What’s Mine Is Not Yours

What’s Mine Is Not Yours


Pink share key

By Isabelle FitzGerald

“No sharing, Mama!”

My livid two-year-old swatted my hand, which hovered over his untouched supper, the meatballs I made growing cold and gray. My son clearly wasn’t hungry. I, however, was ravenous and could not stand to watch those delectable morsels of beef and oregano congealing on his plate.

Cooking together is the closest our family comes to having a ritual, and as soon as he was able, my son sifted flour for banana bread and scrubbed vegetables on his step stool next to the sink. Alas, he wanted to be in complete control of these tasks, but couldn’t be, a struggle that reached its apex whenever it was time to hand over the wooden spoon with which he stirred the soup or to relinquish the carrots he’d rinsed to the cutting board and my waiting knife.

“Mama taking my carrots,” he’d blubber. I explained that the carrots did not belong to him, that the sooner he gave them to me, the sooner he would eat them. Sometimes, he surrendered the vegetables; more often, I had to pry them from his angry fists, leading to the inevitable tantrum, to the occasional burnt meal, and to the unshakable sense I’d committed some injustice I could not place.


“Mine” was bound to be among his first words, according to the weekly parenting newsletter I subscribed to. The distinction between “you” and “me,” and therefore “yours” and “mine” was all part of my toddler navigating his newfound autonomy after the relentless dependency of being an infant. The experts promised that he’d outgrow this phase, eventually.

In the meantime, my son’s possessiveness intensified, expanded beyond the culinary realm. At his grandparents’ house, he prostrated himself and pounded his fists when his cousin touched the blocks he deemed were “his.” In the sandbox, he grew hysterical when the girl who owned the plastic bucket he’d been playing with came to collect her toy. “That bucket belongs to her,” I said. “See how nicely she was sharing?” He did not.

I tried positive reinforcement: I lavished him with praise on the rare occasion he offered me one of his playthings or a bite of his apple. I tried logic: if he wanted to play cars and trucks together, he needed to let me use at least one of his many miniature vehicles. No luck. Whenever I touched something that belonged to him, my otherwise cheerful child would detonate. My husband worried. I assured him this was normal toddler behavior, but I, too, began to wonder why our son’s reactions were so extreme.


One September afternoon, the three of us were in the car, stuck in traffic. It was hot. I was thirsty. My husband reached over the gearshift and swigged from my water bottle. I blew up. “That’s my water.”

From the backseat, our son listened. He’d overheard this fight before: my high-decibel freak out after my husband took a sip without asking and swallowed half the bottle’s contents in a single glug. To my husband, my fury over water theft seemed comically overblown. To me, it felt like he disregarded my boundaries, my basic needs. In eating from my son’s bowl, it seemed I’d picked up my husband’s same annoying habit.

A few weeks later, we sat down to dine at a restaurant. My stomach stabbed with hunger, and the stars of low blood sugar dazzled my eyes. The waiter brought our son’s food first, a hotdog with a heap of golden fries. I swiped one from his plate and stuffed it in my mouth, sweet ketchup-y relief. He howled. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asked.

“Mama shared with me,” my son said.

My husband shot me a dirty look.

“Taking without permission isn’t sharing,” he said. “It’s stealing.”

Pot, kettle, black? I thought. Nonetheless, he was right.


Even infants know right from wrong.

A few years ago, a research team at Yale demonstrated this fact by putting on a puppet show for babies about a bunny struggling to remove a toy from a box. First, a “mean” puppet entered the stage and slammed the box shut. Then, a “nice” puppet appeared and helped the bunny get the toy. When asked which puppet they preferred, the babies reached for the “nice” puppet three times as often.

In a second experiment, the researchers put on a different show, three puppets rolling a ball between them. When the ball reached the bunny puppet, he took it and ran off. The researchers then performed the first show, the one about the bunny trying to get the toy from the box. This time round, the babies overwhelmingly preferred the puppet that slammed the lid shut. That larcenous rabbit deserved to be punished.

My son knew stealing was wrong without having a word for it, or worse, having the wrong word. Sharing.


That refrain from my childhood, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is as lazy a dictum as it is ineffective. My son reflects my actions, good and bad. I have sworn in front of him and later heard him parroting my blasphemes in his crib, testing inflections beginning with “F.” If my husband drinking my water drives me crazy, why would I expect my child to act – or to feel – any differently? Being his mother is as much about correcting my hypocrisies as it is about telling him how to behave.

