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Parenthood's Dirty Little Secrets

March 12, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At closing time, the lights come up and the carnage is revealed. Cups everywhere, some overturned in sticky pools of their former contents; shredded napkins, loose change and the grimy film of a hard day's night. The music is still blaring, and it's hot; people struggle into their coats, staggering a bit, and slowly move to the chill damp of the sidewalk. The die-hards, the party animals.

It's 10:30 on Friday night at Chuck E. Cheese, and I cannot believe that this is my life. I've closed many an establishment in my time, reeled through countless doorways in sweaty disassociation, blinking against the same pounding headache. But usually there were substances other than root beer and pizza involved, and usually the guy who accompanied me was older than 2 3/4.

It is a milestone of childhood, the first Chuck E. Cheese experience, yet it is mentioned in no parenting book I have read. There is no "What to Expect" advice on how to keep track of shoes and socks and tokens and children who move faster than the speed of sound, who disappear into ball pits and overhead tunnels, no tips on how to recognize your youngster's "Moooommmmmeeeee" over the cacophony of a hundred other voices raised in similar refrain.

This is my major complaint of parenthood--no one tells you what it's really going to be like. Oh, everyone tells you it will change your life, but they really don't elucidate. At least not beyond the details any simpleton could imagine: that your sleep will be interrupted, that there will be no more spur-of-the-moment weekends away, that you can't spend all your money on black shoes or fishing trips anymore.

The books advise things like "making time for yourself and your spouse" and "lowering your housekeeping expectations," which make perfect sense until you actually have a child and then they become patently ridiculous. Make time? It's not enough that I have to make meals for the toddler and milk for the baby, now I have to make time? What am I, God? And it is impossible for anyone to lower housekeeping expectations that are nonexistent; it merely becomes a question of deciding which is more time-consuming--sifting through the mounds of toys on the floor in a desperate search for "the little Buzz, Mama, no, no, the little one" or putting away the toys each night.

It's not just your life that changes, it's you and the universe around you that change. Yes, you find yourself saying those Things I Will Never Say, like "I'm going to count to three," and "Because I'm the Mommy, that's why." But it goes even deeper than that. Here are but a few of the more startling things parenthood has changed and revealed:

1. Commercial awareness. Suddenly, all those ads for laundry detergent and fabric softener make sense. Just as one never appreciates Top 40 radio until the big breakup, a childless adult rarely understands the need for a product guaranteed to remove chocolate, grass and ketchup stains, while making both whites and colors bolder and brighter. Once, if a garment was too stained or dingy, it was simply disposed of. Try disposing of a certain someone's favorite dinosaur sweatshirt that is covered with stains. Welcome to the world of bleaching with a toothbrush.

2. Those yellow rubber gloves. Remember the ones that your mother wore? The ones that symbolized the general tyranny of housework and pre-feminist womanhood? The ones you swore you would never, ever don? It's either those or dishpan hands, baby. As a single person, I never had enough dishes to understand what all of Madge's customers were complaining about. Now I have dishes galore, and baths, and assorted hand-and-face washings. So I also have yellow rubber gloves. And Jergen's lotion.

3. Self-defense. Someone really needs to teach a class in parental self-defense. I have been punched in the nose, poked in the eye, bitten, head-butted, rammed in the stomach and generally tromped on in a manner that would not be out of place in the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I don't know other people's responses to being punched in the nose, even by accident, but mine is blind rage. I have had to hand the offending child to the nearest adult and leave the room. But it would be great to have a few defensive moves to prevent the situation. Baby Kav Maga or something.

4. Pain. The general pain of parenthood took me by surprise. I expected it during delivery and those wonderful postpartum weeks (although nothing prepared me for the agony so often called "extreme discomfort" in those helpful pregnancy guides). But I figured by week six, I'd be able to get through the day without a steady diet of acetaminophen. Not so. If it's not my back, it's my shoulder; if it's not my shoulder, it's my head. Or my feet. Or my knees. Sometimes even my hair hurts. The bottom line is, love hurts.

5. Lines. I've always been pretty good about waiting in line. Pre-children, I usually carried a book at all times; if I was without, I could entertain myself for hours by eavesdropping. Now, however, I believe there should be federal legislation mandating special lines for those accompanied by children under 5. It really would be better for everyone involved. And I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for every eye-rolling, tongue-clucking grimace I ever made as a childless person when standing near a bawling infant or lollipop-wielding toddler and their beleaguered mother. In fact, I apologize for simply standing in front of her, when, clearly, I should have yielded my place in line, for her sanity and mine, for the sake of humanity.

6. Joy. The baby's smile as she pulls herself up for the first time, the music of the first "I love you, Mama," the sight of those two perfect bodies playing in the tub together. Nothing beats it. Nothing ever will. Nothing at all.

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