Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Parenting: A Circus Act

I had a conversation with my grandmother last year that really stuck with me.

Austin had just left the room to change Isla's diaper, and MawMaw commented that it was really amazing that he was willing to do such a dirty job.

I looked incredulously at her and said that he should indeed change the diaper, and make the bottles, and coo and crawl with the baby because it is his baby!

MawMaw informed me that my sainted PawPaw hadn't changed a single diaper in his life, and that life was just that way once upon a time.

I told her that if I had been alive during the 1950's, I would have been a nun or a lesbian.

Luckily for me, she understands my sense of humor or at least has learned to ignore my comments.

She went on and said that moms now have it easy because our formula can be bought at the store, men are willing to help in the house without it threatening their masculinity, and perhaps most important: a drug-filled hospital labor where the man is expected to stay and feel very very bad for his part in the whole ordeal.

I've chastised myself several times since that talk. MawMaw wasn't telling me to shut up and quit whining, she was just telling me that some of the 'little' things aren't so little when you can't count on them. But in my head I told myself to shut up and quit whining, because at least I could buy formula. Austin mostly knows how to feed the kids and give them baths. I have television that I OF COURSE only use in a pinch to be the baby-sitter.
But as I've gauged my mothering stress levels, I think that I've arrived at a conclusion. Parenting is harder in 2011 than it was in 1950, 1960, 1970, and maybe even neon 1980.

I'm not qualified to make such an assumption, as I wasn't alive in any of those years, and only became a parent in 2003. I only have the stories of family and television to paint the picture of what life looked like waaaaaay back then. I assume that the reality lies somewhere between The Andy Griffith Show and my mother's insistence that she really did have to walk several miles to school every day.

(MawMaw, before you quit reading and call me, just hear me out)

Most mothers of young children that I know are fairly well united in one thing: we want our kids to have a good life. We define it in many different ways, and the path doesn't always look the same. But we want our offspring to be healthy, well-adjusted, and equipped to be intelligent contributing members of society.

This used to mean that the kids would eat an apple a day, go to the local school, and perhaps play baseball or dolls in their spare time. There would be homework, chores, playing with the dog. Family dinners would include things like 'A Roast' (ubiquitous term that means hunk of meat swimming in vat of juice) and end with apple pie or *gasp* something from the ice cream truck.
A child brought up in the 'American Way' could hope to spend his summers eating hot dogs and turning on the water hose to cool off the neighborhood kids. He could walk to his grandmother's house and know the mailman's name.

The picture of childhood, and so parenting, has changed drastically in the last few decades. We no longer have mailmen, hot dogs are full of hair and nitrates, and A Roast is now made of tempeh.

Does this matter? Gender equality is great, healthier eating is a mark in the favor of progress. But there are underlying consequences that have grown their tumor-like tentacles into the lives of modern mothering. The effect has left us all feeling unqualified and unable to manage one more report card or birthday party.

In mothering, as in any job, it is important to keep up to date on all the latest research concerning your field of employment. The latest finds in the field of parenting are far-reaching and complex.

We know that we are supposed to play classical music while the baby is still in utero. We are encouraged to read to our unborn child, exercise enough to be healthy but also not enough that we forget to relax. We are to eat THIS not THAT unless we want our baby to be an ignoramus. We are to not breathe near sugar lest the child be obese, and we are to give the child a Birth Experience that includes chanting, water, and a doula.

The latest Mommy You Suck magazine has articles letting us know that children need structure and the ability to choose their own adventure. They need time to be creative, time to be outside, time to play with manipulative materials, time with animals, time with mom, time with dad, time with friends, time to experience other cultures, time for scientific exploration, time to write and read, time for responsibilities, time to eat THIS not THAT, and time to sit and enjoy life. Also, please remember to expose your children to Japanese and German by the time they are 14 months, otherwise they'll never stand a chance in tomorrow's job market.

