The Dinner Hour

From Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love. Edited by Jennifer Margulis. Seal Press: October, 2003. Available in bookstores nationwide.

“It’s five o’clock,” insists my daughter Avery with her usual authority. The strength of will and conviction of a three-year-old can be awe-inspiring, particularly by five o’clock. It’s actually only 4:51 P.M., but after a day short on naps and long on spectacular potty-training accidents, I feel entitled to round up. With my husband traveling for business, there will be no reinforcements. To Avery, five o’clock means one rapturous hour of television. Despite my previous ideals, I have made peace with television. I have also made peace with Happy Meals, vast quantities of Goldfish crackers, and talking Teletubby toys. Parenting is nothing if not humbling.

The program begins and Avery suddenly shrieks as if in physical pain. She wants a different show. A morning show. In the most soothing voice available to me at five o’clock, I explain my limited influence over both PBS programming and the planetary phenomenon of night following day. Avery bears my irony with stoicism, and I experience a moment of vertigo as she considers her next move. Cooperation or resistance? She wavers, and then relaxes into the couch. I’m flooded with relief. It’s equally flattering and exhausting to be regarded as omnipotent. Next I wrestle my clingy eight-month-old son Max into a backpack carrier and slip it on. This particular piece of gear is intended for hiking. I’m planning to unload the dishwasher and make dinner. Nevertheless, I’m feeling pleased with my ingenuity. With twenty-one pounds of teething baby on my back, I hike over to the dishwasher. As I bend down, Max shifts his weight for a better view. Perhaps he’s never actually seen clean dishes before. I stumble, and narrowly avoid impaling myself on the top rack as the phone begins to ring. Max’s pacifier falls out of his mouth and deep into the dishwasher.

Hopeful of any adult conversation, I hurry to the phone. It’s the trainer I called in desperation when our previously housebroken dog began peeing on our bed, on my side. The trainer specializes in dog/baby adjustments. I explain the situation, and we agree that the dog has not made a successful dog/baby adjustment. Over Max’s stream of discontented babble, the trainer ventures that our dog is distressed because he is never allowed in the house. I respectfully disagree, pointing out that he is never allowed in the house because he pees on our bed. The trainer is diplomatic, but I can’t help feeling he’s on the dog’s side. He suggests that I tie the dog to myself by stringing his leash through my belt loop. If the dog doesn’t feel excluded, he reasons, he won’t feel stressed. If he doesn’t feel stressed, he won’t pee on the bed. As I recover the pacifier with a long-handled spatula, it occurs to me that the dog trainer probably doesn’t have children. Mercifully, Max’s chubby hand reaches over my shoulder and disconnects the phone before he can offer further advice.

With the dog now tied to my pants, I attempt to remove dinner from the oven. Max seems to be interested in touching all the hot things he can reach, so I clamp his hand between my teeth as I execute this complicated maneuver. Meanwhile, the smell of roast chicken tantalizes the already unstable dog. He races around my feet several times, cartoonishly tying me up with the leash. I am undeterred. Under extremely trying circumstances, practically combat conditions, I will be serving a real dinner. Chicken, potatoes, and green beans. I fantasize about telling my absent husband the details. How nutritious it was. How easy it was. For whatever reason, I am not dissuaded by the fact that Avery has never actually eaten any of these foods.

As Avery’s program ends, I rush to untangle the dog’s leash and settle Max in the highchair. Avery stalks into the kitchen like a force of nature, and conducts a suspicious inspection of the table. She demands pancakes. When I gently refuse, she collapses prostrate at my feet. I take a deep breath, silently willing myself to savor our idyllic family dinner. Max throws his sippy cup. Inevitably, it lands directly on Avery’s head, and chaos ensues. In the split second it takes for me to retrieve the cup and comfort my hysterical daughter, the dog makes his move. He leaps onto my vacant chair and launches himself at the table, ransacking my plate before I can stop him. Stepping over my howling child to throw the dog outside, I think unkind thoughts about my husband and the dog trainer.

Avery sobs for a Band-Aid. This is problematic, as the cup has landed on the part of her head covered with hair. I try to get away with a pretend Band-Aid and a kiss, but this only enrages her more. I run to the bathroom for real Band-Aids. Max starts screaming the moment I am out of sight. I return quickly, but he refuses to stay in the highchair, where he is vulnerable to being left alone, however briefly. I allow Avery to play with the entire box of Band-Aids. This renders the Band-Aids useless in terms of actual first aid, but seems to mollify her. I ignore this blatant metaphor of my parenting style. At a minimum, Avery seems to have forgotten her head injury as she decorates the kitchen table with Band-Aids.

The dog scratches maniacally on the back door, casting baleful looks at my defiled plate of chicken. I consider the dog-training implications of just letting him eat the rest of it. Avery looks up from her art project and announces that she is hungry. I bring her plastic Elmo plate with me to the stove, and pop a few cubes of cold chicken in my mouth. With Max firmly on my hip, I reach for the Bisquick and begin making pancakes one-handed.

Find out more about the book at www.toddlertruestories.com.