The day I decided to change my life, I was wearing sweatpants and an old oxford of Peter’s with a coffee stain down the front. I hadn’t showered because the whole family had slept in one motel room the night before, and it was all we could do to get back on the road without someone dropping the remote in the toilet or pooping on the floor.
We had just driven across the country to start Peter’s new job. Houston,
Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d had the kids in our tenyear-
old Subaru the whole drive, two car seats and a booster across the
back. Alexander kept taking Toby’s string cheese, and the baby, except
when he was sleeping, was fussing. Peter drove the U-Haul on the theory
that if it broke, he ’d know how to fix it.
On the road, I was sure I had the short end of the stick, especially
during the dog hours of Tennessee. But now Peter was hauling all our
belongings up three flights of narrow stairs, and I was at the park, on a
blanket in the late-afternoon shade, breast-feeding Baby Sam. Peter had
to be hurting. Even with our new landlord helping him, it was taking all
day. And I was just waiting for him to call on the cell phone when he was
ready for us to come home. Or as close to home as a curtainless apartment
stacked high with boxes could be.
We ’d been at the park since midmorning, and we were running low on snacks. Alexander and Toby were galloping at top speed, as they always did. I’m not even sure they realized they were in a new park. They acted like we might as well have been at home, in Houston, the only place they’d ever lived. They acted like the last five days of driving hadn’t even registered. I, in contrast, was aching with loss.
I didn’t like this park. Too clean, too brand-new, too perfect. The
parks at home had character—monkey bars fashioned like cowboys,
gnarled crape myrtle trunks for climbing, discarded Big Wheels with no
seats. And we’d known them backward and forward—every tree knot,
every mud hole, every kid.
This park, today, felt forced. It was trying too hard.
I surveyed the moms. Not one of them, I decided, was a person I
wanted to meet. And just as I was disliking them all and even starting to
pity them for having no idea what they were missing, park-wise, Toby—
my middle boy, my sandy-haired, blue-eyed, two-year-old flirt—watched
a younger kid make a move for the truck in his hand, and then, unbelievably, grabbed that kid’s forearm and bit it.
The little boy screamed as Toby pulled the truck to his chest. “My
truck!” Toby shouted. (He always pronounced “truck” like “fuck,” but
that was, perhaps, another issue.)
And then, of course, all hell broke loose.
I jumped up, startling the baby out of a nap and off my boob. I ran
across the park, wailing baby on my shoulder, shirt unbuttoned, shouting,
“Toby! No!” Toby saw my horrified face and instantly started to
cry himself—though he was no match for the little kid he ’d bitten, who
was now screaming like he was on fire. His mother, too, had sprinted
from her perch, dropping her purse on the way, and was now holding
him as if he’d been shot. “Is it bleeding?” she kept asking the boy. “Is it
It was clearly not bleeding. Isn’t that the number one rule of parenting?
Don’t Make Things Worse?
All the other parents, meanwhile, had gathered around us to see what
the heck was going on. My shirt was hanging open, the baby was still
shrieking, and I remembered from one of those parenting books I used to
read—back when I used to do that type of thing—that when a child bites,
the parent of the biter must give attention to the bitee. I turned toward the
little boy and reached out to comfort him, and, at the same moment, his
mother actually tightened her grip on him and rocked away from my
hand so that I missed him altogether. As if I myself had done the biting.
As if I were about to attack again.
I regrouped. “I’m so sorry about that, sweetheart!” I said to the boy,
who was not, you might say, in a listening mode. Next, I tried his mother.
“I’m so sorry!” I said. “He ’s never done that before!” She was staring
at me, but not at my eyes, and it took me a second to realize that it was,
in fact, my uncovered magenta nursing bra she was looking at. I buttoned
my shirt and started to try again when Alexander took that moment
to push Toby down and take the very truck that had started all this
Toby let out a wail like a scalded dog, and Alexander threw the truck
with all his might into a nearby bush. “No biting!” he said, pointing at
Toby. “Biting is rude!” Toby got up to run after the truck and soon they
were both tangled in the bush, wrestling for it.
Here was a moment when I was truly outnumbered. With two kids, in
moments like this, you at least have an arm for each. With three kids,
you’re just screwed.
“Stop it! Both of you!” I shouted, sounding just like my own mother
had years ago when she had been outnumbered, too.
And then, I did the only thing I could think of. I set Baby Sam down
on the sidewalk—at ten months, he wasn’t crawling yet, or even thinking
about it—stepped into the bush, took the truck, and wedged it high
in the branch of a tree. Then I grabbed the two boys by the scruffs of
their necks, dragged them to our blanket, sprinted back over to my nowalmost-
purple-with-hysteria Baby Sam, picked him up, put him on the
boob, and then marched back to where the boys were.
