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‘Hell Is Other Parents’ echoes ‘No Exit’ theme

Can time spent in a Mommy and Me class really be likened to a stint in the depths of h-e-double-hockey-sticks? To reflect on whether the comparison holds true, consider the insights shared in the new book “Hell Is Other Parents: And Other Tales of Maternal Combustion” by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Here is an excerpt.  

I read “No Exit,” Sartre’s famous existentialist play, in my early 20s, and I remember thinking at the time that it was interesting on a conceptual level but not on a literal one. Hell might very well be other people, okay, sure, but under what far-fetched conditions would anyone ever actually be trapped forever in the company of strangers with no sleep or means of escape?

Then I became a parent.

And I realized that anyone who defines hell as being stuck for eternity with an adulterous deserter, a lesbian sadist, and a narcissistic baby-murderer has never spent an hour at a Mommy and Me class. Or killed a Saturday afternoon in the children’s shoe store in my neighborhood, with its sign-up sheet 30 kids deep and shoe projectiles flying across the aisles. Or been forced into any seemingly innocuous but secretly agenda-laden interaction with the parent of your child’s peer.

What would Sartre have made of the Mommy and Me mother who angrily cupped her hands over her toddler’s ears the minute my then-2-year-old son, pointing to a cardboard cutout of Cookie Monster, identified him thus? “Sam’s never eaten a cookie!” yell-whispered this mother, a former lawyer who ran her spotless home like a military outpost, battling daily assaults against sugar.

What kind of pungent riposte would Sartre have invented to counterbalance the Mommy and Me teacher, a mother herself, who said to the one other working mother in the class — that would be me — “It’s really a shame you have to work. Jacob seems so sad the days you’re not here.”

Or to this line, delivered many years ago by a father at my son’s preschool, who, upon being called at home one particularly snowy evening in the obligatory parent phone chain, replied, “You call the next person on the list and tell them there’s a snow day tomorrow. I’m busy.”

Is it just me?
I began to wonder if it was just me until I started asking around and realized I wasn’t alone in my inferno. There was the mother in the children’s shoe store who yelled at my friend Esther’s 3-year-old daughter for licking a pair of boots. When Esther ran over to apologize, explaining that her daughter was a special-needs child, the woman turned to her and said, with untrammeled venom, “But those were the last pair!”

There was the capitalist father who scolded our then-12-year-old, a highly sensitive boy who’d just purchased and proudly donned an orange Che Guevara T-shirt, for supporting a socialist: “You know,” he said, “Che was a sadist.” There were the parents in our son’s preschool who fired their German au pair for cooking store-bought pasta instead of making it from scratch. This actually turned out to be a boon for us, since we hired the young fraulein after our own nanny was poached, in the children’s section of our local Barnes & Noble, by a corporate lawyer who could not understand why I lost my temper when she called our home afterward for a reference.

Then there was ... well, let’s call her Inez, in honor of “No Exit.” Inez is a parent at my daughter’s school, the kind of woman without whom urban public schools like ours would not survive. She works tirelessly on school committees, volunteers every year as a class parent, chaperones field trips, spends her lunch hours patrolling the cafeteria, and uses whatever spare time she has left to write and send out e-mails such as “trip sign-up — please check my list!!” and “Mr. [redacted] needs paper towels and tissues ASAP!!!” She is the parent who sent out the e-mail headed: “tennis ball noise abatement project,” asking for volunteers to help score tennis balls with a knife, so that they might be placed under the legs of each chair in the school, thus eliminating, once and for all, the sound of scraping.

I was willing to overlook Inez’s eccentricities, exclamation points, and ball-stabbing zeal not only because I understood her value to the school community, but also because our daughters were best friends. In fact, I took pride in my ability to get along with Inez, despite the gulf between our parenting styles, and I believed, deep down, she felt the same way about me. She might not have condoned the fact that my children watch PG-13 movies or that I shuttle them around the city on a Vespa, but she seemed to be willing to let her prejudices drop, like so many pierced tennis balls, for the sake of our daughters’ friendship.

Then one night my husband and I arrived home late from seeing a movie and found a note my daughter Sasha, then 9 years old, had left on the dining room table: “Urgent. Call Inez as soon as you get home. She said it doesn’t matter what time.” It was past 11 o’clock when we read this, but I did as instructed, wondering what could be so urgent that it would require our immediate response.

