I was downstairs in the kitchen (where else?) as Otis played up in his room with his friend Elizabeth. For a long time they had been shrieking in the garden, then they ran up and down and up the stairs, lots of door slamming and loud announcements common to 4-year-olds. Now there was quiet, the quiet you don't notice until you notice things aren't right.
Just then Otis appeared at the door of the kitchen to ask hopefully for a piece of candy (no), a cookie (no), a Go-Gurt (no), a Popsicle (no, do we have to go through this three times a day?), only to be insulted by my offer of almonds. As he reached for a piece of fruit in the bowl on the counter, I noticed his hands.
"Why are your hands pink?" I asked him. They were very pink and somewhat shimmery.
"I don't know," he said, as if just realizing the hands were attached to his arms. "Elizabeth and I were making a potion."
"A potion?" Pink, pink, pink, I thought -- what's pink and upstairs?
"In the bathroom sink." Now he was looking at me, maybe deciding he'd said too much. He set down the fruit and turned to go back upstairs.
"What did you make the potion with?" I said, my voice that model tone of neutral patience and goodwill.
"Well, it was something I wasn't supposed to touch, um, I guess." He knew. "Your makeup?"
A little wounded cry escaped my throat as I rushed up to the bathroom and found the sink full of a gloppy pink, pancake-y stew, and every pot, compact, and tube spread out on the bath mat and roughly pillaged. Powder trailed across the floor and was settled in a fine silt over the flat surface, and the base of the sink was smeared with gluey iridescent finger marks.
I couldn't believe that something as tiny and contained as an eye-shadow duo could be rendered this messy, that one wand of mascara could slash through the serene landscape. "My makeup!" I said in what by this time was a very authentic voice. "No!"
I'm not the sort of person who values things over people. I don't put vanity before educational play, but I felt the years of parental sacrifice (eight of them now, counting Otis's older brother) were collapsed into this moment, that my own last shred of humanity, the one place still just a tiny bit mine and off-limits had fallen to the marauders.
Makeup is mine. I'm able to buy the occasional lipstick when I'm out without the kids, able to concentrate for a second on what might be the right look, dimly remembered from a months-old magazine photo.
Not that this is so important. In fact, it is precisely because makeup is unimportant that it matters so much to me, a realm where I don't have to think about nutrition or school or lessons of moral weight. When I buy makeup, I get to do a playful, indulgent thing, something that absolutely does not make the world a better place, and then come home and turn my attention back to raising the boys.
Now this. Shaking with anger, I sent the kids to sit on the stairs and stay there until I unstopped the sink and salvaged what I could. The oily tenacity of the products overwhelmed me, and after five vain minutes I shut the bathroom door and went downstairs to the children, who waited for some uncomfortable lecture.
But what could I say? How could I explain the importance of selfhood, how could I convey the misery of the self affronted? "Not very respectful... you know the rules... off-limits... ," I said, and they nodded, hardly containing their devious looks of glee.
The better parent out there (and the better parent in me) wouldn't have wanted to grab their lightweight shoulders then, wouldn't have entertained dark thoughts of punishment and privileges revoked. She wouldn't have resented the hell out of them. She would have absorbed this act of willful destruction with composure, making wise use of the chance to teach her children about respect for people's things and always asking first.
I just wanted them to pay for my makeup, which of course, they weren't going to do. I stalked off, leaving them to sit on the stairs. They didn't mind.
The makeup debacle was trivial, a minor infraction, and eventually I made myself forgive the mascara stains and ruined lipsticks even though I didn't want to. Because I have to practice doing that, get good at that for later, for the thousand ways my children will break my heart infinitely worse than this, and for the ways I'll always forgive them.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of the memoir Her Last Death, to be published in January 2008.