“Nick, will you bring me your jeans? I need to wash them,” says Nora after the dishes are done, beginning the nightly load of laundry. Nick has already taken his jeans off. They are somewhere. He’s been running around in his underpants.
“I’m not your house elf!” comes the reply.
What does this mean? Let’s be clear. There is no irony in his voice, not a hint. My eight-year-old son expects to be taken care of by servants, which is to say, Nora and me. He himself is not a servant. Ergo, he will not help.
It’s another of those very large conversations, where I expect myself to reflect and be wise and know or at least work out the right thing to do or say. Only I can’t do any of those things because I am not your house elf has made something in me snap. What I want to do is scream and tear my hair out and then tear his hair out.
What I actually do is run upstairs to get far away from him. He and Nora are having words right now but the rage I feel disqualifies me from that conversation. Thank God there are two parents in this house. Most times one of us, at least, has a chance of being sane. Occasionally, that person is me. Usually, lately, it’s been Nora.
Voices go off in my head:
See! This is what comes of your permissive parenting and that permissive school you send him to.
You are raising him a slacker and it’s only going to get worse.
Does the word discipline ring a bell with you?
Later I see him carrying his dirty jeans downstairs to the washing machine, grumbling they don’t even say please to himself. How Nora has accomplished this I can’t imagine. I’ll have to ask her about it if I manage to get sane again before falling to sleep. But this doesn’t happen.
Much later, at 3:00 AM, I wake with an anxious feeling. This often happens to me. I resolve to name the feeling. I have to lie very still and do nothing. It’s like watching waves. It takes a while, then the words come to me in the dark: Things are utterly out of control. Yes. Exactly.
Suddenly I understand why there are military schools and punishments, zero tolerance and “No Child Left Behind.” It’s because things are utterly out of control.
Oh, there is abundant evidence that military school and punishment and zero tolerance and the rest don’t work, which is to say that squelching children does more harm than good. But I don’t want to hear about it just now because I don’t want to sugarcoat the dark heart of what I’m up against in myself. The dark heart is this: if I feel that things are utterly out of control, then I also am utterly out of control. It’s the same thing.
I get out of bed and write all this down. You heard it here first: I’m out of control. I had better face this if I want my motivations to be clear. Otherwise I should abandon hope that my words will mean anything at all.