“Hi, Inez,” I said, when she picked up the phone. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong,” she said, sounding livid, “is that someone, and I’m not sure who, told my daughter she had sex with a lemming.”

Really?” I said, trying to let that particular abutment of words — sex, lemming — sink in without laughing.

“Yes really,” she said, not amused, explaining that she’d both e-mailed the school and called every parent of our daughters’ friends — nine households in all — to get to the bottom of it. She wanted me to confront my daughter, immediately if possible, to find out what, if anything, Sasha knew about the incident. She was also concerned that our daughters had started hanging out with the kind of kids who were kicking dodgeballs onto the roof of the school: the kind of kids, she’d warned her daughter, who might one day end up doing drugs. But the whole dodgeball affair paled in comparison to the one about sex with a lemming.

Most things, I thought, paled in comparison to sex with a lemming, even for lemmings, but I kept my mouth shut. “Well, I appreciate your bringing all this to my attention,” I said, “but Sasha’s asleep right now,” thinking, as I said it, that I should have been too, “and I don’t really want to wake her up.” I was also confused: how could Inez’s daughter not have known which of her friends had told her she’d had sex with a lemming? “My son likes to say the word lemming,” I said — and really, I thought, when you get right down to it, who doesn’t? — “so I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Sasha. But the sex part gives me pause. Anyway, I’ll let you know what I find out tomorrow.”

A scholastic scandal
The next morning, I woke Sasha and brought her into my bed for a snuggle and a little chat. “Sasha,” I said, “did you tell Alice that she had sex with a lemming?” It should be noted that Alice, (not her real name), is one of those children teachers dream about having in their classrooms and parents exult over having in their homes. She is sensitive, kind, well behaved, bookish, and hyperintelligent, countering an innate shyness — think Beth from “Little Women” minus the scarlet fever — with a puppylike eagerness to please.

Sasha rolled her eyes. “No,” she said, as if that were the most absurd question anyone had ever asked. “I didn’t tell her she had sex with a lemming. I told her she humped a lemming.”

“Um, Sasha?” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “Do you know what humped means?”

“No,” she said, looking worried.

“It means to have sex,” I said.

“Uh-oh,” said my daughter. The only disciplinary problem we’d ever had with Sasha up to that point was when she was 3 years old, and her father and I were called in to speak with the head of her preschool, who forbade us from making playdates with boys. When we asked why — Sasha’s best friends, at that time, were all boys — the headmistress explained, gravely, that our daughter had been taking the boys from her class into the dress-up area, tying them up with a jump rope, and turning them into her slaves. Willingly, she added, but still.

“Yeah, uh-oh,” I said. “You know it’s wrong to say something like that to your friend, right?”

Sasha looked crestfallen, tears silently sliding down her cheeks. “Yes,” she said, “but ...”

“But what?”

“But she called me a goody-good again, so I —”

“That’s no excuse,” I said, cutting her off. “I told you two wrongs don’t make a right.” During the prior month, Sasha had been complaining that Alice kept calling her a “goody-good” during lunch. When she asked my advice on how to deal with it, I told her that the next time her friend — or anyone else — resorted to name-calling, she should simply get up from the table and move seats.

“Just listen to me!” said Sasha, the tears falling faster now. “After she called me a goody-good, I moved to a different table, just like you said, but then Alice stopped talking to me, so I was trying to make her laugh when we were lined up for recess by telling her jokes, so she’d be my friend again. That’s why I said, you know, the thing about the lemmings. To make her laugh.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering when copulating rodents had replaced knock-knock jokes in my daughter’s arsenal of zingers. “Unfortunately, however, here’s the deal: Inez has called every one of your friends’ parents to tell them about this.” I listed all the families, one by one. “Plus she e-mailed your teacher and the principal.”

“What?!” Sasha blanched. Then she broke down sobbing. “That’s it!” she bawled. “I’m never going back to school again!” She buried her nose in my neck and left it there, leaking, for several long minutes. Then she popped her head back into the shoulderless world and yelled, “Why did Inez call all the other parents? This was between me and Alice!”

“I don’t know,” I said. “That’s the part that doesn’t really make sense to me either.” I held her shaking body to me and tried to calm her down.

