My husband had Chinese-American parents. Mine were white, uptight, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant/ Atheist.
Andy was expected to obey his parents without question. If his parents said his curfew was 10 PM, Andy was home at 10 PM. If Andy’s father wanted to sit on the couch and watch TV, Andy could forget about participating in Little League or any other sport.
I was expected to obey, but not without question. My mom was an attorney. Dinner table discussions in her house ranged from abortion to capital punishment. Everyone was encouraged to express their own opinions and defend them. If I could present a good argument for a curfew change or pierced ears, these items might be considered. (Lost on curfew, won on pierced ears.)
In the minds of Andy’s parents, raised mostly in Hong Kong, a disobedient child was unacceptable. Filial piety has been considered one of the highest virtues since Confucianism. A disobedient child is, in effect, immoral and will cause a parent to lose face in society.
In my house(s), my sisters and I weren’t judged as bad or immoral because we argued with our parents. We sometimes gained respect, even as a parent sent us off to our rooms. “She’s got a mind of her own,” they’d say, sighing with equal parts frustration and admiration.
My first experience with a contrary child was Baby Brother. I was thirteen, attempting to get a usually compliant three-year-old ready for the family trip to the library. I crouched at the end of the hallway and held my arms out wide, calling, “C’mon, Baby Brother! Let’s go!”
Usually Baby Brother would run into my arms for a hug. I’d scoop him up and we’d be off.
This time, though, he gave me a huge grin—before turning his back on me and running away, giggling.
My jaw dropped. I gave my mother an outraged look, only to find her doubled over. Laughing. “Oh, my God,” she howled. “You used to do that all the time. I thought I’d have to wait until you had kids to see that happened to you!”
Baby Brother was just one of many baby siblings (and actually the least contrary). By the time I had a child of my own, I expected him to have a mind of his own.
Andy did not. Andy remembered doing what his parents told him to do and figured kids automatically did that.
Andy’s paternity leave ended about the time Baby D was becoming mobile. Because our child was such an early riser, Andy usually only had a few hours with Baby D after he got home during weekdays.
I was the primary caregiver to our increasingly contrary child. Alone. My mom didn’t live long enough to see any of her grandchildren, and other grandparents were hundreds or thousands of miles away. I had my friend JM as an occasional babysitter and Childwatch at the YMCA.
Every few months, I’d call Andy, yelling something along the lines of, “I can’t even get a shower!” or “He hit me in the eye with Toby the Tank Engine!” or “I can’t take it anymore!” Mostly I got voicemail. Sometimes Andy answered, listened, and offered to come home early. Once he DID come home early.
I thanked him that evening and said I was sorry about the ranting.
Andy said, “Yeah, about that. I really hate listening to all that yelling, especially when I’m miles away and there’s nothing I can do. It’s so upsetting.”
“Really. Is it as upsetting as getting a black eye from Toby the Tank Engine?”
“Look, sometimes I’m so frustrated and exhausted I have to vent. And is it better that I yell at Baby D, or is it better that I put him in his crib and call and yell at you?”
“But why do you have to yell at all?”
Which of course made me want to yell right then and there. Because unless you’ve cared for a demanding child who doesn’t nap for 12 hours, you just don’t know how exhausting it can be.
Andy was about to learn, though. Not long after I realized I needed more breaks and my husband needed to shoulder more Baby D responsibilities, his parents called from Hawaii and demanded a visit. They hadn’t seen the Number One Son of the Number One Son in a year. Of course they didn’t want the bother of traveling to us. They insisted that we go to them. Again.
I put my foot down. “You can go. You and Baby D.”
Andy blanched. “By myself? On a five-hour flight?”
“I took Baby D to the East Coast to see my family alone because you had to work. I’ll give you my finger puppets, the activity book, and some games for him.”
“My plane ticket would cost another thousand dollars,” I reminded my frugal husband, and then added the coup d’ grace. “Plus a few hundred dollars for dog sitters.”
Andy couldn’t argue with that. He cautiously scheduled a five day trip to Hawaii for the two of them. On the day they left, he was confident he could handle solo parenting and looking forward to their vacation.
Thirty minutes after their plane touched down, Andy called.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked.
“No!” Andy yelled.
“What’s wrong? Is he hurt? Is he sick?!”
“He’s fine, but he only took a half-hour nap and I had to entertain him the whole flight! And now we’re in the rental car, but he’s refusing to get into his car seat! He wants to climb all over the car and put the seats down and mess with the controls and it’s so hot and I had to manage him and all the luggage and carrying the heavy car seat! And I finally got his seat installed and he refuses to get into it! He crawled into the tiny space below the back window where I can’t get him and he won’t come out!” Andy ranted.
“Okay, okay, I understand,” I said. Because I did (and also because “Ha! Welcome to my fucking world, it only took you seven hours to crack!” would not have been helpful). “I know it’s really frustrating that he won’t listen. But he’s been cooped up for hours. Just turn on the car, crank the AC, and wait. He’ll come down eventually.”
Andy grudgingly agreed. I kept him on the phone until he was cooler and calmer. Baby D finally climbed into his carseat and fell asleep on the way to Nai-Nai and Yeh-yeh’s house.
Andy did okay after that. For two days.
And then the next call came.
“Do you know what your son just did?!” Andy yelled. “We’re on our way back from the Pineapple Plantation, and he’s waving his blanket around, and I keep telling him not to wave his blanket, so then he throws his blanket on the floor, where I can’t reach it, and now he’s screaming for his blanket! Only there’s nowhere to pull over and get it!”
I could hear Baby D over Andy’s rant, wailing. “Blankey! Want Blankey!”
“It’s okay, honey, there’s nothing you can do,” I told my husband. “Eventually he’ll tire himself out and fall asleep. At least you’re in the car, that should help.”
“Yes, but we’re not moving! And he won’t quit yelling, and it’s his own fault!”
“He’s a toddler, honey, not a rational human being. Just turn on the music and try and ignore him.”
“Do you know how hard it is to ignore someone who is screaming at you?”
I deserve an Oscar for keeping all irony out of my voice as I answered,
“I do, honey. I do.”