"It might be the most important book about being a parent that you will ever read." Emily Rapp Black, New York Times bestselling author of The Still Point of the Turning World
"Brooks's own personal experience provides the narrative thrust for the book she writes unflinchingly about her own experience.... Readers who want to know what happened to Brooks will keep reading to learn how the case against her proceeds, but it's Brooks's questions about why mothers are so judgmental and competitive that give the book its heft." NPR
One morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her four-year old son in the car while she ran into a store. What happened would consume the next several years of her life and spur her to investigate the broader role America’s culture of fear plays in parenthood. In Small Animals, Brooks asks, Of all the emotions inherent in parenting, is there any more universal or profound than fear? Why have our notions of what it means to be a good parent changed so radically? In what ways do these changes impact the lives of parents, children, and the structure of society at large? And what, in the end, does the rise of fearful parenting tell us about ourselves?
Fueled by urgency and the emotional intensity of Brooks’s own story, Small Animals is a riveting examination of the ways our culture of competitive, anxious, and judgmental parenting has profoundly altered the experiences of parents and children. In her signature styleby turns funny, penetrating, and always illuminatingwhich has dazzled millions of fans and been called "striking" by New York Times Book Review and "beautiful" by the National Book Critics Circle, Brooks offers a provocative, compelling portrait of parenthood in America and calls us to examine what we most value in our relationships with our children and one another.
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THE DAY I LEFT MY SON IN THE CAR
It happened in the parking lot of a strip mall during the first week of March 2011, my last morning in Virginia, at the end of a visit with my parents. The day it happened was no different from any other: I was nervous, and I was running late.
I was thirty-three at the time — a young mother, a frazzled woman, an underemployed writer, a mostly stay-at-home mom, secretly wishing I was something more, something else. I had a husband, a son, a daughter, and a dog. We lived together in a town house in Chicago. But all of this happened in Virginia, in the rural-suburban community south of Richmond where I'd spent most of the first eighteen years of my life. I'd taken my children there to visit my parents for the week, and now the week was over. Back to Chicago. Back to life.
The morning it happened, I was packing and planning. Packing is utterly transformed by becoming a parent. There had been a time when packing had been fun and easy. For an entire summer in Israel, I'd once packed nothing but sundresses, a pair of Birkenstocks, a few Edith Wharton novels, and a package of oral contraceptives. For a semester in France, I'd packed a few pairs of jeans, black shirts, an English-French dictionary, and an asthma inhaler in case I decided to take up smoking. When my husband and I traveled in the days before having children, we mostly packed books. Travel was for reading, walking, eating, seeing. It was for sex and sleeping in. I remember once being out at dinner with a friend who said, "I have to go home early to pack." I'd wondered what she meant. "Don't you just open up your suitcase and throw some shit in?" I'd asked. That was how I thought about packing until the age of twenty-nine. Then something changed: The something was parenthood. When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips. When you have small children, packing is a challenge, a project, an ordeal — or if you're me, and you spend hours thinking about every worst-case scenario and how you might prevent it and what you might need if it comes to pass, a destination as exotic as Massachusetts seems impossibly inhospitable simply by virtue of not being the place where you have all of your shit.
* * *
"Mom!" I yelled across my parents' house. "Mom! Have you seen Felix's headphones?"
She was in the backyard, pulling up weeds, watching him jump on the trampoline. "Your phone?" she called back. "Have you looked in your pocket?"
"Not my phone. His headphones ... for the plane."
"Look in your purse," she said. "Look on the kitchen counter."
They were not in my purse. They were not on the kitchen counter. They were not in the diaper bag. They were not in my backpack. "Fuck," I said, though not loudly, because the baby was sleeping and the doors in my parents' house are cardboard-thin. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," I whispered, then looked at the clock.
I'd divided the items to be packed into two categories. First were things I might possibly need during a flight with my four-year-old and two-year old — the category of contingency items. This category was infinite. It had no beginning and no end and grew larger with every trip I took with them. I tried not to think too much about this category. Then there was the category of things I would almost definitely need. Felix's special headphones — the padded kind that were the only kind he'd tolerate wearing as he watched a movie on my iPad, leaving me free to do things like feed the baby or change the baby or bounce the baby up and down, trying to keep her from annoying the other passengers — were on the column of essential items. They were nonnegotiable, on par with diapers, wet wipes, bottles, a packet of unmixed formula, snack food, storybooks, water, a sippy cup, a stroller, a change of clothes, a changing mat, crayons, paper, stickers, suckers for popping ears at takeoff and landing, and my bottle of lorazepam — a lovely controlled substance also known by the brand name Ativan, a member of the lovely class of drugs called benzodiazepines, whose main indication is the treatment of anxiety disorders — to keep me from having a panic attack during turbulence or any of the other in-flight moments when the irrational portion of my brain sent a message to my body that, by the way, you and your children are currently hurtling miles above the earth at five hundred miles per hour in a manmade cylinder resembling a large, aluminum coffin. Yes, a low dose of lorazepam was as essential for flying as my four-year-old's special headphones.