Now that he knows the difference between sharing and stealing, he’s gotten better at the former with his playmates, if not with me. Maybe he still sees me as the thieving bunny, not to be trusted, not to be rewarded. I’m doing my best to lay off his dinner. When I forget, when my fingers sneak toward his neglected string beans, my son shouts, “No stealing!” He teaches me, little by little, how I ought to behave, too.

Isabelle FitzGerald studied creative writing at Brown University. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus and Yahoo! Parenting. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on her first novel.


Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

winter2011_newman“So socialism means that everyone shares everything?” My seven-year-old daughter is trying to understand why I refer to our cooperative summer arrangement as “Socialist Friend Camp.” “And why do you always say it that way?” She means Slavically.

I sigh. “It’s hard to explain,” I say, and it’s true. The accent is only part of it; really what I want to do is move through my suburban life in full Karl Marx costume, complete with bushy grey beard, bushy grey hair, and Communist Manifesto. Somebody somewhere is probably marketing that costume and—irony!—profiting handsomely from it. O, the world!

The world. There has never been a more catastrophically extreme divide between the rich and the poor: While the wealthy evade taxes and install TVs the size of flattened hearses, twenty-seven thousand children die daily of preventable causes—even though there’s enough to go around, there is. But it doesn’t go around. At America’s biggest companies, the CEOs earn over five hundred times what the average worker does. It’s easy for me to point my revolutionary finger: There. Bazillionaire! Bad. But what about right here, in my warm, comfortable house with rooms galore and cupboards lined with food? “In a second I would give it all up, I would, if that’s the direction the world was headed,” I say, and I mean it. But when the children say, “So let’s,” I sigh. I barely have time to nag my husband to mow our lawn; the fomenting of a movement and then the actual moving feels beyond the scope of my bourgeois energy level.

But sometimes it feels a little devastating, the sweetness we cultivate in our children, our insistence that they share their Zhu Zhu Pets and Laffy Taffy. Why even bother teaching them the values of sharing and cooperation, when our national ethos is the hoarding of food and medicine, land and resources, like the good capitalists that we are?

Congratulations! we’ll say when they turn twenty-one. Now you can start drinking legally and stop behaving ethically! Maybe we’re just helping them get all that pesky sharing out of the way so it doesn’t burden them later, when they’re clambering over each other towards the teetering heights of personal wealth.

Did you see that Simon Rich piece in The New Yorker a while back? It was called “Play Nice: If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children…” and the part that made me laugh out loud was this:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.

Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?

Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.

Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.

Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?

Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

And it’s funny, it is. Grown-ups sharing! But isn’t it even more comical to imagine the opposite? Kids treating each other the way grown-ups do? Pimping out the labor of their peers, CEOing the babysitting and lawn-mowing to exploit each other for profit? Some kids unfettered in their wealth and greed, piggy banks overflowing, while other kids, the ones doing the actual work, can’t make a living wage? Ha ha ha! Oh, right, it’s not actually funny. I hate to become the embodiment of finger-wagging bummerhood, but seriously—is sharing the real indignity?

*   *   *

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” My kids are learning the Marxist formula, like good little card-carrying Socialists. But it doesn’t help that I am, as always, fuzzy on the details of my political passion. For instance: card-carrying, which, for some reason, I have always pictured more like Hallmark than ID. Because I am a Socialist / What’s mine is yours, you get the gist… I don’t mention to the kids the sexistly troubling fact that Mrs. Marx was likely stabbing platters of sliced bratwurst with toothpicks and pouring endless glasses of vodka for the meetings of the real Socialists, who were, of course, men.

Besides graduate school—where I T.A.ed a Marxist Theory class, pet-sat cats named Lenin and Trotsky, and found myself frequently flattened beneath various anvil-style monologues about dialectical materialism and commodity fetishism—everything I know about alternatives to Capitalism I know from the Woody Allen movies Bananas and Love and Death. Also from growing up in the age of Cold War propaganda. Remember how Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal floor routines were interspersed with footage of her parents waiting greyly in assorted sleeting bread lines? My own Russian grandmother seemed to spend the 1970s making borscht and sending relatives home to the mother country with suitcases full of jeans. “You vill sell, yes?” The poor Communists didn’t even have jeans! Those glum kerchief-headed kids, waiting denimlessly for their heavy Soviet loaves.

