portion control


My wife and I have rediscovered the joy of sleeping in on the weekends, now that the kids are capable of getting their own breakfast. We had almost forgotten the luxury of not being wrenched into consciousness five hours earlier than normal. God only knows how many times the two of us have been awakened at 6:15 a.m. by the girls hovering over us, their eyebrows raised and arms folded as if to say: "Aren't you forgetting something here? Like maybe our food?"

Even in my groggy state, their presumptuous demeanor, combined with my wife's tendency to spontaneously fake a coma, would have me gritting my teeth as I stumbled like a newborn fawn toward the pantry. In the same way I looked forward to the girls getting married and moving six states away, I dreamed of a future free of spats over who got to look at the pictures of Britney Spears plastered on a box of Frosted Pop Tarts. Now that dream has almost become a reality.

Since turning 7, Allie can now be trusted to fix breakfast for herself and her younger sister Avery. Initially, we harbored some reservations, mostly safety-related, but after giving Allie classes such as -- "Toasters and Sinks: The Shocking Truth" and "EPA Standards for Containing Milk Mishaps" -- her mother and I felt confident Allie could handle any scenario. Which is why, when she came rushing into our room one Saturday morning, frantic in her efforts to wake us up, my wife and I scrambled out of bed like firemen reacting to a four-alarm inferno.

"Avery threw up!" Allie said, pointing in the general vicinity of the living room. "And it's all over the couch!"

Aw, not the couch. Naturally, I was concerned about Avery's unexplained vomiting; she's allergic to peanuts, has asthma attacks, and catches every virus wafting through the atmosphere -- which meant any number of things could be wrong. But the couch? Come on! I just cleaned the damn thing!

Understand, when it comes to the realm of male pursuits, most guys are into high-performance cars or slick electronic gadgets. Me? I'm into home furnishings. So, in my eyes, that couch, that gorgeous, cadmium yellow custom-made couch, was like a Jaguar. A freshly detailed 2010 Jaguar XJ model -- coated in barf.

In the living room, we found Avery listless and unconcerned that her head was floating in a puddle of purplish-gray goop. She emitted no whimpers, nor did she make any attempt to get up. The sole sign of her consciousness was a drowsy, confused blink. She was not unlike an incoherent drunk passed out in some alley. The sight of Avery in this pathetic state caused my wife's maternal instincts to kick in, and, like a nun from a nearby mission, she scooped up the pint-sized rummy and carried her off to salvation.

My instincts kicked in, too. I gathered cleaning supplies and a bucket, while the phrase, "It's going to leave a stain!" churned in my mind. This thought caused a nausea of its own, further agitated by the fond memories I associated with my couch -- the way it had tied together the décor in my old loft, the naps I had taken on it, the movies I had watched, the dates I had entertained. All of those were now tainted by the Cream-Of-Wheat-like substance filling in the cushion cracks and oozing toward the floor.

After rounding up the items needed for saving my beloved sectional, I passed by the kitchen table. Apparently, Allie must have ignored my class, "How Hitmen Do Breakfast: Cleaning Up Your Mess," because in plain view was all the evidence needed to figure out that she and Avery had dined on cereal before abandoning the scene to watch cartoons. Odd. Didn't I just buy that now-empty box of Sugar Pops with Anna Nicole Smith on the front? However, my current preoccupation with the matter at hand prevented me from dwelling on the answer. The clock was ticking, and stomach acid can absolutely ravage upholstery.

As I shoveled one load of gut-mush after another, it astounded me that Avery could produce so much vomit. She is tiny for her age, and yet there had to be gallons of the stuff. How in the hell? Mid-thought I felt someone next to me. It was Allie, who, after sounding the alarm, had washed her hands of the situation and logged on to the computer to play games. (The kid could operate a $1500 piece of equipment by age 2, but it took her seven years to push down a toaster lever? Go figure.) The way Allie viewed it, she had done her part; her sister's Poltergeist imitation was someone else's problem now.

