “Astroturf" organizations. I am starting to realize that a fair chunk of the parenting I do is less grass-roots and more Astroturf, springing less from deep maternal convictions than from an itchy awareness that, being a parent, I am supposed to care about these things.

Things I really do care about include: please and thank you; thank-you notes; being kind (even when no one is looking); working hard on a school project (not because she needs to know about the Miwok nation but because she should know what it feels like to work hard and be proud of what she can accomplish); and being a person of integrity (even if it means a few lonely afternoons). Thes are all grass-root convictions, springing naturally from things I believe are important.

And then there are the Astroturf issues. Take teeth-brushing. Oh, please do. Every single morning and every single night it comes as a great surprise to Daughter that I expect her to clean those things. She gets snippy. I get shouty and wave-my-hands-aroundy. Even when the toothpaste isn’t vile and non-toxic, she still views brushing her teeth as some cruel and peculiar fetish of mine. And here’s the irony: until she began her orthodontic adventure, my feelings were mostly Astroturf. Even as I was hovering and barking about mouthwash some little voice in my head was sighing “Oh, let it go. She’s doing a crap job anyway. Eventually, someone will tease her at school for having bad breath and that will motivate her far beyond my ‘Domanatrix-with-floss’ routine ever will.” But then she got a palate-stretcher, and I started paying for it in monthly installments, and I started taking her to the orthodontist, and enjoying their copies of Highlights magazine, and my feelings about her dental hygiene became all too real. As Consort says, we own the note on those teeth. I will expect proper maintenance.

I only care about her hair being brushed to the extent that if we don’t fix today’s tangles they will meet up with tomorrow’s tangles, breed and form a super-tangle capable of awareness and bent on global destruction. I pretend to be obsessive about shiny hair because I’d rather she think I was shallow than tell her that her tangles sometimes hiss at me when I go after them.

When she wants to wear shorts in December, I protest. Not because I am concerned about her fragile well-being -- I have yet to see a child die of exposure in Southern California -- but because seeing her knees turn grayish-blue makes me have to put on extra scarves.

Bedtime? Kind of Astroturf. That would shock her, as up to 25% of every evening’s conversation becomes a Hegelian dialectic about the meaning of the phrase: It’s late, you are tired, you should be in bed. The definition of "late" is debated, her fatigue is debated, her place in bed is hotly debated. To Daughter’s way of thinking, I live to force her to sleep, a thing she neither needs nor wants to do.

My dark secret is that I know she’s a night person, just like her charming and nocturnal father, just like his entire family (her grandfather was a cameraman on “Saturday Night Live” and her uncle ran nightclubs in New York City. Other relatives have freely chosen the night shift of whatever job they did. I don’t think a single member of the family has voluntarily seen the front side of six a.m. since the Bronze Age). But if she is allowed to wander freely throughout the house until all hours I cannot do things like rewrite my book or watch documentaries like “Half Man, Half Tree.” She must be in bed so that I can have Quinn Time before I collapse in exhaustion, which in the natural order of things would occur about two hours before she does.

What I cannot tell her is that if she just turned the light back on after I tucked her in bed and read to herself quietly I probably wouldn’t notice or care. Sure, she’d be monosyllabic and unhelpful in the morning if she didn’t get enough sleep, but she’s a night person -- even with ten hours of sleep, getting her off to school is like pushing pudding uphill.

What’s great about Astroturf issues is that they have given Daughter so many ways to rebel against me that actually don’t affect me at all. She can spend all of high school wearing shorts in the driving sleet, her hair one solid mass of tangles, taunting me that I can no longer make her go to bed. With any luck, I will silently note that she's kind and fairly polite and diligent and brave. And then, in the most cunning tactic of Astroturf parenting, I'll do her the favor of seeming thwarted.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant ! I'm starting my Astroturf list right now. He's not yet two, so I have some time yet.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With six chicks myself, I can share that with Astroturf (what a great name... wish I would've thought of it!) at least you don't have to cut the grass!

Quinn, thanks for a great post!


5:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh this is perfect. I am right there with you on the brushing of the teeth and the hair tangles. And somehow daughter feels that carrying your coat in 32 degree weather is equivalent to wearing it.

Peace - REne

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had no idea, its like the How Things Are Made show!

2:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a 6 (almost 7) year old daughter. Maybe I need to sort out the grassroots issues from the astroturf issues. It won't decrease the amount of conflict, but at least I won't take it all so seriously.

6:35 AM  
Blogger BiPolar Wife said...

I am definitely a "Pick Your Battles" kind of mom. Giving birth three times in a span of four years, this attitude was one of pure survival and had nothing to do with a philosophical decision. Now that my kids are all teenagers, this attitude has come in handy and I am reaping the benefits. I may not flinch when my son says "Oh Sh**!" but for a straight A, honest, hardworking, neat and tidy kid, it's just something that I let go by me.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

I have a long astroturf list, too, and your last paragraph sums up exactly why. They're going to find something to rebel against; why not give them relatively minor and unimportant things, so that they'll spend their energy rebelling against a balanced diet and rigid hygiene requirements (yes, 4 year old, you do have to wash your hands EVVY TIME!), rather than having to go to dangerous or illegal extremes to get the desired rise out of their parents.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Swistle said...

YES. This is so good, and so true.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely love everything you write. I posted a shout out to your blog from mine, nominating you for two blog awards. Eagerly awaiting your book!

10:42 PM  
Blogger Joy! said...

Ha! I love this! And now you've given me a while new vocabulary for thinking about parenting battles, I mean, issues. Cool!

8:02 PM  

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