Birthday parties. What in the world is it about the stupid BIRTHDAY PARTIES?
We've gone to a few very successful birthday parties since, well, the very unsuccessful ones. I've gotten selective about which ones we attend -- if it seems like a low-key affair at your house, yes. If it sounds like something with a lot of structure and set activities, I usually decline.
We went to a party this weekend. At someone's house. It was big yet fun and low-key and full of general mayhem, in a good way. There was also...a petting zoo.
It was so cute! So fun! Delightful! Some ducks and chickens and bunnies and a pony whose head barely reached my knee (but whose penis practically touched the ground and I'm sorry I can't help but notice it I mean look it's right there and it's huge OMG). Noah initially resisted the call to round up around the enclosure and meet all the animals, but by the end of the handler's introductions he was begging to have a turn inside.
He stepped in and accepted a lap-mat of some old carpet and the tiniest baby bunny ever. He held it gently and giggled and declared his love for it over and over again. Jason and I beamed from the other side of the fence and I wondered how much this sort of thing cost, like I do at every party we attend because I guess a successful party turns me into Liz Lemon in Cleveland. This is a great party! ! I want to have this party! I want to live at this party!
And that's about what I was thinking around the time Noah suddenly decided he was done holding the bunny. And...I don't know what happened, except that...one second the bunny was on his lap and then...oh my God...the bunny was on the ground. He dropped the bunny.
There was a collective gasp from every adult in the vicinity and Jason and I kind of screeched in unison at him and the handler scooped up the bunny and...oh my God...Noah was LAUGHING.
The handler scolded him. "That's not funny," he said. Jason took Noah inside for a Serious Talking To while I just sort of stood there in the mob of parents and kids, hoping maybe the ground would open up and swallow me up. Oh hi, yeah. I'm the mother of the kid who dropped a baby bunny on its head and then laughed about it. Parenting win! Wanna playdate?
Noah spent a few minutes in time out and then rejoined the party. Just in time for the animal handler to bring out one last friend: a tortoise. He plopped it outside the enclosure in front of a crowd of mostly unsupervised toddlers and preschoolers and instructed them to only pet its shell, and NOT to touch its head.
I crouched down with Noah and repeated these instructions. He patted the shell and then tried to get a better look at the turtle's face. I pulled him back slightly because I just had a really bad feeling about this -- there were easily a dozen kids crowding around the turtle and I felt the level of impulse control was collectively dropping.
And then, for reasons I simply cannot fathom, Noah raised his foot and moved it slowly in the direction of that turtle's head, like he was going to kick it.
I had my hands on him again within a millisecond and yanked him completely away from the crowd and the turtle. I looked up and there was a finger in my face. It was the animal handler.
"KEEP HIM," he said, moving his finger from me to Noah, putting much emphasis on the word him, "AWAY FROM THE ANIMAL."
When I was in first grade our teacher attempted a slightly too ambitious art project involving covering cardboard stars with aluminum foil. I guess she bought the wrong foil or something, because we all had a terrible time with it. The foil kept ripping and puckering and nobody -- not even The Kids Who Were Good At Art (of which I was one of) -- could get their star looking remotely decent.
The teacher kept giving out new pieces of foil whenever we tore ours, and after having my hand raised for awhile, I approached her in the aisle and requested a new one.
Instead of giving me the foil, she spun around and yelled at me. She used my full name and told me to go sit down at my desk that instant and use the foil I already had.
I went back to my desk and cried. I remember the sight of that shredded foil and my ugly star blurring up under my tears. I did the best I could to fix it but it still looked terrible -- doubly terrible, now that I was one of The Kids Who Get Yelled At (of which I'd never, ever been).
I get that my teacher was probably stressed out and thoroughly annoyed, and that my request for a third or fourth or fifth piece of foil simply came at the absolute wrong moment, and I wasn't supposed to step away from my desk in the first place, but oh, to this day I remember everything about that moment -- the tone of her voice and the look on her face.
She hung everybody's star over their desks anyway, Mine was not a Good Star. I hated it and hated looking at it and when they finally came down I tore it into little pieces before tossing it in the trash.
I guess you can add "birthday party petting zoo animal handler guy" to the list of people I never expected to get yelled at by. But even now, many many hours later, I can still remember everything about THAT moment. The way he instantly singled Noah out as the troublemaker, the way his voice changed from the enthusiastic party entertainer to General Serious Angry Person, and the way he turned the word "him" into something more like "your out-of-control sociopathic kid."
My chest deflated like I'd been punched. I nodded meekly and grabbed Noah's hand and walked quickly and wordlessly back inside the house, where I proceeded to give Noah a verbal dressing down of epic proportions.
Jason -- who hadn't witnessed any of it -- came in and tried to find out what happened. He thought, from the way I was talking to Noah, that he'd actually kicked the turtle. Which...he hadn't. And...I don't think he was really going to. I think maybe he thought he could get around the "no touching" rule if he didn't use his hands? Maybe he was just overwhelmed and weirdly impulsive? Or maybe he wanted to scare the turtle? Oh God, why would he want to scare the turtle? WHAT. THE. FUCK.
Another father overheard my shaky-voiced explanation about what happened and declared it all to be bullshit, there's a good 50-plus kids here under the age of five (many of whom are, BY THE WAY, considered special needs), the turtle shouldn't have been outside the enclosure in the first place.
And I agreed with that to a point, but still. I looked back at Noah and his mostly oblivious face and got whacked with a huge secondary wave of emotion. He didn't care that I was upset, he didn't care that he might have hurt or scared the animals, he only cared that I was making him sit in time-out. I felt kind of woozy at all the implications of the situation. Where's his empathy? Is this normal? This isn't normal. What have we done wrong? We have pets, we love our pets, his father can't even bring himself to kill a mouse. He laughed that time I accidentally stepped on Ceiba's paw and she yelped, I'm always reminding him to be more gentle. How did I miss this? I'm a good mother. I work so hard. I love him so much. How did I end up being the mother of That Child at the birthday party?
Or, conversely: How did I end up being the mother who allows six words from a complete stranger to send her into an absolute tailspin of parenting confidence?
I told Jason I wanted to leave, but he insisted we stay. We swapped kid duties so I could watch Ezra and have a break from Noah and my face-melting anger and embarrassment. Ezra watched the ducks inside the pen and tried to imitate the quacking. The handler asked if I wanted to bring him inside. I politely declined, saying I thought he was a bit too young.
(Fuck you, I also thought.)
(I'm sorry, I also thought, immediately after.)
We came home and had several more talks about what happened. Noah was able to correctly parrot back what he had done wrong, though I couldn't help but feel that he still wasn't getting the why. Jason Googled some books on being nice to animals. I went through our DVD collection and plucked out anything that presented people or animals getting hurt as "funny."
And I calmed down. I dialed back the terrible fears that This Was All So Indicative Of Something. Noah is not going to grow up to be a serial killer because he may have almost maybe thought about kicking a turtle at a four-year-old's birthday party. It was not my proudest parenting moment but I must be doing okay if it actually does end up being one of my worst. I thought about what happened in first grade and laughed at myself, a little bit. Deep breaths, moving on, sack up, ho.
He's still a Good Star.