Websites such as Polished Parenting tell us that we have to sit in the floor with the baby and do puzzles, it isn't enough just to give the baby the puzzle. We have to let the kids help make the cookies for school, because they need to feel included and that they contributed. Kids should never watch television, because it is a waste of brain cells and time. Kids that watch television are dumber, fatter, and more likely to kill people or on welfare. Parents are encouraged to fill every second of every day with something academic, creative, or cultural.

Moms should have a job but always be home, thus strengthening her daughter's perception that a woman can rule her own world and still a domestic dynamo. Moms should be thin enough to promote health but athletic enough to promote healthy body image. Moms should never say no to deserts, but moms should never eat junk, thus showing the kids that junk is ok. Moms should be cool like a friend, but moms shouldn't be the friend. Moms should check on their kids text messages, phone messages, Facebook account, Twitter, and heaven help us if her kid has a MySpace. BUT moms should trust their kids enough to let them learn and grow.
All of this we are supposed to do EVERY DAY and still remember to wear a bra. Some days it is all I can do to change out of my pajamas before lunchtime (I'm lying, I mean dinner). I cannot focus all this energy on my kids and still maintain any semblance of a home that doesn't look like an episode of Hoarders. I can't read with my little lovelies, play with them, nurture them, and still make dinner that doesn't include something from a box or a can. I can't keep the clothes clean, the sheets washed, the table cleared. I don't own a duster, and using a toilet brush makes me dry heave.

Every day I feel as if I'm being forced to choose between my kids and myself. Will I be an exemplary mother today? Will I be an effective housekeeper? Will I be a 29 year old would-be author who is obsessed with British history? Will I be a friend, a wife, a daughter, a sister?

Like putting on clothes each day, I have to put on one, and ONLY one role. I can't wear them at the same time because they won't fit and I'll get all sweaty.

THIS is why I think it is harder to be a parent in 2011. We have been given so much 'information' that we are guilted into never being able to stop. We can never ever do enough to ensure that our children will be the well-adjusted individuals we envision.

I cannot send my children down the street to their aunts' homes because all their aunts live in a different state. I can't let them walk down the street to a neighbors' house because we don't know them. I can't even turn them into the backyard unless I go with them. The umbilical cord was cut, but it was replaced with a superglue that is damn near impossible to break.

I want to be Super Mom Extraordinaire, or even a Partially Pathetic Parent who can make their own kids' birthday cakes without bringing them shame. But if I take the time to tend to issues such as Cake Making 101, I will then forget to return the library books. If I ignore the dishes and clothes and try to get caught up with homeschooling stuff, we soon find that we have to use alternative arrangements for eating. This morning, for example, I spread butter on my toast using a scooping tool from the kids' jack-o-lantern making kit.

Trying to keep all those proverbial balls in the air is rather difficult for any juggler after hours and days and weeks without a break. For us non-coordinated folk, it is something akin to torture and a cruel one at that.

I know that it wasn't easy for MawMaw to raise kids, even if she could send them down the street to play with kids and family members. I know that she still probably worried about if they were reading enough, playing enough, getting enough vegetables. There were other concerns, to be sure. In my mind, however, I just see the sun dappled sidewalks and girls playing dolls while the Main Street Store owner came outside and gave them ice cream. Fast forward that scene to 2011 and it is transformed to giving your kids skin cancer, contributing to sexist behavior, and having to call the police because STRANGER=DANGER. Also, does that ice cream have any soy or nuts in it?

What I'm trying to convey is that we are now so aware of every decision and every second and how it will manifest in the life of our kids for good or ill, we are too overwhelmed to properly function. Most moms I know (except for the ones that I judge...yes, I do) are too overworked to take on one.more.blasted.thing. But how can you say no? Who wants to raise a crazed maniacal killer that will tell the press that he would have been a lawyer except his mother didn't bring enough Rice Krispy treats to class?! We want to stop the juggling and take a rest and just enjoy the little brutes before they leave home and ask us to watch their own offspring. But to stop means that the kids will lose inspiration or creativity or soccer practice or something. We will be judged by ourselves, and what a harsh critic to answer to.

