“I sure wish I could have a rice cake,” my daughter says quietly from the backseat. She is newly five, but has already mastered the female art of passivity.
It is unfair, perhaps, to call this a female trait. But she is my only daughter, and the only one who does this out of my sample size of three.
“I want a rice cake,” my three-year-old son will demand. If I’m lucky. More often, let’s be honest, it’s “Where’s. My. RICE CAKE!”
“Mommy, can I please have a rice cake?” my seven-year-old son will politely ask.
And my daughter will sit, quietly, muttering about her unmet desires.
It bothers me, more than it should, that she doesn’t just ask for what she wants. She is not a subservient child generally. She barrels rather than walks. She can be heard down the block when her brothers take something from her that she was using. Or that she was thinking about using. So her refusal to ask directly for things is even more incongruous.
In the front seat of the car, I ignore her. She didn’t ask for anything, so she gets nothing.
“I’m so hungry,” she resignedly moans. “I wish I could have something to eat.”
“You haven’t asked me for anything,” I say, feeling tense and slightly ridiculous as her brothers sit happily chomping. “If you want a rice cake, ask me for a rice cake.”
It bothers me. Because it’s bigger than a rice cake. How much will she miss out on if she doesn’t ask? The unasked-for promotion. The raise. How much will she shoulder? The quiet piling of household detritus. The building resentments.
It bothers me because I do it: “I wish we could keep this foster cat.” “Don’t you think a planter would look nice here?” “Anything is fine.”
And, even bigger, the simmering unasks. The “I’m tired of being the only one who cleans up around here. Why am I always the one who stays home with the kids when they’re sick? I’m so overwhelmed.”
A few months ago was particularly rough. It was filled with sick kids and a sick me, unexpected emergency house repairs, figuring out summer camps and schools for next year. It was filled with all those extras of parenting that tend to fall to the wife. And one after another, indeed they fell to me.
I do not work full time. My husband does. And so I expect the extras to fall to me – I do. But I hate the expectation of it. The assumption that these tasks are mine and mine alone. That no discussion is needed when a child is home sick, when 10 hours of figuring out how to repair the house is suddenly folded into my 20-hour work week on top of caring for our three children.
I was my daughter in the back seat, feeling sorry for myself because no one was giving me the rice cake. “Sure would be nice to get a thank you,” I found myself muttering, my resentment over the withheld treat growing, all around me the sound of crunching, the scent of popped rice.
Why not just ask for help? For acknowledgment? It’s right there. Everyone around me is asking for it and getting it. What am I so afraid of?
I worry that my husband will get defensive. I worry that I will have to shoulder a grudge about his response. I worry that I will hurt feelings, step on toes, come across all wrong.
Until one day, I don’t anymore. I put the kids to bed, come downstairs, and blurt more than say, “I’m feeling unappreciated. I feel like there’s been so much extra stuff this month. And I’m fine with doing it, but I need some acknowledgment.”
“I appreciate you!” my husband says, shocked at the outburst. “I’m sorry. I appreciate you.”
He beckons me toward the couch. I sit with him. We talk about it. We talk about what I need. And it is enough.
Now that is months ago, and it’s no longer enough. We are back into our habits. I still find myself modeling this behavior for my daughter, sighing as I pick up a discarded sock. “I wish people would pick up after themselves.”
She sees me say it. She absorbs it.
Today, she will wish for a rice cake. I doubt she will ask for one.