Fate and Desire at Naptime

This novel has everything: action, lust, suspense, toilet training …

Little Children
Tom Perrotta
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 355 pages.

In the last couple of months I’ve come across a lot of talk in the middlebrow media about having children — deciding whether to have them or not, and then coping with the consequences either way. The March issue of The Atlantic had a feature section about the nanny economy; the cover of Time has hyped “The Case for Staying Home: Why more young moms are opting out of the rat race”; a radio talk show has devoted an hour to advocates for the rights of the “child-free,” who, it turns out, are shockingly oppressed.

Or shockingly pissy, which is the view from my side of the fence. I have young children, both my wife and I work (hey, where’s our Time cover story?), and I realize how hard and inescapable these decisions are. And I respect people’s right not to have a child. But in the mediaverse, these issues get clouded with a lot of gaseous, solipsistic carrying-on and a relentless upper-middle-class bias, where each speaker defends his or her domestic strategy as the most ethical and least tacky.

In the last few weeks, I learned that a couple I know is contending with the serious illness of their young daughter—an illness with no diagnosis or effective treatment so far. They have been plunged into a Defcon-5 state of round-the-clock care and endless, bottomless worry. This is one of the fates we invite when we procreate; so my tolerance toward precious young marrieds pondering child rearing as a lifestyle choice is especially low right now.

It was in this mood that I picked up Little Children. Reading the dust jacket, I saw that the author, Tom Perrotta, is a satirist of some note (his novel Election was adapted into the feature film of the same name). This book, I hoped, would slay some sacred cows, or least knock over some $500 jogging strollers.

It gets off to a promising start. We meet Sarah, a bright, socially conscious woman, thrust into marriage and motherhood almost before she’s realized it. She and her 3-year-old, Lucy, are part of a tribe of moms and toddlers who gather at the neighborhood playground every day. The gossip is dreary, the pressure of parental correctness is heavy, and the conversational focus on diaper bags and juice boxes is maddening. Perrotta observes the details of this milieu acutely.

Then the news that a registered sex offender has moved into town stirs up some rawer emotions in the moms. And the addition to the scene of little Aaron and his handsome stay-at-home dad, Todd, set the pot to simmering quite nicely.

The story, however, goes in a different direction than I’d expected. Little Children is much less directly about parenthood than it is about love and marriage during the years when one is occupied (and preoccupied) with caring for young kids. It’s a wise choice by the author. In rendering the daily life of the playground tribe so well, the story distills an essential truth: parenting is tedious. Even I, an experienced parent, was impressed by the clarity of this revelation. (Maybe it gains some narrative momentum as the child nears the teenage years, I don’t know — yet.) Of course parenting has its joys, but they are of a slow, contemplative, and generic sort. The action is with the adults, who are struggling to reconcile sexuality with domestic routine, to get a grip on an awe-filled new identity and relationship to the world, to conserve a sense of their own freedom in the face of economic and family pressure, to plot a course and stick to it. The book’s simple two-word title is ironic; the 3-year-olds are much steadier and more predictable than their moms and dads.

As Sarah nervously plots her seduction of Todd, she flashes back to her first high school boyfriend, who broke up with her on the morning of the SAT exam:

The doors opened, and Sarah followed the rest of the sheep inside. But all she could think about as she filled in the blanks with her Number 2 pencil was what had gone wrong. Wasn’t I pretty enough? Was I a bad kisser? Should I have let him touch me down there? All of the above?

Here is one of the striking things about the world of Little Children: none of the characters have really gotten over high school. All are still haunted by old fears of inadequacy (especially sexual) and by the habit of locating themselves and their peers on a monolithic pecking order, with the cool kids at the top and the outsiders below. The women at the playground dub Todd “the Prom King,” and make him the projection screen for their dreams of domestic bliss, or grievances against their romantic ill-fortune. The men, for their part, withdraw from their families and responsibilities into adolescent diversions: sports, cruel practical jokes, pornography.

Sarah and Todd find refuge in each other, scheduling trysts to match their kids’ naptime. But their summer fling can’t go on indefinitely; the day of reckoning is the date of the bar exam, which Todd (pressured by his wife) has a third and final chance to pass.

The humor in Little Children is clever rather than uproarious, and the prose is merely utilitarian. But it’s a well-constructed story that gathers speed and surprising tension as it unfolds. Will Todd and Sarah ditch their spouses and run off together? What is the pedophile Ronnie McGorvey doing at the playground after dark? I was keen to reach the final pages to find out.

Though he pokes fun in every direction, Perrotta also extends sympathy and understanding all around. Take Mary Ann, who is the uptightest of the uptight playground moms. She pursues motherhood as project management, and explains to her 4-year-old the things he needs to do to get into Harvard. We figure Mary Ann for a walking punchline in Chapter One, but eventually we see behind the brisk exterior and glimpse her heartbreak and vulnerability.

Placing the character of Ronnie the child molester in this suburban farce seems like an incongruous choice, but it succeeds. Ronnie represents what can happen at the bottom of the high school totem pole: the victim of bullying, the total outsider, becomes the bully and abuser in his turn. The author doesn’t flinch from Ronnie’s viciousness and manipulations, but gives him agency either to succumb to his compulsion or to overcome it.

As the moms and dads are buffeted by their desires, obligations, and regrets, their identity as parents anchors them. The anchor may be a dreadful burden. Ronnie’s mother personifies parenthood in extremis; she loves her son, yet cannot blind herself to what he is. But the redemptive capacity of parenthood is portrayed as well, in the young families’ choices to stay together, or to break up tenderly.