I had the lorazepam. I didn't have the headphones. This was what I was thinking as I slid open the screen door and told my mother I was running to the store.
Felix had hopped down from the trampoline and was pushing a toy lawn mower around the yard when I made the announcement. "Can I come?" he asked.
"You hate going to the store," I reminded him. "Why don't you stay here with Grandma?" It wasn't really a question and yet I phrased it as a question. This was a habit I'd later learn to identify, of mistakenly turning a command into a choice. What I meant to say was, You stay at home with Grandma, Felix. Mommy will be right back. A very clear order. And yet, without ever consciously deciding to do so, I'd become a parent who associated empathy for my kids' feelings and discussion and consensus-building with enlightened parenting. Are you ready for dinner? Should we clean up your toys? Can you apologize to your sister for drawing on her feet? Parents such as myself didn't give orders; we made suggestions, negotiated, took things under consideration.
I had ample love, endless good intentions, and absolutely no confidence in my own authority. And often I'd wonder why, in the time I passed with my children, did I feel so anxious and overpowered and out of control?
"No Grandma. I want to come with Mommy. I go too," Felix said.
I should have seen what was going on — my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car, and he was trying to score the extra screen time. My parents let him do all kinds of things I didn't let him do at home. I let them let him. My children saw their grandparents three or four times a year. Felix knew the system. I was too busy rushing and worrying to think about his motives.
I was busy thinking — thinking about the security line, the boarding process, how there were few things I enjoyed less than flying, and how flying with my children was one of them. I was thinking about the quiet rage I would feel as I struggled barefoot with my thrashing children through the metal detectors or body scanners while other passengers sighed behind me at our slowness, the impatience I'd feel at their impatience, at my own clumsiness, and at the security procedures themselves, procedures that would surely not prevent a determined person from blowing our plane out of the sky but that we'd all submit to in a choreographed act of security theater.
"Pleeeeeaaase?" Felix said.
It seemed heartless not to let him come along. Also, and maybe more important, I was weak. I equivocated and wavered. As a mother who was also trying to work and write, stealing time away from one pursuit to feed the other, I was uncertain, second-guessing, skeptical of my own instincts. These were useful qualities to have as a writer. They sharpened the critical eye, staved off complacency, urged redoing and redoing again. They were not great qualities for a parent. Whatever that quality is that gives people the confidence to say to a child or an electorate or an army, "I know the answer; do as I say!" I didn't have it.
"Kim," my mom called to me from the laundry room. "Just let him stay here. It'll be faster. Stay with Grandma," she said to my son.
"Noooo!!!!! Want Mommy. I want to go with Mommy. Mommy, don't leave me."
For about two seconds, I tried to think of a good reason why he shouldn't be allowed to come along, why my convenience running this errand should be prioritized over his desire to spend time with me, his mother. Children needed time with their mothers. So much time. Endless time. When I couldn't think of such a reason, I folded.
"All right," I said. "But hurry up. We have a plane to catch. Quick, quick. Let's go."
* * *
I remember other details about that morning. I remember it was overcast and cool enough that we both put on our jackets before we left — Felix's neon orange, mine pink — and that I was thinking how in Chicago, though it was already March, it would probably be snowing.
I took Felix's hand and led him into my mother's minivan. The garage door was open, which was how she left it if she was inside or around the neighborhood. "What do I have that anyone around here wants to steal?" she'd ask. She was probably right. There were more squirrels per square acre than humans; it just wasn't the sort of place where someone was going to walk into a garage and steal a bike. There would be nowhere to go with it, no place for people to hide from each other.
We got in the car and drove two miles along the winding two-lane parkway, past the side streets where kids rode bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people didn't bother to lock their doors, and then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, to get home, to get my two-year-old daughter up from her nap, to get her fed and changed, to get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane. Halfway to the store, Felix noticed Grandma's iPad, which was sitting on the seat beside him. Like an air pressure gauge, the owners' manual, a box of Kleenex, an iPad was just something you found in a minivan. Felix started to play with it. I said nothing.
He was still playing when we pulled up in front of the parking lot.
"Ready?" I said.
"I don't want to go in," he said.
I turned around to look at him. "Felix," I said. "Come on. You said you wanted to come with Mommy."
He was tapping animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. "I don't want to go in. I changed my mind."
I tried to make my voice both calm and firm.
"Felix," I repeated. "If we don't get your headphones, you won't be able to watch a movie on the flight. It's a long flight. If you can't watch a movie on the plane, you're going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We're running late."
He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I'd come to recognize as pre-tantrum agitation. "No, no, no! I wait here," he said.
