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Wake Up and Smell the Martinis: A Review of The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting

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By Christie Mellor (Chronicle Books, 2004; $12.95)

"It has come to my attention that children have become the center of our universe," begins The Three-Martini Playdate: A Happy Guide to Practical Parenting, by Christie Mellor. To which my nine-year-old daughter Riley would respond, "And that's . . . bad?" Oh, yes, says Mellor, oh, yes.

The Three-Martini Playdate is funny as hell, but it's got an unmistakable message: today's parents have become slaves to their children, and this is Not Good. Not good for the parents, who have ceded their authority and their right to good old-fashioned grown-up time, and not good for the children, who have turned into self-centered little brats. The book urges a return to the days when kids were not so pampered, when "one wasn't required to transport the little children hither and thither, here to T-ball practice, there to a 'Playdate,' may the chipper mommy who coined that particular term forever rot in a hell of eternally colicky babies."

Mellor has a deliciously dry wit that is unfettered by concern for delicate parental sensibilities. As she joked at a recent reading in Berkeley, there's probably something in this book to offend every reader. She provides hilarious -- but not terribly gentle -- observations on overly permissive, touchy-feely, kid-centric parenting, and a wake-up call to the parents who practice it. Mellor doesn't waste time exploring the grey areas of parenting; after all, humor is often best when it sticks to black and white. Who needs more grey, anyway? I found this book so funny and engaging that when my newest baby was but a week old, I stayed up to read it after the 2 a.m. feeding even though the baby had fallen asleep. There I was, sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up, reading and laughing out loud.

In a chapter entitled "Child Labor: Not Just For the Third World!" Mellor says, "If your child is older than, say, four, there is no reason on earth why he shouldn't be getting his own breakfast, and picking the paper up off the front lawn while he's at it." Like with many parts of the book, first I laughed, and then I thought -- is she serious about this? I don't know, but I do know that it made me look at Riley and her three-year-old brother, Ben, with a more calculating eye. What could they be doing that I was doing for them? Why should I be making their buttered toast every morning when Riley, at least, is certainly old enough to be doing it herself? Then, I found myself contemplating a truly breathtaking thought: maybe she could even be making my toast! Well, that's pretty much the point.

Mellor is spreading the word that if parents did less for their kids and more for themselves, parenting would be a lot more fun. For example, she recommends that, for really little kids, the common practice of having full-blown birthday parties -- complete with clowns and Barbie impersonators -- is absurd. There's no need to go to all that trouble. Instead, she says, turn on the sprinklers and let the kids run naked while you host an afternoon cocktail party for their parents. After all, why should kids have all the fun? The book even includes a menu, plus recipes: Weenie Fondue, Devilish Eggs, and Lemonade for Grown-Ups. Mellor points out that "lemonade provides refreshment for those too young to appreciate distilled spirits, and the simple addition of a fine vodka creates an easily made and remarkably tasty beverage for an exhausted and grateful grown-up."

In the interests of doing a thorough book review, I made the spiked lemonade. My husband and I can now vouch for Mellor's claim -- it is rather tasty, and if we were served such a beverage at a kid's birthday party, we'd definitely have a better time.

Another recipe, Our Little Tot's First Martini, begins by stating that "all young children should know how to make this deceptively simple cocktail for their parents and other thirsty grown-ups who drop by around five o'clock." At the Berkeley reading, I asked Mellor, who lives in Los Angeles and has two school-aged boys of her own, whether her kids know how to make martinis. She cheerfully responded that they do not, and that she'd gotten some flak on the subject of small children mixing alcoholic drinks. "It's a joke, people!" she said, shaking her head in mock disbelief.

In addition to the recipes, The Three-Martini Playdate includes a number of parenting "Helpful Hints." One of these is a "Do-It-Yourself After-School Enrichment Program," which includes such topics as "Care and Cleaning of Barware," "Skedaddling for Beginners," and "Letting Mommy Nap 101." It's a reminder that parents haven't always felt compelled to provide non-stop entertainment for their kids; this is a recent phenomenon, and one that Mellor clearly feels has gotten out of hand.

In keeping with its nostalgia for retro parenting, The Three-Martini Playdate is illustrated with fifties-style drawings of children and adults. These, according to Mellor, are reproductions of people in her paper doll collection, some of which have been modified to include her own (typically alcohol-related) hand-drawn additions. One such drawing appears on the cover of the book, where a small, bashful-looking boy is shown holding a martini shaker. It was this picture -- along with the book's title -- that first grabbed my attention. It's not every day you see the words "martini" and "playdate" in the same sentence, much less on the cover of a book.

Unlike most books on the topic of parenting, I'd recommend this one even to people without their own kids. In fact, it may be most amusing -- and least uncomfortable -- for non-parents, those people who are invariably convinced that today's parents are doing a shoddy job. As for me, well, I came away with the niggling suspicion that Mellor might not entirely approve of my parenting.

One evening, I found myself picking up Ben's toys while he relaxed on the sofa, sipping his hot cocoa and watching his favorite video on heavy-duty construction vehicles. I suddenly had an uncomfortable vision of Mellor watching me, shaking her head and clucking with disapproval. I stopped what I was doing and said, "Come pick up your toys, or no video."

And pick them up he did.


Jennifer Eyre White lives with her husband and three kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2003-2005 she was a humor columnist for Literary Mama, and her essays have been featured in a variety of anthologies and magazines. You can find her online at HavingThreeKids, a site for those who have three, want three, or fear three.


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