"Guess what, Ron?" she said to me, as if I were lounging on the couch and not furiously scrubbing it. "On my Webkinz game, I just bought a whole room of furniture for my dog."

Blink, blink. I hope he takes a huge Webkinz doggie-dump all over the whole thing.

After throwing the cushion covers into the washer (and breaking a zipper in the process), I thought to check in on Avery, who, as it turned out, was okay. Fresh from the shower, her wet hair had been combed into finely separated strands that slapped against the back of her shirt as she rocked back and forth and explained what had happened.

"My tummy hurt really bad after breakfast, but then I burped and it felt better."

Her mother and I exchanged skeptical glances over the ambiguity of her story, but before we could speculate out loud, Avery cleared things up for us.

"I only had two bowls," she said with a shrug.

That tiny detail caught my attention. "Hold on. How many bowls?"

Avery stuck one finger in the air and then hesitated, realizing she had volunteered too much information. My scowl told her she couldn't take it back. Avery slowly unfurled a second finger in reluctant surrender.

"But Gaga lets us have two bowls," she contended.

This is her typical, I'm-adorable-so-blame-an-adult excuse, the effectiveness of which extends no further than the tip of her nose.

"Gaga?" I shot back. "Gaga doesn't make the rules around here, Miss Piggy. And besides, you know how she forgets stuff."

It's true. Their Gaga suffers from serious short-term memory loss. She has been known to cook twice-baked potatoes four times. Not to mention, she has a fondness for Ambien, which has caused her to drive all the way to Oklahoma sedated. In this light, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Gaga had once given the girls five bowls of cereal. Gaga hardly qualified to follow instructions other than lather, rinse, repeat.

Denied this alibi, Avery went to Plan B: If I burn, everyone burns. "Allie had two bowls, too!" she said with the dramatic flair of a soap opera star revealing a major plot twist.

I turned to find Allie, who, since lavishing her cyber pooch with a posh new living room suite, had repositioned herself closer to the conversation. To disguise her obvious eavesdropping, she pretended to fiddle with a naked doll that was missing both arms. When Avery ratted her out, Allie froze in place and kept her head down -- nonverbal cues confirming she was the mastermind behind Vomitgate.

"Allie?" I called in a tone meant to get her attention. By the way she set the doll on the floor in front of her, I could tell she was listening. "You know you're only supposed to have one bowl of cereal."

Allie stared at the doll. "Yes, sir," she responded in barely audible voice.

Anytime Allie refers to me as "sir," it's her way of admitting a mistake. What she's not aware of, though, is how this response softens my strict demeanor. In the momentary silence, Allie lifted her head to see what my reaction would be.

For the first time, I could see the full expression she'd been hiding. It was the look of a kid caught sneaking out at night, joyriding in the family car, blowing off school. To see this look on Allie’s tender face brought on an unexpected sadness. It felt too early for Allie to look at me that way; I worried what the consequences might be for some of the decisions she, or any of my five kids, would make in the coming years.

I gazed into the space beyond Allie, cognizant of my inability to control my children's choices, but the tears that formed in Allie's eyes incurred another reminder: I couldn't protect my children from their bad decisions, but my faith in them would remain constant. The future was the future -- it would take care of itself. At the present, however, we could learn from our mistakes by starting with the class: "Portion Control and Cereal: Maintaining Trust without Sacrificing Taste."

Ron Mattocks is an award-winning writer and a father of five (three sons and two stepdaughters). After stints in the Army and corporate America, he found himself in the unique role of stay-at-home dad. He has a degree in English Literature from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. His work has been read on public radio and can be found in various parenting-related publications. He is also the creator of the popular daddy blog Clark Kent's Lunchbox, and his book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can't Afford Vodka is due out later this year. Ron lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, Ashley, who continually mocks his taste in music. He can be reached at rmattocks@yahoo.com.