Because I’m a masochist, I regularly take my three children to restaurants where children don’t normally go. They are allowed, of course, but they are not the establishments most would frequent when they think of “family dining.”
My rugrats are 7, 5, and 3, and they always show up in suit jackets, hair brushed, mohawks spiked, or if it’s warm, I wrangle them into polo shirts and khakis. I wipe their faces down with baby wipes. I summarily veto their light-up shoes. I remind them to hold the door and put their napkins in their laps.
So at least they look good. But for my 3-year-old, the battle starts before we even leave the house.
Stage 1: Wardrobe Objections
He wants to wear a Paw Patrol shirt and Paw Patrol shoes and definitely not a suit jacket, and when I try to button him into an Oxford shirt, he throws himself on the ground, writhing and screaming like a wounded spider monkey. This makes it difficult to do his buttons, which I fuck up at least once before they’re done. Then I have to stuff his waving arms into a suit jacket and add a clip-on bowtie because seriously a 3-year-old in a bowtie OMG. You might not have realized, but this is actually a form of baby torture.
Stage 2: Charming the Staff
He shows up holding my hand and smiling angelically. He is wearing a fedora because he always wears a fedora, and the staff basically melt as they seat us. The waitress asks what we want to drink. “Water, please,” he chirps, and when I say he chirps, I seriously mean it. His voice is heart-meltingly cute.
Stage 3: Ice Cube Games
The water comes. His has a lid because every self-respecting waitress in the business knows to serve kids drinks in to-go cups. This annoys him. He scoops his grubby little hand into the closest water glass and begins munching ice contentedly. He will continue this on and off for the rest of the meal.
Stage 4: Boredom
As soon as he’s done chewing ice, he tries to climb out of his chair, kick his brothers, or stab things with a fork. We remove the fork and knife. He steals another fork and commences banging. There is only one thing to do. I get out my phone and hand it to him because I am easily defeated, and I want to have a conversation with my husband that doesn’t involve someone else’s feces. He commences playing The Foos, which is supposed to teach him coding or some shit but is really just incomprehensible to anyone over age 8.
Stage 5: We Order
He does not want steak, chicken, fish, kangaroo, pork, or any other option on the adult menu. He does not want chicken fingers, catfish fingers, or vegetables. He will take the tater tots with a side of tater tots. Never mind that they only make tater tots at lunch. Sir will have the tater tots. Sir gets them because of the fedora. Now we can only pray the cook doesn’t spit in our food.
Stage 6: Tater Tots
The tater tots arrive. He sets down my phone to scarf a few of them. They are hot. They burn his tongue. He screams. The 7-year-old, who really ought to fucking know better, takes the opportunity to snatch the phone. The 3-year-old screams again, this time like a broken-legged wildebeest. The phone is returned after much parental whisper-yelling. Tater tots are dunked in water glasses to cool them and hand-fed to the 3-year-old. He is persuaded to eat after the restaurant’s only bottle of ketchup is procured.
Stage 7: Relative Calm
The tater tots have been consumed. The adults have begun eating. We speak of things that do not have to do with children in between ordering the children to behave under penalty of toy loss and forced room cleaning. One of the other children throws a tantrum because he, unlike the 3-year-old, is not playing The Foos. An adult takes the screaming child for a walk before childfree couples start staring.
Stage 8: Come the Fuck On
We have been finished with our meals for more than five minutes, and the check has not arrived. Now the other child is throwing a tantrum because he can’t play The Foos. The formerly tantruming child is now drawing on his plate with a lone tater tot and ketchup. The 3-year-old has abandoned The Foos and climbed under the table. We hiss and try desperately to drag him out. He laughs merrily until one of his brothers touches my phone, when his giggle turns into a shriek. My brain screams, “Everyone is looking at you! Everyone is looking at you!” and my anxiety starts to peak.
Stage 9: The Check
Plates are removed. Napkins are removed. The 3-year-old does not want to part with his but is coaxed into it with a new level of The Foos. The children fight over who gets to sign the credit card receipt. In a move definitely illegal and parentally suspect, we let the 3-year-old do it because he’s the baby. Everyone else sulks loudly.
Stage 10: The Car
He screams because I take the phone away when I strap him into his car seat. His brother has the nerve to ask if he can have it instead, and I nearly deck him. We drive home accompanied by the dulcet screams of an exhausted, tater-totted, Foos-ed-out 3-year-old. He got ketchup on his suit jacket too, right on the lapel, and guess who forgot the Tide stick today?
I swear to my husband we will never do this again. “What the hell were we thinking?” I say. We agree not to. Never again. It’s not worth it.
At least until next Friday night.