Have I screwed up my daughters forever?

Notes on fatherhood.
Feb. 15 2007 2:54 PM

Monsters

Have I screwed up my daughters forever?

This article is part of an ongoing series by Michael Lewis about the birth of his third child. Click here to read the other entries in the series. Michael Lewis first began his "Dad Again" column after the birth of his second daughter, Dixie, in 2002. Click hereto read about that delivery.

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Just four weeks after the birth of my son, both of my daughters are living, in effect, outside the law. They act as if they have nothing to lose, and, materially speaking, they don't. They've behaved so badly, for so long, that everything that might be taken away from them has been taken away: TV, candy, desserts, play dates, special dinners, special breakfasts, special outings with parents. They are like a pair of convicts in a Soviet gulag with nothing more than they need to survive—and still they continue to subvert the authorities. Oddly, their teachers all say that at school they remain little angels.

One evening it's just me and the little angels at the dinner table. Tabitha nurses Walker in another room. I have just tried, and failed, to settle the 10th dispute of the evening—who will sit in which seat—with a coin flip. At first they loved this new approach to conflict resolution: It was fair, it was interesting, it was new. And then I pulled out the coin to flip it:

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"I get to call it!"

"No, Quinn, shut up, I get to call it!"

And off they went again, at the tops of their lungs—which they will do, I now know, until Quinn clobbers Dixie with a hair brush or Dixie rakes her fingernails across Quinn's chest or some near-mortal wound is inflicted. Earlier this very day, seeking solace, I described their strange case over lunch to a good friend who happens to be a social psychologist. "Do you know the data on siblings across species?" he asked, before I was even half done. I didn't. "Oh yeah," he said. "Half the time they kill each other." He ran through a few species: Sand-shark siblings eat each other in their mother's oviducts; hyena siblings eat each other the minute they get out. The blue-footed booby is especially ruthless: "If their siblings drop below 80 percent of normal body weight," he explained, "they peck 'em to death." That would be Dixie, whose teeth marks can now be found on her sister's legs.

I glare at my children, they glare back at me. They think I am weak, I decide. They want to play hardball; they don't know what hardball is. They will now learn. Yet another generous neighbor has brought us yet another extravagant dessert: a ginger and molasses cake, topped with whipped cream. But they are grounded: no desserts for a week. In better times I might sympathize with their predicament. I might toss them a crumb. At the very least I would sneak my cake later, alone. Not now. I cut myself a large piece and crown it with whipped cream, all the while feeling two pairs of eyes tracking me around the kitchen. Heaping great dollops of molasses and whipped cream onto my plate, I sit back down. Their own sad plates are decorated with cold, half-eaten vegetables.

Dixie. Click image to expand.
4-year-old Dixie

I coat the first bite in whipped cream, swipe it once through the molasses, and, slowly, raise the fork to my mouth. Then I see Dixie's face. Her lower lip trembles and tears stream down her sweet little face. It's an involuntary response to a horrible realization: Daddy doesn't care. He's going to inhale his yummy dessert even though he knows Dixie can't have any. It takes a few seconds for the sobbing to kick in, as she runs from the room.

"See what you did, Daddy!" shouts Quinn, chasing after her.

Through gritted teeth I shovel the ginger and molasses cake—but as I do I sense, uneasily, that I've read this story before. I wait until everyone is asleep and then dig it out of my bookshelves. Will This Do?was what British journalist Auberon Waugh called his memoir. On Page 67 I find what I'm looking for, Auberon's description of his father, Evelyn:

… On one occasion, just after the war, the first consignment of bananas arrived. Neither I, my sister Teresa, nor my sister Margaret had ever eaten a banana but we had heard about them as the most delicious taste in the world. When this first consignment arrived the socialist government decided that every child in the country should be allowed one banana. An army of civil servants issued a library of special banana coupons, and the great day arrived when my mother came home with three bananas. All three were put on my father's plate, and before the anguished eyes of his children, he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three.

When I first read that passage, I thought: what a monster. Now I think: the poor guy. "From then on," Auberon concluded, "I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously." "That was the only time," I can imagine Evelyn replying, "when I treated my children with the barbarity with which they treated me."

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