The Lonely Lunch
She was sobbing on the stairs this morning. Short-pants – who does homework without being asked and is usually happy to hoist that enormous book-bag on her back and head off to school – wouldn’t budge. “I don’t want to go to school.”
She’d been following De-facto out the door, but then opted out, in protest, and planted herself on the steps. She watched her own sour facial expressions in the mirror, happy at least to have her own company while she pouted. I went and sat beside her, this put my own pre-ablution image in the mirror, too, which I did my best not to look at.
“It’s Wednesday,” she spit out between sobs. “It’s my lonely lunch.”
Most elementary schools in France don’t hold classes on Wednesday. Many of these same schools do have classes on Saturday, posing obvious problems for working parents struggling with childcare mid-week or wishing to steal out of town with the family for the weekend. Short-pants attends a school that, thankfully, gives us our Saturdays, however it requires her presence on Wednesdays – though only in the morning. At noon, most of the children rush out to meet their parents, who take them home for lunch and then on to the activities on their rosters: gymnastics, judo, music, fencing, chess. But
we’re rarely among that cluster of waiting parents. Short-pants stays and eats at the cantine.
We’ve enrolled her in a theater class on Wednesday afternoons. It made perfect sense, to us: school in the morning, stay for lunch, go to theater and finish at 3:00. She really likes the class. Last year – even as the youngest student – she had an important role in the end-of-year play. But none of her classmates are signed up. She says she feels a bit lost at lunch, with nobody to sit with, and then there’s a long stretch of time alone in the courtyard before the theater class starts at 1:30.
I’ve remedied this by coming to get her at noon on random Wednesdays, making a big deal out of lunch out at a café with mom, and returning her to the school in time for theater class. These are memorable lunches. Her little voice ordering from the menu, her proud smile across the table from me – she’s thrilled to be having such sophisticated one-on-one time with mom.
But we haven’t done it in a while.
I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I want mama to come take me to lunch.” Then she started to cry. Actually, she started to wail. She’s not the tantrum type. But this was close.
I leaned my head against hers. Oh I wanted to say it, I wanted to say it so bad: okay I’ll come get you and we’ll go to lunch, just you and me. I mean it wasn’t impossible. I had a long ‘to-do’ list, like every day. But I could re-arrange that and give up 90 minutes to go hang with her.
But I didn’t.
It was the near-tantrum state the stopped me. I didn’t want to respond affirmatively, didn’t want the out-of-control crying to be rewarded. If this is how she gets her way today, I thought, then she’ll use it tomorrow. Yes, it’s just one lunch, one day. But this is how we start down the slippery slope. So I didn’t say a word. I didn’t dare. To be caught in a web of promises? I’m out of town next week, and it’s too hard to look further ahead.
“Come on,” De-facto finally said, “We’re going to be late.”
She stood up and followed him out, shrieking. I felt like shit.
Later I told him that it took everything in me not to tell her I’d come get her and take her to lunch. “Me, too,” he said, “but I knew we couldn’t, not like that.” I guess this is telepathic parenting.
At least he didn’t hang her out to dry. On the way to school, they found a few newspapers (I don’t want to tell you this, but apparently they rummaged through a trash bin) and cut out the Sudoku puzzles (she’s a pro) so she’d have something to do in the courtyard after lunch. Leave it to De-facto to find a creative (and cheap) solution.
This evening I met a friend for drinks. Her kids are older – young teenagers. She shocked me with a story about serious, heavy drug use in their school and the fine line she and her husband are walking to stay connected to their 14-year old daughter.
It’s odd, isn’t it, how my girls are constantly vying for my attention and craving time with me, and sometimes I find it all so fatiguing. Yet in a few years, their little fingers will slide out of my grip. How important it is to listen and connect while the door is still so wide open. Soon enough, that door will close – but then at least a foundation will be laid.
I’m not saying I didn’t make the right decision not to pander to a tantrum this morning. But maybe now I’ll be more proactive about scheduling our Wednesday lunches.