Cracker crumbs and Camels Backs

A Micro-Perspective on Parenting

I’d been having a pretty normal day as the parent of a three-year-old and a four-month-old--stretched thin, but staying on top of it all--when I came into the bedroom to find that the dregs of a box of crackers had just been methodically dumped onto the bed. It was the classic last straw. I think that box of crackers has a lot to say about the dilemma that we as parents find ourselves in. We have some sense that raising children is a big challenging job and important work--but the things that are hardest seem so little.

I’m in a rage about the cracker crumbs, but at a loss about what to do with it, besides killing the children, which I know I’d regret afterwards. Well, you might say helpfully, how about a quick phone call to a friend? But no non-parent would understand--they’d just tell me to clean them up, it would only take a minute--and all the parents are probably in the middle of their own cracker crumb crises. Besides, what do I do with the children (the older of whom undoubtedly emptied the cracker box because he wasn’t getting what he really wanted from me in the first place) while I’m on the phone? Either I arrange child care--an idea too ridiculous for words-- or I set up the children as best as I can and spend my five or ten minutes on the phone wondering what I’m going to have to clean up, fix up, wipe up or otherwise deal with when I’m through.

The end result of this careful consideration of the possibilities is that I don’t do anything with the cracker crumb feelings. I try to put them behind me and go on struggling to be the best parent I can manage to be.

Yet reflecting on this incident helps me see that a major part of the job of parenting is handling an endless series of moments, the contents of any of which, by itself, may seem completely insignificant. It is precisely the accumulation of those little things--the cracker crumbs, the refusal to put on shoes when you’re in a hurry, the bowl of cereal on the floor, the demand to be carried when your arms are full of groceries, the cry of the waking child just when you’ve finally settled down to work, the request to have a book read for the sixth time--that make parenting so hard.

When I took this experience to a group of mothers, on told me that she would love to listen. “You tell me about cracker crumbs on the bed, then I can tell you about bananas in the stereo.” Parents are dying to tell all those stories to each other. (We can win in both the telling and the listening: the idea of bananas in the stereo--something that I, mercifully, have never had to deal with--puts me in stitches every time I think about it.) And we can teach non-parents. (“It may seem odd that cracker crumbs can make a grown woman feel so desperate, but it’s true, so just listen.”)

It’s a wonderful opportunity to change my point of view. No longer am I stuck with: “if you were really a good mother you would just take these little upsets in stride.” Now I can thin, “These moments are the essence of what’s hard about parenting. Of course you’re upset--congratulations for not killing them.” And the more you can acknowledge the importance of such moments and vent that rage, the better you’ll do.