Have you ever participated in a focus group? How about one that takes place in your own home, involves your entire family and lasts for seven hours? No? Just me?
Last week, I got a hot tip that families were being recruited to participate in an in-home study re: a certain beverage that is orange and usually consumed at breakfast time.
First came an hour-long phone interview in which I talked about PRODUCT NAME more than I ever thought possible:
Sample question: "If there was a nuclear fall-out and PRODUCT NAME was suddenly not available, what would you do?"
Sample answer: "Um..."
A few days later, we got the word that we made the cut and a small documentary team would be arriving on our doorstep Monday morning at 7 a.m.
I told Mr. R the good news and, being us, the next two breakfasts preceding the shoot day went something like this:
Mr R: "This breakfast is great. But you know what I could really use? Some PRODUCT NAME."
Me: "I've got some right here, darling. I think I'll have some, too. I've always loved PRODUCT NAME."
The night before they were to arrive I gave Alice the lowdown:
"Tomorrow morning a camera crew is coming. They want to see how we make breakfast. Like on a cooking show?"
"Oh my gosh. This is going to be so embarrassing."
We were instructed thusly: awake as you normally would and wait until the crew arrives to do anything.
The interviewer came in, took one look at us starving in our PJs and pronounced: "Wow, no one has ever taken us so seriously before!"
We were off to a great start. We were real, man.
We started making breakfast. Just a typical Monday breakfast with Mr. R at the griddle flipping oatmeal pancakes made from scratch. My kitchen had never been cleaner and the kids were stunned into silence by all the equipment. For the first few minutes, I found myself floating around with nothing to do, trying to look busy. You know, per usual.
Suddenly, the money shot was approaching—I could feel it. At some point I would have to casually ask if the family would like to partake of the beverage of the hour. Be cool, I chided myself as I swung open the fridge door.
"So...does anyone want some...juice?"
"I'll have some," Mr. R, forever my loyal scene partner, replied.
"Me too!" Alice hammed. "I want PRODUCT NAME!"
Geez. Tone it down, Dakota Fanning.
"I love PRODUCT NAME the best! Without pulp! That's how I like it!"
Okay, we get it. I'll get you an agent, stat.
Hazel folded immediately: "No, I want milk."
We sat down together at the dinner table and Alice suggested we say Grace. Sure, made complete sense. We took awkward bites of pancake while the camera inserted itself over each of our shoulders. When it got to me, I delivered a hilarious impromptu anecdote. When it got to Mr. R, he took a perfect, casual sip. When it got to Hazey, she giggled. When it got to Alice, she picked her nose and then ate it.
It was at this exact moment that Mr. R suddenly had to go to work immediately.
Next they wanted to interview me. I told them I'd put the kids in front of the tv for their morning shows and the timing would work out perfectly.
The camera man approached me gingerly and whispered, "I'm going to suggest you put on a different shirt."
"And you definitely have time to take a shower while they set up the lights!" the interviewer added.
Got it. Okay, no big deal. It just means that in order to seem real, I need to raise my actual level of real to a level of realness that is acceptable for reality. My baseline of real is basically at street urchin level compared to the normal, large sampling of moms that these researchers and cameramen see.
Once presentable, I took my position on a barstool beside a set of demitasse espresso cups they had found that I hadn't used or remembered since I had won them at Mom's Bingo last February. They threaded a mic through my shirt and as the first question was finally asked, the kids' show ended as if on cue.
For the next hour, we repeated this pattern: Interviewer asks probing grocery question, kids photo bomb and mock our voices, mom grits teeth and begs kids to consume more television, computer games and cheese puffs.
I'm thinking of asking for a copy of the footage to use as my entry for Mother of the Year.
Next up they wanted to see me take Alice to school. Only problem? It was spring break. So we had to fake it.
Try explaining this to . In front of five strangers recording your every word.
"Just pretend like you're going to school."
"What? This makes no sense."
The final stop was the grocery store. I was given simple instructions. Shop as I normally would but make sure to pick up the product of the day. A small hidden camera would follow our every move.
As we turned down the dairy aisle, the bright bottles caught Alice's eye. She hitched a ride on the cart, half her body dangerously dangling off one side. I eased her just close enough to swipe a bottle. Her hair flying, her limbs precariously holding on for dear life, she tossed the bottle into the cart with a flourish and called out with an Oprah singsong, "PRO-DUCT NAAAAME!" Julie Taymor would have been proud. And fired.
The camera guy approached us: "Sorry, I missed that. Could you guys do that again?"
You can learn a lot about a person by how they react to being filmed as themselves. I had no problem "acting natural." No, my challenge was being observed in conjunction with cage-mates who don't give a damn what people think of them. And my lack of control over my children was starkly, maddeningly apparent when played out in front of a documentary film crew.
It's a tree falling in a forest kind of thing. If your kid acts out in your own home without anyone to see it, are you truly a bad parent?
As we departed the grocery store and got back into the car with the camera man in tow, I was beyond tense. I should have known Alice would hold the key to my release, per usual, for real.
"When are they going to leave?"
"Just pretend like we're not here," Cameraman instructed her, for the umpteenth time.
She looked straight into the camera.
"I'm sick of pretending."
Reader, I have never loved her more.