An hour later, with her equally apoplectic infant brother in tow, I walked — okay, pulled — Sasha the 12 blocks south to her school. When we arrived, she refused to go up to her classroom. “Look,” I said. “Regardless of what happened, you still have to go to school.”

I stole a nervous peek at my watch and wondered which of the three coffee shops near my daughter’s school would have the best atmosphere for a conference call. I’d been back at work since Leo was two weeks old, writing freelance magazine articles, shooting photographs, and flying around giving lectures. I would have liked to have taken off a bit more time after the birth, but my family relied on the income from these various assignments and speaking engagements to cover our bills between book contracts, and I had a call scheduled in half an hour with my editor from "Travel & Leisure Family" (a contradiction in terms, I’ve always thought — why not "Waiting on the Tarmac & Schlepping Too Many Suitcases Family"?) to go over the final edit of a piece I’d written about trying to hike through the Costa Rican jungle while six months pregnant: a dumb plan, it must be said.

Leo’s screams grew louder. If I found a quiet place to nurse him near the school, I’d have just enough time to whip out both computer and breast before the call.

“I can’t go in there,” Sasha said, becoming more and more unhinged, planting her heels firmly in the pavement in front of the school. “It’s too embarrassing.”

“Yes, you can,” I said. “And you will.” The baby was now trying to nurse the outside of my jacket. The last stragglers were making their way into the school yard. People, as you might have guessed, were staring. Others were trying to maneuver their way around the rubberneckers, shooting us irritated, I’m-in-a-rush glances. If only I’d had sex with a lemming instead of with their father, I felt like saying, you’d all be making your way to Starbucks unimpeded.

Normally, I would have just left Sasha off at the front door of her school and waved good-bye. But normal, I realized, was being redefined. Is it normal to call nine families after your child had been insulted? Or is it normal to view such a reaction as overblown? I fall on the more permissive, laissez-faire side of the parenting equation, and I realize that my style is not for everyone, but the more I look around, the more I’ve become convinced that my fellow parents, as a group, have lost their minds.

“Come on, sweetheart,” I said, putting my arm around my daughter’s heaving shoulders and leading her inside. “You can do this.”

‘I know you’re not a bully’
When she refused, once again, to go up to her classroom — “Now everyone thinks I’m bad!” she cried. “I used to be good!” — I escorted her to the school office and told the administrator manning the desk that, due to a somewhat delicate situation involving children and the mating rituals of rodents, my daughter was too distraught to go upstairs. Say what you will about public school bureaucracies, but no more than three minutes had passed before Sasha’s fourth-grade teacher was sitting in that office with her arm wrapped tightly around my sobbing child. “I got an e-mail last night saying you were a bully,” she whispered to Sasha, “but I know for a fact you’re not a bully, so let’s talk, okay?”

Sasha was now crying too hard to speak, so the teacher asked me to join them upstairs as interpreter. “Okay,” I said, swaying the baby back and forth to keep him quiet, wondering if it was normal to expose one’s 40-year-old nipple to one’s child’s teacher, “but only until she regains her composure.”

I explained the situation as best as I could, both to Sasha’s teacher and to her guidance counselor, who was brought in as a witness — clearly, flashing one’s lactating breast to one’s child’s teacher as well as to the guidance counselor does fall within the spectrum of normal, after which Sasha had calmed down enough both to be her own advocate and to hear, from people other than her mother, that though her words to Alice the previous day were inappropriate, as was Alice’s frequent chiding of her for being a goody-good, sometimes it’s actually the parents who can be the worst bullies.

Speaking of which, I told the two women, it was probably best if I left, worried as I was that my presence might somehow give Inez more ammunition. “Oh, but wait,” I said on my way out, explaining that Inez was expecting my call. “What should I say to her?”

I was told to leave a message for Inez on her home answering machine — since she spent many hours a day at the school, the message would be waiting for her when she got home — in which I should say, simply, that the school would be handling the situation from now on. Which is what I did.

Less than an hour later, Inez called my cell phone, wondering if Sasha had owned up to her crime.

“Yes, she did,” I said, “and I told her it was wrong, and she feels bad about it, as do I, and she — we — apologize.” Though I should have just hung up the phone at this point, I couldn’t. There was one part of the puzzle that still had me stumped. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but if you knew it was Sasha all along, why’d you call all the other parents?”

“I didn’t know it was Sasha,” she insisted, though I no longer believed her. “I was just trying to get to the bottom of the situation.”