“Anybody who moves off this blanket gets a spanking,” I said in my
meanest mom voice, sounding for all the world like a 1930s gangster. It
was an empty threat. Peter and I weren’t spankers. And I wasn’t about to
spank anybody in front of the still-gaping crowd of Cambridge parents
ten feet away. But, honestly, what else was I going to do? Send the boys
to their room? I wasn’t even entirely sure where our apartment was.
The bitee and his mother eventually gathered themselves up and
limped out of the park, giving us the cold shoulder the whole way. It occurred to me that park etiquette probably dictated we should be the ones
to leave. But, since we were waiting on Peter, we stayed. I tore open some
cheese sticks. Alexander and Toby soon forgot about the whole thing—
though not until after I’d given them the best talking-to I could muster
about how we all had to work together in this time of transition—and
they were back on the swings in no time. Alexander, sweetly, got down
again and again to give Toby another push.
The old crop of parents trickled out, replaced by the after-work
crowd. This batch was preppier and wealthier—pushing Bugaboos and
carrying $200 diaper bags. One woman caught my eye as someone I
might like to be friends with. She wore stylishly frayed khakis and
clompy leather sandals. I kept an eye on her and willed her to come over
and talk to me. The bitee ’s mother excepted, I hadn’t talked to an adult
since ten o’clock that morning, when we’d said good-bye to Peter.
And then she did come over. Her daughter toddled up to our blanket
wanting to look at Baby Sam, who was now eating from a spilled constellation of Cheerios in front of him. The mom stood beside us, and I
squinted up at her in the late-afternoon sun. I could tell she wanted to
ask me a question. And from the way she was composing herself, I
guessed it was a good one. I was hoping for “You’re new here, aren’t
you?” or something like it. Something that might lead to a real moment
of exchange between the two of us, or, at the very least, a phone number
from her and an invitation to call. I’d only been away from home six
days, but already I was hungry for friends.
She did have a question for me, it turned out. And it was not about
how long I’d been in town. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she squatted
down next to her toddler—who was now picking up our Cheerios
one by one, too—took a gander at me, sitting next to my ten-monthold,
and said, “When are you due?”
Here is my policy on that question: Don’t ever ask it. Even if you’re
talking to a woman who is clearly about to have quintuplets. Just don’t
ask. Because if you’re wrong, you’ve just said one of the most horrible
things you can say to a woman. If you’re wrong, you’ve ruined her
week—possibly her month and even her year. If you’re wrong, she will
go home and cry, and not even be able to tell her husband what she ’s
crying about. He ’ll ask over and over as she lies facedown on their bed,
and she ’ll have no choice but to say, “It’s nothing,” and then, “Please,
just leave me alone.”
This woman in the khakis, she was wrong. And I did go home and
cry, but not until much later, because just at the moment she spoke, before
I had even settled on a response, another woman approached us and
leaned in to peer at me.
“Lanie?” she asked.
I met her eyes. I was pretty certain I didn’t know a single person in
Massachusetts, and so, given the circumstances, it was amazing, even to
me, that I recognized her. It was Amanda Hayes from Houston, my high
school’s favorite cheerleader, and, even all these years later, she had not
changed at all. If anything, she looked better. But still exactly as blond,
lean, and smooth as she had been years ago. She might as well have been
“Hi!” I shouted, too loudly. “Hello!”
I might have been fueled by my fight-or-flight reaction to the woman
in khaki pants, but I stood up and gave Amanda Hayes, a girl I’d barely
known in high school, a hug. Then I threw myself into a kind of
conversation-on-steroids with her, acting far more delighted to see her
than I might have otherwise. I would have been friendly in any situation,
just as we ’d always been friendly to each other during assigned seating
in Chorus, but I might not have been quite as riveted.
I was hoping that, witnessing a reunion of two women who had a real
connection to each other, the when-are-you-due girl might feel out of
place and wander off. She didn’t. Her child continued to eat my Cheerios,
and she continued to stand there, smiling as if she were part of the
conversation, as if the three of us moms were friends, drinking mojitos
and whiling away another afternoon with the kiddos.
I asked Amanda every single question I could think of, trying to fill any
conversational pauses before Khaki Pants started up again with her pregnancy
topic. What was Amanda doing in town? How long had she lived
here? What were her thoughts on Middle East peace? Where did she get
those great sunglasses?
And Amanda, bless her, met my enthusiasm for our chat head-on.
She answered all my questions, and volleyed several back at me, and just
when I was starting to feel like we’d built a conversational wall that the
woman in khakis couldn’t scale, Amanda’s daughter, Gracin—who was
almost four and, it turned out, exactly one day older than Alexander—
came running over to ask for a Band-Aid.
“Did you get an ouchie?” Amanda asked.
Gracin pointed at her arm. There was no ouchie.
