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.

1_123125_2063881_2157154_2158723_070215_da_missingteethtn
Quinn shows her fangs

One afternoon I find my wife standing in the kitchen preparing, once again, to cry. The pills they gave her instantly silenced the brain screams. She's gone from being terrified that she's losing her mind and that everyone she loves is going to soon die to being, occasionally, sad. I'll come across her getting dressed or sterilizing baby bottles, standing as still as a lady in a Vermeer painting, with tears in her eyes. There's no point in asking what's the matter—you might as well ask a flat tire why it doesn't have air. She's enduring this strange hormonal postpartum deflation that has nothing, really, to do with her. She's gone from needing to be rescued to wanting to be comforted. Which is, in theory, where I come in.

On the afternoon in question, the girls snack on tubes of yogurt, which they will now eat only if they come frozen just so—even though they aren't meant to be frozen. I walk in, note them squabbling madly about who gets the grape yogurt and who the strawberry, see the pools growing in Tabitha's eyes, take her in my arms and ask, "Do you two have any idea how lucky you are to have a mom who takes such good care of you?"

Advertisement

Dixie, preoccupied with the Battle for the Grape One, does not hear me, but Quinn looks up for a moment, stares at us, and says, "There's lots of good moms."

It's her new trick, to render cold and dispassionate judgments about her parents at their moments of greatest vulnerability. Two days earlier she and Dixie were both home sick, and I went off to my office, consumed with anxiety, to figure out a) how expensive it was going to be to build another bedroom for the baby (very), and b) how I was ever going to work again when I didn't sleep. At the first opportunity Quinn snuck into the TV room, clicked around the Tivo, found a biography of Bill Gates, and called Dixie in to watch it with her. An hour later I returned to find them both waiting for me: Quinn with hands on hips, Dixie forlorn and grasping a handful of berries.

"Daddy," said Dixie, seriously. "I got some berries from the Gulf Stream waters."

"Why did you do that?"

"So we can eat them. Because we are poor."

Which seemed like a sweet reaction to the Bill Gates documentary, until Quinn fixed me with her I'm-here-to-speak-the-truth-to-power stare and said, "We're poor, Daddy. And you didn't tell us. You lied to us."

The 7-year-old mind. Click image to expand.
7-year-old Quinn

As always, it's hard to say whether it's developmental or just mental. Must the 7-year-old mind discover for itself every possible way to offend other people before it can settle on a more sociable approach? Is this just the bug that comes with the software upgrade? I don't know. At any rate, as I stand there with her mother crying in my arms searching for the words that will encourage her to be sweet, I come up empty. "Your mother takes really good care of you and me and Dixie and Walker, and I'm really proud of her," I finally say.

"You're just saying that to make her feel better," says Quinn.

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:

"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."

Post-It note. Click image to expand.
The Post-it note

The next morning I wake up and go to the bathroom to shower and shave. Stuck on the bathroom mirror is a dark blue Post-it. The handwriting is unmistakably Quinn's:

Meany Meany
You Are A
Meany
DAD

After that, all is silence. For the next week no one said a thing about the incident. I removed the Post-it, the girls behaved better, they even got desserts. But of course no day passed without my wondering, however briefly, a) just what damage I might have done, and b) how the incident might play in, say, a memoir. On top of the risk that you might actually screw up your child is the risk that, even if you don't, she'll think you did and blame you for it. Finally one morning, as I drive Quinn to school, I look in the rearview mirror and ask: "You know that cake I ate when you couldn't have dessert?"

"What cake?"

"You know that note you wrote and stuck on my mirror last week?"

"What note?" she asks. I remind her, but she has no idea what I'm talking about. Not the first clue. She doesn't even remember her sister's tears. "The problem with me," she says, seriously, "is that I only remember the stuff that is a long, long time ago. I'll probably remember it in 3000."

Michael Lewis' most recent book is The Blind Side.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.