The very bottom, I thought, exhorting myself, once and for all, to hang up the phone yet finding it impossible to do so. “Inez, you do know why my daughter made the joke about humping a lemming, right? You understand it was in reaction to your daughter giving her the silent treatment, after having called her a ‘goody-good’ for the past month? She was trying to make her —”

“That’s not my daughter’s fault,” she said. “That’s the school’s fault.”

“The school’s fault?”

“For handing out rewards for good behavior.”

“Excuse me?”

Our daughters’ teacher, saddled with 29 children in a too-small classroom, had come up with what I considered to be a perfectly reasonable solution to keeping noise and disciplinary issues at bay. Instead of continually yelling at them — to quiet down, stop throwing paper clips, sit in their assigned seats, etc. — she offered what any good CEO, parent with a star chart, or dog trainer knows works best: incentives. For every good deed in the classroom, a ticket was awarded which, once accumulated with others, could be traded in like so many skee ball tickets for a palm-size plastic toy.

Apparently, or so explained Inez, Sasha had received more tickets than Alice. Which was both upsetting to Alice and clearly unjust. “The teacher shouldn’t hand out rewards in the first place,” said Inez. “It’s not fair to the ugly children.”

“The ugly children?” I gasped.

The line went silent for a split second, and then, with some urgency, Inez corrected her Freudian slip. “I meant the other children,” she said.

Suddenly, blindingly, I saw the whole picture, as if staring down at a snow globe I’d previously been trapped inside. Inez, for whatever reason, had become convinced that my daughter, whom she deemed less worthy than hers of good behavior tickets, was being favored because of her appearance. Once Sasha had slipped up, once she’d revealed herself to be flawed and human, like everyone else, Inez spotted an opportunity to take her down, not only in the eyes of her teacher and the administration, but in the court of public opinion as well.

I felt enraged over the deliberate pain inflicted upon my daughter, but I also felt a surprising, simultaneous jolt of pathos toward this mother, along with an overwhelming sense of sadness and existential dread for Alice, whom I prayed would one day find her way in the world solo, out from under her mother’s wide wings. I loved that little girl. And I root for her even now. But I don’t get to see her much anymore. Sasha and Alice, since that day, are no longer friends.

Doing the right thingTheir estrangement is so permanent that when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and we decided to throw Sasha an “emergency” bat mitzvah four months shy of her 12th birthday, so Dad could be around to see it, I noticed Alice’s name had been left off Sasha’s long list of invitees. It had been exactly two years since the incident in question — an eon in kid years — and Sasha had moved on to other friendships, many of them quite intense in the way that prepubescent relationships can be, but still, I couldn’t believe Alice no longer even merited a nod. Kids she barely knew made it onto that list.

“You have to invite her,” I insisted, drowning out my daughter’s thunderous cries of protest. “End of story.” The ultimatum went against everything I believe about not interfering in my children’s social lives, falling as it did, ironically, into Inez’s mold of parenting, not mine. But if my dying father taught me anything in his foreshortened life, it’s not only that two wrongs never make a right, but also that sometimes you have to break your own rules and go against your own grain and character in order to do the right thing. Even if it feels wrong.

Inez had tried to drown my daughter in buckets of social embarrassment and shame. If Alice was not invited to a party to which most of her friends were invited, then she might feel a similar sense of unnecessary ostracism. As angry as I’d once been at Inez, there was no way I was going to allow the girl to be a victim of her mother’s errors.

The other day I ran into Inez standing outside the school, waiting, as she still does, for Alice to emerge. Her hair had gone completely gray. She looked diminished, old. We exchanged banal pleasantries: beautiful day, the teacher’s fantastic, did they send home a note about Back-to-School Night yet? My heart has softened toward her, and I no longer see her as evil incarnate but rather as we all are: flawed and human. Our daughters are in middle school together now, too old, in my opinion, to be picked up, so I don’t see Inez or any of the other parents anymore except on rare occasions. The previous night, I’d asked Sasha if I could meet her after school to take her out for hot chocolate, just once for old times’ sake, and she’d agreed to humor me.

Alice exited first, and when she saw me standing behind the school fence, peering in at the sea of faces, she nearly smiled and waved. But then she spotted Inez, and her hand slunk down, and she walked over, slope-shouldered, to greet her mother.

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