“Oh.” Amanda peeled a Band-Aid from a stash in her pocket, then
put it on Gracin, who ran off. Watching her go, I noticed she had Band-
Aids all down her legs.
“She loves Band-Aids,” Amanda told us, with a what-are-yougonna-
And then, in that moment, Amanda paused to gaze at her daughter,
now climbing up the ramp of the slide, and take one of those small moments
that parents sometimes indulge in when their children are a little
at a distance. She was admiring her, and possibly even wondering what
stroke of insane luck had brought that exact child into her life, and feeling
grateful for all her blessings. Amanda got caught up in watching her
daughter, and I got caught up in watching Amanda, and so I was a split-
second late cranking up the conversation again—and into that little gap,
Khaki Pants leaned in, touched my sleeve, and said, “So. When are
Amanda snapped around to look at me. “You’re pregnant?” she
asked, ready to be delighted.
I couldn’t decide what to say. Time got very slow. Baby Sam was
chewing on a rock. Alexander had captured a bug and was building a little
mud house for it. Toby had found a fallen branch and was dragging it
around the park, showing it off. The sun had set and the light was fading
from the sky. Peter still hadn’t called. Finally, faced with the prospect of
having to say, “No, I’m just still fat from my last pregnancy. And it’s possible I weigh even more now than I did when I was actually pregnant because
it’s been a tough year and my husband keeps bringing me tubes of
frozen cookie dough,” I said, instead, in a voice that seemed to rise up
without my permission: “Yes.”
Amanda started to clap with enthusiasm. “Four kids?” she said.
Khaki Pants, who’d been sure of it all along, said, “It’s so awful to be
pregnant in the summer. Aren’t you hot?”
A little woozy, now, from my sudden imaginary pregnancy, I just
nodded and said, “I sure am.”
I had the strangest moment of relief right then, in those seconds, as
the impact of what I’d said washed over us. I let myself believe it just a
little, and I let it explain a lot of things about why I just could not seem
to pull myself together. I was pregnant again! Morning sickness, back
pain. One baby still nursing. Three boys, a husband who obsessed over
his work, no help. And no money at all. Of course I hadn’t worn any lipstick since Toby ate my last tube in the checkout line at the grocery! I
was too busy to look good! Being pregnant is hard work!
Amanda sized up Baby Sam. Then she said, “How old is this one?”
“Oh,” I said. “He ’s a lot older than he looks.” I didn’t have a lot of
experience with lying, but it seemed like a good idea to be vague. I
started packing up my diaper bag. It was time—past time—to move out.
I shouted to the boys, “Let’s go see Daddy!”
While I folded our blanket, Khaki Pants said, “I have a friend who
got pregnant again on the night of her six-week checkup.”
Amanda chimed in, “I have a friend with triplets.”
There was a pause, then, as all three of us stopped to pay silent tribute
to the women we knew whose asses were being kicked even harder than
our own were. Then we all seemed to realize at the same time that, with
the addition of this fourth child, I would soon fit into that category. The
category of people you make small talk about at the park: “She has four
kids and no help.” I didn’t mind. It was better, certainly, than, “Her baby
is ten months old and she still looks pregnant.”
Amanda touched my shoulder. “I am so
throwing you a shower!” It
seemed like a rash gesture. But we’d just had quite a conversation. And
seeing someone from your hometown when you’re far away can be a
crazy thrill. Besides, after our turbo-chat earlier, she knew all about me.
She knew I could really use a shower, both literally and figuratively. She
pulled a business-size card out of her wallet that read “The Boatman
Family” and had her phone number beneath. She said, “Call me and
we’ll figure out the date.”
“I will,” I said, dropping the card into my big purse that housed
everything I might ever need: wallet, keys, Q-tips, diapers, wipes, juice
boxes, organic granola bars, pacis, and, down at the bottom, crushed
cookies, stray raisins, and, this week, an old PB&J congealing inside its
Baby Sam loved to go through that purse and pull every single thing
out, even separating the credit cards in the wallet from their nooks,
beaming like a treasure hunter. He could dismantle and destroy the entire
contents in under ten minutes. And even though I’d have much preferred
a bag that was orderly, and even though I could’ve solved the
problem so easily by just, simply, not handing him my bag, I let him
have it time and again. It was such an easy response when he started
fussing. I found, these days, I was so desperate for harmony that I gladly
traded the contents of my bag—and all hopes for maintaining any level
of organization—for even five minutes of everybody happy.
Taking Amanda’s card, I knew that within twenty-four hours Baby
Sam would find it in my purse, put it in his mouth, chew on it until it
looked like a wad of gum, and then leave it on the floor where I’d step on
it in bare feet many hours later on the way to the bathroom in the middle
of the night. But it was okay. I wouldn’t have called her anyway.
Excerpted from Everyone Is Beautiful by Katherine Center. Copyright © 2009 by Katherine Center. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.