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Peanut Butter on Toast

April 5, 2012

When I was growing up, our neighbors were close friends with a family that had good kid overlap with them. (If people really like you, they will have kids the same ages as yours. Or kids who are old enough to babysit yours. Or both.) One night, the parents went out together, and the friends left one of their children with the neighbors’ children for a first sleepover. As is often the way of these things, when the friends came back with the neighbors to see how things were going, the host child was asleep, but the guest was awake and wanted to go home. So the parents complied, and all was well until the next morning, when the host child awoke to . . . no friend.

“Where’s JJ?! JJ was sleeping over! JJ was going to stay for breakfast! WE WERE GOING TO HAVE PEANUT BUTTER ON TOAST.”

Just hearing the story, I could see the dreams dashed, the fond imaginings of a fine time reduced to smoking rubble by the exercise of another person’s wants, wants that did not include sleeping in a strange bed in a strange house with parents other than one’s own.

This is what happens to me, only it’s not nearly as endearing, when I make plans for myself and my own children.

This point was driven home years ago, when I said that what I wanted for my birthday was a family trip to Philadelphia. I am a person of  simple but hideously expensive and impractical tastes, and I dreamed of staying in a fancy hotel and doing one fun thing each day with one kid. The rest of the time would pass with quality togetherness for the whole family. I’d considered options for activities with each kid, I’d talked to them about what they wanted to do, and I was feeling pretty happy when I set off with a kid for the first outing. We’d gotten several hundred feet from the hotel when he made it clear that what I thought we wanted to do wasn’t what he wanted to do any longer. As I proposed plans B, B’, B”, and so on, and he balked, I gave myself the gift of second-guessing: Should I push though because he has been known to enjoy himself once he’s actually doing something? Should I cut our losses and just hit a bookstore, buy him a stack of books, and head back to the hotel? Should I take him back and see if another kid wants to do something with me?

And the whole time, there was a low hum of self-pity in the back of my head: “We were going to have peanut butter on toast! I mean, lunch and an afternoon at the Franklin Institute! And you, with your free will, you came along and changed your mind and ruined everything!”

So it went for most of the next two days, until a strep infection led to some spectacular barfing (the money we saved on pony rides and gelato and trips to museums went to buying forgiveness from the good people from housekeeping) and the decision to go home early.

It was a scene that repeated itself, sometimes minus the barfing, on subsequent family vacations. I stopped expecting to have special magical time with each child, but I did hope that maybe five people with wildly divergent but equally strong personalities would somehow manage to find a way to compromise, to take turns getting what they want so that by the end of vacation, we would all look back and think, “That was fun.”

But instead, what I get is a group of people thinking, “Vacation is supposed to be fun, and these other people are ruining it by getting between me and what I want to do.” I no longer think vacation will be fun for me, but I am unable to stop thinking about how much this is costing, and the meter running in my head occasionally interrupts itself to allow an important message to scroll past: This is what you are paying to have a really bad time.

In an homage to other people’s great parenting ideas (plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery), every year my Peerless Spouse or I take each boy on a trip. One boy, one parent. The boy calls the shots for a weekend, and it’s pretty nice. But when I am the one home with the other boys, I fall into a trap I have baited for myself with peanut butter on toast. I imagine that we will watch things the absent brother doesn’t like, go to restaurants the absent brother doesn’t like, and just generally enjoy life made 33 percent easier (if also 33 percent less interesting).

That is not how it usually goes. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but instead I keep trying to foist peanut butter on toast on them, and they keep rejecting it. I know they’re rejecting it because they don’t like peanut butter on toast, but — and I know this is stupid, I do —  it feels like they’re rejecting me. That loud, roaring noise of Sadness and Despair? It’s me, in a Heffalump trap, with a peanut butter jar stuck on my head.

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One Comment
  1. April 29, 2012 3:24 pm

    I followed you here from your wonderful comment on Swistle’s Weight and Daughters post, and I’ll have peanut butter toast with you any day.

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