When I was babysitting for some Parisian kids on the Île de Ré one summer, one thing made a huge impression on me. The little boy, Hugo, was about three, and whenever he pooped he would call for his daddy (his mother wasn’t there) to wipe him:

“Papa! Viens m’essuyer les fesses!” (trans.: Daddy, come wipe my bottom!”) he would howl.

And his father, Jean-Luc, would come trudging in and say in a resonant baritone, “Hugo, t’es pénible!” (“Hugo, you’re such a pain!” as he did the deed).

At the time, I never noticed how that was probably a cruel thing to say to a three-year-old, although I did surmise that perhaps Jean-Luc was having the same marital problems as Marc, his brother-in-law and my employer, was: Sylvie, the mère de famille, had not accompanied us to the island in order to have an affair with a friend of their family, Luc, back in Paris, and since Jean-Luc’s spouse was conspicuously absent, I suspected her of similar extracurriculars. This was particularly indicated by the odd camaraderie between Jean-Luc and Marc who, you’d have thought, might be experiencing some tensions stemming from the fact that the former’s sister was cheating on the latter; not so. They seemed the best of friends.

Anyway, it was the particular combination of frustration and tenderness (about a 70-30 split, I’d say) that impressed me about Jean-Luc’s predictable refrain, and I have thought of it since then every time someone I know acts like a whiny, whingeing little brat. Which is far too often, and it’s far too often an adult who makes me chant, internally, “_____, t’es PENIBLE!” — for the record, I have never said it to Things One or Two, despite the fact that Thing One does, indeed, make me wipe his bottom every time he poops.

So, in a life full of wanting to tell people how pénible they are, I’ve got to say that parenting has offered me the most numerous, and the richest, opportunities to be frustrated with my peers. Take our preschool co-op (yes, that again, but it’s a different person this time). I have been singing the praises (to myself) of the co-op, fully planning on rejoining with Thing Two six months from when Thing One leaves at the end of summer. It has, I’ve told myself, underscored the importance of community, given me a opportunity to learn to deal with other people, not to be hypersensitive, to model community values for the children, to not overreact (as is my wont) when people say or do things I disagree with, to allow our common belief in community and in basic values like sharing, kindness, exploration to bring us together and demonstrate to our children that we are happier, kinder, more reasonable people when we pool our efforts and resources. And I do believe that. I do.

Except that every time I manage to lull myself into complacency, somebody comes along and acts like a whining, whingeing brat, making me want to scream, “____, t’es PENIBLE!” right before bitch-slapping them into next Tuesday.

The current case isn’t even to do with me, except insofar as easily offended, passive aggressive folks attribute the actions of one spouse to another. K. was working his parent teaching shift at the co-op last Wednesday, and the child of one of the other workers (we’ll call her “Lark”) was having a rough day: as I heard it, hitting and pushing and generally acting out. Apparently he’s had some problems with that kind of thing, which is not uncommon, especially in the preverbal set, and Lark was plenty stressed by the time I got there with a change of clothes for Thing One and Thing Two in a carrier. The crowning moment was when Lark’s kid, “Pancho,” punched Thing Two in the face as she cheerfully exercised her new crawling/climbing skills; hardly desirable, but par for the course all in all. K. called this out (I was in the bathroom with Thing One, performing my stated duties) in a loud, angry voice that I thought could’ve been moderated, but then his voice often sounds crabbier and more unequivocal than he means it to, at least to me.

Anyway, I wasn’t party to the altercation, but apparently K. then said to Lark, “You know, I didn’t think of it at the time, but we should have let you guys go home and called for back-up, since if it was a child whose parent wasn’t here they would have been called.” And apparently that was The Last Straw for Lark, who left on the verge of tears. The third worker that day, “Nellie,” then informed K., “You were really rude to Lark. You hurt her feelings.”

I got this all secondhand in the car, so I can’t pass judgment on who said exactly what or in what tone of voice and whose feelings were justifiably bruised. But K. was sort of righteously indignant about the whole thing (his suggestion being protocol from the Parent Handbook), so I, in the interest of peace, strongly recommended that he call Lark and try to patch things up. He opted to send her a nice email saying he was sorry if he hurt her feelings, that he was only thinking of ways to handle the situation.

She hasn’t replied. And it’s been FIVE DAYS.

And not ONLY has she not replied, but she is refusing to make eye contact with me, has had her shift mysteriously switched to Tuesday, so that she’s no longer working with K. (coincidentally, Nellie is the person who manages the schedule), and is generally Refusing to Deal. Meanwhile, Nellie made a note in the Daily Journal (which is supposed to be about what went on with the kids) that there was a “conflict between shift workers,” which caused the president, Annalise, to query K., who told her the whole story. So now Annalise is trying to get in touch with Lark to find out if what Nellie says about K. is true.

Does this sound like middle school to you? BECAUSE IT DOES TO ME.

Now, again, I’m not going to advocate for K. being blameless, because I don’t know. I do feel fairly confident that he didn’t say anything overtly offensive and that he spoke with the best intentions. But the main issue is this: there are RULES, people. And the rules exist to force you to act like an adult even when you don’t want to, which is — in my opinion, anyway — a whole lot of what parenting is about.

In this case, the rules are simple: if someone has upset you or you have a problem with them, you have to discuss it within twenty-four hours. If you are not comfortable discussing it with the person involved (the handbook strongly implies that that kind of discomfort should be reserved for instances when the person has said they HATE you and are working on a VOODOO DOLL to silence you forever), you are allowed to speak to the president of the co-op and have him or her mediate.

You are not allowed to a)sulk, b)have your friends make accusations, recriminations, or aspersions, or c)evade responsibility for what is entirely your problem. You are especially not allowed to gossip about What a Hateful Person So-and-so is with another co-op member while refusing to acknowledge the problem to them. Why? Because it teaches your children a very harmful lesson. It teaches them to be whiny, whingeing, irresponsible, passive-aggressive LITTLE BITCHES (and I use that term in the unisex).

Apparently, Lark didn’t get the memo.

I guess she doesn’t realize how much she’s fucking with my world view. After all, because of this little incident, an incident that was probably the result of one person being insensitive and the other being oversensitive in an otherwise innocuous conversation, I am reconsidering the value of community. I don’t want to raise my kids with the deep criticism, distrust, and suspicion of strangers I secretly, in my uglier moments, harbor. But it’s hard to continually face situations like this without wanting to live in a fortress of your own making and avoid dealing with other people’s b.s. entirely.

I’m still sticking it out, for now. But if you hear I’ve moved to a walled compound in McMansionland and never talk to my neighbors, you’ll know the camel’s back finally broke.