Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Warden

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Recently, my husband let my daughter draw on his face with a felt pen. When she did it at age two, it was just plain funny. At six, though, not so much. I questioned the chartreuse shading on his nose and the blue outline of his cheekbone. "We're just being silly," he said.

"Daddy doesn't mind," the artist added. Which only reinforced the idea that I would.

I am the enforcer of bedtime, of eating vegetables, of sunscreen application, of manners. I'm Safety Officer, the Etiquette Trainer, the one who says "your shirt is not a napkin" so often at mealtimes that it's become my mantra.

My husband has begun referring to me as The Warden. "Lighten up," he says. "You're not having any fun, either of you."

Now, not to give more credence to the stereotype of the father as bumbling caretaker or loving fool, when he takes her to school, more often that not, she's late and her lunch is forgotten at home. This is why I stick a post-it-note on his chest. It reads: Lunch, Permission slip, Jacket. Which sometimes works, if he remembers it's there to consult.

She tells on him, too. "Daddy drives too fast," she'll say (or "three fast" she'd cry when she was in pre-school). But it's usually the nighttime that brings The Warden out. Chaos cannot reign on a school night! It's late, way too late; I know that every minute she's not asleep means extra difficulty and crankiness the next day. There's the nightly ritual of hide and seek with her beanie babies, and then the circus act where he holds her pajama bottoms open as she jumps off the bed into them, and then, using the bed as a runway, flies into her pajama top. It's an hour past bedtime, and I hear thuds and giggles and screams of delight. My patience has waned. The fun has got to stop. Upstairs marches The Warden.

"Oh, no -- busted!" he'll call, and they'll clutch each other in mock protection as I stand there with folded arms and the appropriate scowl on my face. "Mommy's right," he nods. "It is way past your bedtime," and then he kisses her goodnight and goes on his merry way to watch the news, or work on the computer. And I take over -- no nonsense, lights out -- and attempt to get the protester to fall sleep. Mr. Fun gets the rec time; I get the lock down.

In the morning, he's already sipping his Earl Grey tea on the way to work while I'm working on waking up the comatose. "Let . . . Me . . . Sleep," she whispers in staccato breaths, too weary to even open her eyes.

* * *

It's annoying to have to be the heavy, and lately I have been attempting to temper the Night Warden in an effort to claim more of the fun.

This personality change must come on slowly. I'm afraid I shocked her last night. While encouraging her to continue brushing her teeth after much stalling playing with her loose one, Dr. Seuss came to mind. "Is it loose in the morning? Is it loose at night? Will it come out -- do you think it might? Your tooth is loose, so loose, I say. It will come out now, any day," I recited in the silliest Dr. Seuss voice I could muster. And she was visibly stunned, wiggling her loose tooth as she smiled warily at the transformation of the nighttime personality before her.

It's like something Daddy might have done.

I don't remember the Warden being around much when she was younger; this incarnation only appeared out of necessity in this recent year of school nights and early bedtime. I used to be the silly one, too.

When she was a toddler I would pick her up and hold her upside down and kiss her naked tummy, quoting the Mother-Daughter Geneva Convention of 1973, Article 5, Section 3. "A mother must hold her baby upside down and kiss her on her tummy a minimum of four times a day," I would say. I still do this, with the amendment to this rule that includes kindergartners and allowances for tummy kissing up to three times a week.

"That's not true! It isn't, right?" she protests. She's heavier and harder to dangle upside down now that she's taller, but at only 37 pounds she's still a lightweight, and I can still do it.

"Just following rules," I tell her. And she giggles as I remind myself to remember the three times a week regulation.

On my continuing campaign to be more fun, I even drive almost Daddy-fast while she plays Jell-O with a friend in their booster seats in the backseat of the car. "Just relax," she tells her friend. "Whoa!" they cry as they lean and tip into each other as the car snakes back and forth on the empty windy turns. I feel adolescent and a little wild as I lessen my clutch on caution. The Warden morphs into Crazy Teen Babysitter. Later, I let them eat peanut butter out of the jar with their fingers. At bedtime, I try not to care that she goes to sleep with dirty feet.

I ask her this: If "your shirt is not a napkin" is the thing that Mommy says all the time, what's the thing that Daddy always says? I'm not completely sure why I ask. I want a catch-phrase for a photo caption in the scrapbook for this time in her life. Plus, I just want "in" on their motto. Her eyes dart left and right -- her brain is in gear, synapses are firing.

"I know what he says," she finally tells me, in complete seriousness.

"'Mommy's right.'"


Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.


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