Whose joke is it that Socialist recreation consists of waiting in line for tickets to the toilet-paper line? I want my kids to maintain their optimistic vision of utopian justice, without misleading them about the fact that there aren’t such great examples of it in human history. Or at least, none that I can explain very well. Sweden, for example. Besides the making meatballs and the becoming supermodels, what actually goes on in Sweden? Do they stand in IKEA lines for their national allotment of Smorssgläben side tables in birch? I have no idea. Beyond the better maternity leave, healthcare, and some kind of national right to blondness, I don’t know much. Which doesn’t seem to dam the stream of opinions pouring from my political face hole.

*   *   *

“Let’s play Proletariat Revolution again!” my red-diaper babies beg. “You be Hegel. We’ll be the alienated workers.”

“Not until you finish your turnip porridge,” I say, “and scrub the community toilets.” If only. We get out Monopoly like good citizens, so that we can learn about private property and screwing everybody. “You’d be able to get rich,” I explain to my losing children, “if you weren’t already so poor!” Suckers. Actually, Monopoly is dull compared to Acquire, a game from which Ben has learned the terms “corporate merger” and “majority shareholder”; playing it brings out the slum lord in everybody, all of us cackling and rubbing our hands together like evil flies. On principle, we also play Harvest Time, which is gentle and cooperative: We help each other hurry our crops into the root cellar before winter comes, but it is so frankly dull that we end up with our foreheads on the table, groaning, even while our little daughter is offering us some of her corn and carrots because she’s got more than she needs.

The kids talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything, distinguishing between just-for-being-selfish wishes (our own personal soda machine with soda in it that you would actually let us drink) and the real wish you would wish if you only had one wish (justice). “If you had limitless money,” Ben always prompts me, “then you could get the stuff you want and still buy everyone everything they need, right?” He pictures stacks and stacks of million-dollar bills, glad-handing his way to health and happiness for all, even as the Coke dispenser is being installed in our new billiards room. I explain that a radical redistribution of wealth is more complicated—more like beads moved around on an abacus than extra rows of beads added onto it—but it’s not what I actually picture. Justice: a cool hand smoothing the forehead of our feverish world.

*   *   *

“Oh, please,” I say aloud to the radio. “Obama’s not enough of a Socialist.” People are always quick to remind you that communism has never worked. And, sure, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union: too little fun, too much corruption—plus the executing of everybody who wasn’t already incarcerated. But what about Capitalism? It does seem to sleet less now in Eastern Europe, what with everyone’s access to bright pastels, the denim trousers without borders. But it’s hard to argue that capitalism is working exactly. Unless your goal was rich countries profiting off the backs of poor ones; unless your goal was freedom for the wealthy to run the endless Möbius-strip treadmill of paycheck-to-mall meaninglessness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of crap you don’t need and also the Pottery Barn lidded baskets to store it all in. I’m glad I’m not, say, a serf—but at least with Feudalism, nobody was tricked into thinking that anyone could be king if they only worked hard enough or got a basketball scholarship.

*   *   *

Across the table from me now, Ben is eating a piece of blueberry crumb cake and showing me his fifth-grade homework. “It’s a compare and contrast chain about ‘Wakaima and the Clay Man,'” he explains, “which is a story about a lazy rabbit who makes an elephant do all the work on the farm. We’re supposed to show how it’s like a real-life situation.” He has described them as the fable version of factory owners and exploited workers. I have never been prouder. Workers of the world, unite!

“Why are you writing about it?” Ben asks pleasantly, crumbs spraying as he leans over to look at my computer screen. “I’m writing a piece about talking to kids about capitalism,” I tell him, and he says, “Wait, what’s capitalism again?”


This is probably where I should mention that Ben’s life goal is to own the world’s biggest casino. And also, you know, to promote justice. “When really rich people come and lose money,” he explains, “I’ll give that money away to an organization.” The Robin Hood of Las Vegas!

I’m not really surprised. It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. On the one hand, we have a young mother living with her baby in our guest room, and we get our Patagonia fleece hoodies at the Salvation Army. On the other hand, we send our kids to (wince) private school and plant peonies. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all—when across town from us, there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies. What if my own children were ill in my arms, stilled by malnutrition or malaria, and I looked across the globe and saw people like us, in our cozy New England cape house, with our shoes for every season and our compost heaped with uneaten food? I don’t know what to think. It’s not right, living this way. It’s not fair. We teach our kids to share because we know it’s the only way to thrive, all of us.

In his 1949 paper “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, of e=mc, proposed eliminating the “grave evils” of capitalism via “a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

I’m no physicist, but that kind of relativity? I get it. I do.

