As you know if you know me at all, I love to read. I’ve loved it since I first learned how to do it, and before I had kids I wasn’t happy unless I had three or four books going at once. I liked to test my memory by switching back and forth among them several times as I plowed through each story, trying to keep all the characters and plot threads straight.
But that was Before, and now that it’s After, I’ve decided that fiction has failed me in one important way. So I’m going to call it out: Fiction, you never told me what it’s like to have small children.
Obviously, fiction doesn’t have a real responsibility to me or anyone else on this score. But I rather naively thought that it would tell me The Truth because in my experience it has told me The Truth, in all its complexity and ugliness and glory, about so many other things. From small specific things like what it feels like to twist sticks of hay to burn during a blizzard so you don’t freeze to big things like the power of human decency in the face of horror, fiction has challenged and informed me. And because kids are kind of a big thing, I trusted that fiction would get it right, presenting at least some sides of the crazy story of what it’s like to parent a little kid.
However, there is a lot missing from stories with children, and in most cases it’s the actual children themselves. Much like the convenient babies of TV (exhibit A: Dexter’s son, Harrison, who randomly showed up to convince us that maybe Dexter could love after all and promptly disappeared without fuss into the arms of his nanny because let’s face it, Dexter would have killed any kid who behaved like an actual kid), the offspring of fiction are not as – let’s politely say – multi-facted as the the offspring of reality. In fiction, they seem to be almost invisible until they get old enough not to need anyone to wipe their butts.
I can immediately think of a couple of reasons why authors skip over realistic descriptions of life with the 5-and-under set: first, it would totally derail their plotting, and second, it might make the reader think he or she was having a stroke. Plot derailment is inevitable because small children have a tendency to derail everything without any real effort on their part. For example, at dinner earlier this week, I literally spent 35 minutes repeating, “Yes,” every time my son picked up a piece of chicken with his fork and asked, “Is this chicken?” Every. Single. Time. If I had had anything planned other than sitting at the kitchen table and saying the same word 35 times, it wouldn’t have happened; fortunately, by now I know to build in extra time for this sort of thing. But probably no one wants to read that in a novel. After the first four times he asked the question, I didn’t even want to be living it.
As far as the stroke goes, in real life yes, you may develop a facial droop if a small person head butts you in the eye socket enough times. As a reader though, you might have trouble picturing how much pain a small child could really cause a grown woman or man with just one tiny, dimply elbow. And even if you stayed with the story through the Attack of the Ferocious Baby-beast, chances are you’d get confused by the repeated conversations, the screams of rage when a toy car that doesn’t have doors that open won’t open its doors, and the non sequitur conversations that start out calling one character a princess and end by talking about dinosaurs shooting each other with poop. Or something.
So, fiction, I do get it – children can be loose cannons who are difficult to work into your plot in a way that isn’t guaranteed to annoy the reader and make him or her impatient. But if you are going to have them present in a story – which sometimes you must because they DO exist in real life, after all, and therefore they must sometimes show up in the fictional universe – have them in a realistic manner. Don’t pretend you’re including children in your story when all you have is a cardboard cutout of a child. That is another type of story entirely, and it isn’t fooling anyone. Give those crazy kids the stage for a minute or two, just for the sake of verisimilitude. And for the sake of the parents. There are ways to do this that won’t turn the reader off, I promise. For instance, write a story that is super clever and full of magical realism and a slightly off-kilter sense of the world, and then reveal at the end that you haven’t been inside the mind of a mad genius but a 4 year old who has actually gone temporarily insane from eating a bag of Halloween candy. I would totally read that book. But I guess I may have to write it first.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll just reread the chapters in Tina Fey’s Bossypants where she discuss what it’s like having kids, especially the one where she talks about the drunk midget living with her. I have one of those too, and to my chagrin, he keeps vomiting in my bathtub.
Readers, if you know of any novels/short stories I’ve missed, let me know! I’d love to check them out. Though I submit that if Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses doesn’t know about them, I’m not sure they’re out there….