I like being a parent, even if I don't like it in the day-to-day. I like being with them and playing with them and especially making them go to bed. But...I really don't think I can take another article on how to better parent my kids. I need the advice. Oh, how I need the advice. But I don't want more research or studies or pediatrician recommended vitamins.

I don't need them to tell me how to fit more classical music into my kids' day. I need them to teach me how to juggle. And, if cake decorating can be squeezed into the same lesson, I'm game.


ReflectionsByPj said...

Hear, Hear! I have wanted to write about this very topic - you, of course, did it far better justice than I would have. THANK YOU!

Valerie said...

This is fabulous and soooo true! I am sharing this with my mom friends because I know we can all relate! LOVE IT!

Anonymous said...

I was just about to write about this, too! Thanks for doing so in such an eloquent manner. I actually feel relieved! Now, I can go do something else!!!

Beth McDermott said...

I feel validated yet overwhelmed in reading this. Eloquently stated as always- but AGHKHHGLKLKGNJDKNW! Hot dogs have hair! Pumpkin scoopers are in my utensil drawer! I binged birthday cake in front of my kids today!
Tomorrow, I am putting on my pearls and pumps and making a roast for dinner. And Im going to make them say yes ma'am all day and serve me a dry martini with the other moms of the block at 3pm sharp at our bridge game while the cake bakes in the oven and before the menfolk return from their honest days work in our one family vehicle.

Morning Glory said...

Becoming a new mother can be a difficult time. You could possibly feel as if you were tricked into something that you cannot now escape. I am thinking that it takes at least 2 to 3 years after the birth of your first child to get to know this new world and your place in it. Your mind keeps trying to get used to the fact that you no longer have time for yourself and your husband and your home and your hobbies, and that now your main priority is your child. It is truly a losing of yourself that takes place. A giving way to another life to participate in yours, and to complement yours. I think that becoming a mother helped me grow up more than anything else in my life up till then. And don't even get me started on what I've learned since becoming a grandma. I needed a sense of order in my mothering, a schedule, and a husband to love me more than he loved himself, who was also being transformed by the whole experience of fatherhood. I needed the therapy of work and the day of rest and calling it all good. God takes care of it all even if we don't give Him the credit and we get wonderfully blessed when we realize it. To Him be the Glory!

Josiana Janel said...

While I'm not a mother (and can't even pretend to understand your situation but to empathize) I applaud your wonderful article and writing! I have enough difficulty being a wife and a careerwoman. The only reason my husband is alive is that he can cook for himself and I forget to feed the dog half the time. Heck, I forget to feed myself half the time. I can't imagine adding motherhood to my hats, so I applaud you and admire you as I see it as one of the greatest careers a woman can have (my feminist self is mellowing with age); hell, you are awesome at it!!!

Debbie said...

Loved your blog, Tiffany, as usual. Your insight is refreshing and yet bold with a hint of sarcasm! Being a mother and grandmother who raised her children in the 80's for the most part, I can shout out my opinion loudly albeit based on the time frame spoken of. However, it is also colored by the 60's & 70's in which I was raised by the very maw maw that you spoke about: my mother.

I cannot put everything I want to say in this forum but suffice it to say:

Be relieved! Be relaxed! Stop listening to all the garbage advice from the des-Spock-able creatures who never raised a child in their life. You CAN put on handmedowns and your children will be content, you can KEEP them from participating in any activity and stay's okay. Kids CAN be bored... it's good for them! AND finally: the very best words your children will EVER hear are: I LOVE YOU and "NO!".

For what it's worth!

the beam team said...

Tiffany, you are such an amazing writer! I needed this tonight. Ten days on the road being a mother/wife/manager/therapist/chauffeur/milk factory/travel agent is wearing me out. Thanks for the humor and perspective!

Antonia (Toni) said...

I am a mother of 2 and grandmother of 5 - raising 3 grandchildren. I really don’t think I passed the test the first time around and I have been blessed to do it again. There was a time when you could eat off my floors. Now! I don't even want to walk on my floors. I wear so many hats in one day there are times I place the wrong hat on at the wrong time and MESS up. Will I have to do it again!?!

I appreciate your honesty and enjoy your writing!