I took a deep breath. I knew what I was supposed to do. Set a limit. Be firm and consistent. Communicate my expectation calmly but with authority. But I was tired. I was late. I was nervous about flying. I didn't want, at that moment, to deal with the full-scale meltdown of my spirited, forty-pound four-year-old. Also, just beneath these reasons was something else, something more serious. It was a voice, this small, quiet voice I'd been hearing more and more lately. "Why?" the voice asked. "Why?" Why did I have to do it? Why did I have to have this discussion, this confrontation, this battle? It wasn't as though he were asking to smoke a joint or to rollerblade in traffic. He just wanted to sit in the car and play his little game for a few minutes. Why did I have to drag him inside? It was cool outside, hardly fifty degrees. The parking lot was safe. There were four or five cars around, a couple of middle-aged women in festive sweaters unloading their carts. It was the middle of the day. Cloudy and mild. Felix hadn't yet figured out how to undo his car seat buckle. Nothing was going to happen to him in the four or five minutes it would take for me to run into the store. I could lock the doors, crack the windows. If anyone tried the handle, the alarm would sound, but no one was going to try the handle. Hadn't I grown up waiting in the car while my own parents ran errands? What could possibly happen, here of all places, in just five minutes? Why couldn't I leave him, just this once?
I looked at the clock. I looked back at my son. Then, for the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seemed I'd been doing every minute of every day since having children, a never-ending, risk-benefit analysis. I noted the mild weather. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. Mostly, though, I visualized how quick, unencumbered by a fussing four-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of headphones, checking out, and coming back to the car. So I let him wait there. I told him I'd be right back. I opened the windows halfway to ventilate the car. I child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set.
I went into the store to get the headphones.
* * *
The store I visited that day might have been newly constructed, along with all the other mega-chain big-box stores spurred by an influx of families and professionals to central Virginia, but the space itself, the place where I left him that day, was familiar. I'd grown up about two miles from where I stood. I knew the sky, the flat, hazy horizon, the local people, their accent, more twang than drawl. My parents still lived in the same subdivision down the road where we'd moved when I was one. They lived on the same street and in the same house where I grew up. How I hated Brandermill, that subdivision, when I left it at eighteen, that street, that house, its planned-development stupor, its inaccessibility to all things meaningful and cultural, its lack of sidewalks, its sprawling golf course, its painful faux pastoralness that had obliterated a genuine pastoralness for the purposes of God knows what, making nature seem less threatening, less necessary to explore (which was extra work), less unknowable.
"Why did you move here?" I asked them at least once a month throughout my teen years. "Why would anyone choose to live here?"
"Oh, come on, Kimmy," my dad answered. "If you think this is the worst place, you haven't seen much of the world."
Of course, in many ways, he was right. In this rural-suburban, 1980s, American subdivision, my childhood was largely free from the hardships children have faced throughout much of human history, and continue to face today in much of the world. There was no starvation, no lack of sanitation, no outbreaks of deadly, communicable diseases, no war or mass violence. Crime was low. Neighbors knew or at least recognized one another. My mother seldom locked our door.
Occasionally, of course, even in such an idyllic setting, bad things happened to children. When I was twelve, a girl named Charity Powers, who lived in an adjacent county, disappeared outside a fast-food restaurant near a roller-skating rink late at night while waiting for her mother's friend to pick her up. There was a massive search effort, her grainy, photographed face appearing on the six o'clock news. People in supermarket aisles wondered what a little girl was doing alone in a parking lot so late at night. Where was the mother? It was the mother's boyfriend, some said. He never showed up. But these grumblings faded four months later when her body was found in a shallow grave on the property of a man who was later found guilty of capital murder. It really happened. She really died. But I remember it now, almost thirty years later, because it was so unusual, so exceptional in its horror.
Still, there were other, awful things from time to time. A carful of teenagers crashed into a tree in our neighbor's yard, killing three and maiming the fourth. A high school sophomore's truck was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Another teen dove from a rocky ledge into a swimming hole and snapped his neck. But I remember these incidents precisely because they were anomalous. Bad things happened to children, even in Brandermill, but only on the rarest of occasions. And so when they happened, you remembered them. Surely similar tragedies struck other communities around the country, but when they did, with the exception of the rare, high-profile case, we didn't hear about them. This was pre–internet age, pre–Amber Alert; we knew when terrible things happened within arm's reach, but not beyond.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Small Animals"
Copyright © 2018 Kim Brooks.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Part I Fear Itself
1 The Day I Left My Son in the Car 3
2 Parenthood as a Competitive Sport 35
3 The Fabrication of Fear 67
4 Negative Feedback 104
5 Self-Report 116
Part II The Cost of Fear
6 What a Horrible Mother 139
7 Quality of Life 168
8 Guinea Pigs 189
9 Small Animals 218