Why Aren't My Kids Impressed?
By Melissa Fay Greene
One recent morning while making breakfast, I picked up the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and found, on the front page of the Living section, a color photograph of myself taken nine years ago. The article was about one of my books having been included on a list of top 25 books by Georgia authors. I stopped in the middle of scrambling the eggs. "Look!" I cried to all, holding it up.
"Mom! That you?" barked out Fisseha, the 11-year-old we adopted from Ethiopia last year.
"Yes," I said, the paper held aloft, the better to admire my likeness.
"Mom!" he barked again. "You young then?"
While there may be those who are impressed by a parent trying to pur-sue a major career while raising seven children, the seven children probably won't be among them.
When my youngest, Helen, was 6 years old, she messed with my office answering machine; this I did not discover until the end of a week of unusual messages. "Oh!?um?is this the office of Melissa Fay Greene?" voices asked. What were they hearing? I pressed the "check" button on the machine and heard a high-pitched voice: "Allo? This is Helen. And this is my butt!" followed by a Bronx cheer.
Last year, when Helen was 8 and her sister Lily was 12, CNN scheduled me to appear on a special to discuss stories I'd written about the AIDS orphan crisis. Since my husband and I had adopted Helen from Ethiopia and our biological daughter Lily is Helen's great champion and mentor, CNN also invited both girls. Dressed up, with their hair styled, they flounced onto the set for the live interview and seated themselves like pros. Then somehow the half-hour got away from us. The cameras captured my girls poking and tickling each other and cackling as they watched themselves on the monitor. But all the questions were directed at me, and then suddenly the time was up and the producer thanked us for coming.
My daughters were furious. "You didn't even let us talk!" they accused. They stormed ahead of me all the way through the vast media complex. When we got home, they ran ahead of me, yelling, "Mommy hogged the whole thing!"
But while I don't always earn my children's respect for my professional achievements, I do win it from time to time for my domestic talents.
Seth, 21, really likes my Russian carrot pie, for example.
Lee, 17, likes my lasagna.
Jesse, 10, loves me for having beaten him the first time we arm-wrestled and for being beaten by him every time since then.
Fisseha is at his happiest when I read to him at bedtime. His childhood began on the central plains of Ethiopia; he didn't have the luxury of bedtime books, so he's delighted to cuddle close and hear a story.
Molly is at an age -- 24 -- where we can really enjoy each other's company, but she doesn't think much of my taste in music.
Lily respects me for speaking a bit of French. But I'm not allowed to kiss, hug, or touch her in public.
Helen says I am cute but that I wear my pants too high.
In the publishing world, it's almost enough for an editor to learn I have seven kids to gain a new respect for my oeuvre. A woman who has 21 children told me that if she shows up for work wearing matching shoes, people gush about how terrific she looks and what a great job she's doing. "How do you do it?" everyone asks me.
"I write when they're at school," I say.
"What happens if you have to go out of town?" they ask.
I tell them my husband, an attorney, holds my work in great esteem and helps out, although he doesn't always handle things as I would. Once, reporting a story from Eastern Europe, I managed to gain an overseas phone connection for about 12 seconds, during which Lily, then 7, wept: "I don't like volcanoes and tornadoes."
"Why are you worried about volcanoes and tornadoes?" I cried.
"We watch movies about them every night," and then the line went dead.
Still, I am lucky. I have no commute. I don't have to wear uncomfortable shoes. And I'm here nearly every day after school, waiting for the ruckus to begin. Yes, my kids are often more interested in what I've planned for dinner than the literary breakthroughs I've achieved that day. But that's as it should be. After all, excellent prose may come and go, but good, solid lasagna -- and an uproarious, loving family -- you can count on.
Melissa Fay Greene's new book, There Is No Me Without You, about Ethiopia's AIDS orphans, will be published next fall.