Author’s Note: At some point I was sitting around with friends, and we were drinking wine and yelling at our kids to share something fairly—jelly beans, I think. And then we were killing ourselves laughing, imagining training them from an early age to be good capitalists. (Which is, of course, the piñata model of distribution.) We were maybe a little drunk, but it triggers something deep, teaching kids fundamental values that aren’t always embraced by the broader culture. And honestly? This piece—it’s hard to put out there because I’m confessing such a profound hypocrisy. That line about my kids going to private school, for example—I deleted and retyped it a dozen times. I have good intentions; I’m selfish; I crave justice; I seek comfort. I judge myself harshly, but I hope you won’t judge me. I hope.

Brain, Child (Winter 2011)

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Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?

Do Your Kids Share a Bathroom?


ScanAs my teenage daughter likes to remind me, sharing a bathroom with her brother, well, sucks. I get it. Growing up, my older brother and I shared a bathroom. Luckily though, our bathroom had two sinks, which meant we had own our space for occasional side by side nighttime teeth brushing or last minute before school glances in our matching oval mirrors. It was nice looking for a 1970s kids’ bathroom, with speckled apricot colored countertops, a terra cotta ceramic tiled floor and floral wallpaper with a contrasting ebony background. Assuming I set my alarm early enough and raced to the bathroom to get first dibs for a hot shower, I enjoyed my morning time in there, the potpourri in the mini glass bowls giving an added fresh scent to the room. But, if for some reason, I had over slept, even for a minute or two, I would race to find a closed door, the sound of the shower the exclamation point that not only would I be waiting a while to get in there, but the combination of fog, humidity and inevitable older brother bathroom smelliness would be a terrible start to my adolescent day.

My daughter is 15 and my son is 13. Like my brother and me, they share a bathroom.

“When will you be out of the bathroom?” my 13-year-old son Daniel yells to his older sister. He had already knocked on the closed door. Twice. Then a third time, not just a tap but a more forceful attempt, using his balled up fist rather than the palm of his hand. I’m not too far away if needed, downstairs in my office typing away at my computer.

Emily’s Taylor Swift music blares from behind the closed door, now a decibel or two louder, a direct response I am sure to her brother’s request. Then, a moment or two passes, as if she’s given his question some thought or perhaps she is simply done with whatever it is she’s been doing in there. Taylor Swift’s voice lowers to a whisper her lyrics now barely audible. The sound of the knob turning as Emily opens the door is an introduction to the final act of this familiar scene. She gives a dramatic flip of her wavy chestnut hair as she breezes by Daniel, and then, as an unexpected twist to the contentious plot, she gives him a quick tickle under his armpit, setting off laughter from both. “I’m still pissed,” Daniel says, still giggling as he walks into the bathroom shutting the door closed which he then quickly re-opens to throw his sister’s wet towel down the hallway.

I stop tapping at the keyboard, sit back in my desk chair and smile. Or is it a smirk? I survived the bathroom battles and banter with my brother years ago; now it’s my kids’ turn to do the same.

“You know what I will miss the most about my house?” a good friend recently asked in anticipation of her upcoming move to a new and bigger home in our community – one with bathrooms connected to each child’s room. Before I even had the chance to guess or give the obligatory “What?” she continued. “My kids’ forced time together … sharing a bathroom.” She paused, composing herself, as if she was about to grab a tissue from her bag. I knew exactly what she meant. “The fighting, the talking, everything. I’ve even heard them giggling in there. Many times … especially after an argument.” I sighed alongside her, thinking about my two teenagers, how as they’ve become older, time together needs to be somewhat forced upon them. Not just at the dinner table or on family car rides. Long gone are the days they sat in the gritty sand at Compo Beach, digging with their shovels and pails, taking turns to run to the water to fill their buckets.

Having my teenage kids share a bathroom is more than just sharing sink space and toothpaste with each other, more than yelling “I need to get in there” or “when will you be done?” Maybe they’ll learn to respect one another simply by flushing the toilet for the next person’s use or removing the inside out dirty clothes and wet towels before leaving the room. In this stage of adolescent life when one is glued to her phone or her laptop and the other is either focused on the X-box or the outside basketball hoop, sharing a bathroom forces them to stop what they’re doing and be in the moment. With each other. Together. And if that moment is a negotiation, an argument, a realization how to accommodate or understand each other’s needs and feelings for their shared space, or just a passing by shove or tickle, I’ll take it.

I think I might call my brother today.

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