The scene: My 7 (almost 8) year-old daughter is reading a book to me before bed. She gets to a part where the main character is talking about her mother and her grandmother and my daughter turns the book around quickly so that I can see the picture. (Side note: some of you might be thinking She’s almost 8 and she’s reading a picture book? It was assigned by the school so my conscience is clear). I see the picture very quickly and then blurt out: “Which one is the grandma, the big one or the small one?” Shit. Shit shit shit. Maybe she didn’t hear me. “The small one,” she responds. “Why is the mom so big?” Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I know that I’m not supposed to use descriptions that draw attention to a person’s weight (especially when talking to a girl (GLARING STEREOTYPE!)) or any other physical or emotional quality that could be deemed “bad” or “undesirable.” And I’m usually very good about that. But it happened so fast. And I was tired and hungry and one of the characters looked…so well-fed. I didn’t even think before I spoke (Typical. In our house my behavior is known as “open mouth, insert foot”).
As I “Monday morning quarterback” the situation a day later, I think about some alternative things I could do or say the next time this happens. The first option is that I should think before I speak. But I’ve been telling myself to do that for years and it doesn’t stick. Like the time I told a camp counselor with bad teeth that she looked almost exactly like a teacher of mine from home except that their teeth were different. In truth, the teacher had worse teeth than the counselor but it didn’t even occur to me to explain that until later, when someone else pointed it out, and by then it was just too awkward. But I’ve clearly gotten past that. It happened 21 years ago and I barely think about it more than once a day.
The most obvious thing to do next time would be to leave well enough alone. Why ask a question that doesn’t need to be asked? Who cares which one the grandma is? The problem with this approach is that I’m constantly being bombarded with instructions and studies and data about how parents need to be present when they’re with their children and I feel like if I don’t ask questions and create a discussion, I’m not being present and therefore doing a bad job. And if I’m not present then my children will have low self-esteem, eating disorders and an inability to self-soothe. They probably won’t even go to college or be able to hold down a job. Next thing you know they’re living on the streets, begging for food for themselves and their stray dogs (dear God, please don’t let this happen) and it’s all because I wasn’t present. No, I have to ask questions.
Alternatively, I could come up with a totally unrelated word to use if a situation like this arises again, like industrious. “Is the mom the industrious looking one?” I could ask. But then my daughter will end up with a 300 on the SAT and I’ll have no one to blame but myself. On second thought, I’ll get her an outrageously expensive tutor and then I’ll be able to blame him.
Maybe I could reprogram myself to only say nice things all the time so that my default commentary will be something nice. “Which one is the grandma? The sprightly one who must be the mahjong champion of her retirement community? She doesn’t look a day over 40!”
Clearly, the best thing would have been to say something completely uncontroversial like, “Is the grandma the one cooking or the one sitting at the table?” Duh. It’s not rocket science, it’s an illustrated children’s book. Why can’t I just keep things simple?
In slightly related news, in one picture in this school-assigned book, the mom is tired (obviously) and is reclining (a.k.a. passed out) on a chair with her legs splayed wide and a cat sitting in her crotch. I kept my mouth shut on that one.
In other slightly related news, the mom seemingly went from 350 pounds to 125 pounds between pages 8 and 10 with no mention of a diet, exercise or stomach stapling surgery. And guess who noticed? That’s right, my 7 year-old.
And as a final point of interest, this parenting fail rivals the parenting fail that occurred when I ordered my 3 year-old son a bike helmet that said “Beaver Believer” on the back and didn’t even notice.