Foreign Frontier

A trip into the territory of parenthood can seem exotic—till the seas turn Stormy, the skies darken, and the natives get restless

Last June, I was on the phone with my eight-year-old niece, Melena. She was telling me about Immigration Simulation Day at her school. Each kid in the second grade had chosen a country (she picked Ireland) and then mentally packed a suitcase in preparation for the journey across the ocean to America. It was the same sort of role-playing game I remembered from junior high, in which we’d pretended to be pioneers heading west. We’d charted our path, loaded our wagons, and played games along the way to figure out who would lose cattle or drop into a ravine.

“What happened next?” I asked Melena. “Once you got in the boat?”

“Well,” she said, “then we sailed across the music room.”

On the other side of the music room, the kids were assigned new livelihoods. My niece was a farm wife with five children, which meant that for 25 minutes, she had to hold a plastic baby doll without dropping it. “The teacher knew I could handle that,” she reported with pride.

Just two weeks after that conversation, I packed my own bags and hopped the plane from Minnesota to Oregon, where I would spend the summer engaged in my own sort of simulation experiment: while my sister and her husband were at work, I would take care of Melena, as well as her siblings, Annika and Ian (ages 10 and 4), and the new dog. My sister had talked about hiring a nanny, but in a fit of optimism, I had gamely volunteered for what I assumed would be quality time with the next generation. Ice cream! Swimming! My visits with the kids had always been exuberant love fests—so much so that my sister had once dryly commented, “I wish you’d have a kid so I didn’t always have to be the bad guy.” Surely I could handle this.

My first week in the role of substitute parent was less than auspicious. On Monday, I was watching the kids—more or less—when I heard Melena call out, “Hello, Aunty!” and I looked to find her 30 feet up in a giant pine.

On Wednesday, I took the kids to the climbing wall in the park. I propped Annika’s bike, which had been lying in the grass up the hill, in front of the Portland Park and Rec truck, where we would be sure not to lose it, and where it was promptly crushed by the truck’s great tires. “I loved that bike!” cried Annika, who had spent the morning complaining about the bike.

On Friday, my sister arrived home to find Ian in the driveway (where he’d just peed), wearing his swimsuit, snow boots, and a bike helmet, and throwing popcorn at the dog. At least, I thought, in some perverse testimony to his safety in my care, he was wearing a helmet.

As the weeks went on, I found myself making lunches that no one appreciated, and saying things like, “Let go of your sister’s face.” I soon began to look forward to the 30 minutes of television the children were allowed each day.

One morning, World War III broke out over a marble that someone had found under a bed, which now seemed to be the most precious marble on the planet. We were already late getting out the door for tennis lessons, and I said, “You [profanity] kids! Get in the [profanity] car!” My charges were suddenly silent, and looked at me with what I could only read as horror and disappointment for the rest of the day.

“You used to be more fun,” Melena said later, after I’d put her in time-out for leaving the house without telling me where she was going.

“How do you handle this?” I asked my sister that night, feeling like a spectacular failure after landing on this foreign shore.

She poured us each a glass of wine. “Welcome,” she said, “to parenthood.”

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”