Saturday, January 9, 2010

we are not boomers

Yesterday I put towels down on the kitchen floor, brought the water table up from the basement, and filled it with snow. That was some good entertainment for a bit. I've been thinking ahead about these things, the kinds of things we can do when the kids get squirrelly and I feel the rumble inside, threatening upward. It's a heavy thing in my stomach made of impatience, frustration, and a hint of incompetence. But an art project of crayon rubbings on kitchen utensils will do wonders in keeping the monster down.

I've been reading again, a thing that can be both good and bad. It's good because I learn new ideas, I get inspired about what kind of parent I want to be; it's bad because it often makes me put enormous pressure on myself to be my version of the ideal mom. The one I'm reading now--Please Touch--I think will only be helpful, but not for the reason you think.

The book explains motherhood as the complete and total giving over of your own self, your own time and space and thoughts, a complete self-sacrifice, directly endorses this, but qualifies it by saying it's just for the first 3 years. She says, "you'll have time to yourself when you're old, probably more than you want, but they're little only for now." She says that not giving your children this total attention and sacrifice handicaps them as adults. (wow--way to pressure.) That babies given full and complete attention of their mothers grow up to be secure confident adults. I agree with her to some degree--children certainly need not only love but direct attention to feel secure--but she goes a little overboard, which is why I think this book might not turn me into a psychotic mess about my parenting.

It was published in 1986, parents solidly in the Boomer generation, children solidly in the Millennial generation. These are the kids I taught at Elon, the ones whose parents DID give all their attention, whose parents were consumed with playing Mozart in the womb, who wanted to do everything they could to maximize the child's intellectual potential, who micromanaged their time and hustled them from scouts to violin to soccer to dance. These are kids who believed they were the center of the world and yet knew how to do nothing by themselves. They were the kids for whom the country changed all policies about child safety, about movie ratings, about car seats and appropriateness of lyrics. (The country went a little nuts in its child-focus, partially in reaction to the collective neglect of the children of the 1970s; you know, the "latch-key kids".) These Millennial children, when they got to college, didn't know how to study because their parents had always helped them do their homework, or had at very least managed their time and told them when to do their homework. In my freshman classes there were so many of them who were completely overwhelmed by college, floating and lost, nearly unable to function at all.

So I can read this book with a bit of a cynical view. I think mostly her ideas are insightful. For example, she points out that telling a child under 2 'no' just makes him want to explore the forbidden object more. She insists that with most objects you can let them see and touch as long as you are right there. Meaning, the kid can hold the 9 inch sissors as long as he's on your lap and you are helping. You can show him how to open and close them, show him where they are sharp, let him see them up close, the theory being that after exploring them like this he will no longer have interest in them, since the child's goal is to learn about the world. Once he's learned what he can about the sissors, the interest will pass. Also, if you just say 'no', he believes he has to have adult permission to explore things and loses some of the desire to learn that characterizes childhood. Okay, interesting.

She also makes stupid sweeping claims like letting your kids wear clothes with Mickey Mouse on them will keep them from appreciating good art as they get older--as if the kid exists in a vacuum with you as the only influence--but I can let that go. At least her ridiculousness allows me to more efficiently sift the good from the useless.

And there's lots of good, the majority of which is about the attitude you take in child rearing. She thinks about child exploration as the child's work and thinks of good parenting as finding ways to allow the child to do her work--providing physical space to explore, tools like art supplies, and an attitude of wonder about the world around. I actually think my generation (that would be X) has done a better job of seeing the work of children as exploration, and that it comes from a place more natural and less cerebral to us.

But come on--we mothers are humans, you know. It's true that the kids will only be little once and it's true that we'll have more time later on (though that's easy to forget while you're in it) but sometimes there's only so much we can sacrifice ourselves without getting lost. In order to be able to be the kind of mom you want to be you have to know your edges and find ways to refill when the tank gets low. Sure, in an ideal world all mothers (any mother) could give her life up completely for the first three years of the child's, but we don't live in that world. People tire out. They run out of patience. They need space of their own in order to come back to the child with energy and then face the next round of impatience with grace. It's all well and good to look at how the ideal parent would parent, but then one has to look also at the reality of life and our human-ness, and acknowledge where we fall short. Only in seeing the blocks in the road can we find a way around. It does no good to pretend they aren't there and try to plow through; it just damages the car.


inventme said...

Cali - what a wonderful post! Motherhood is about giving of yourself to raise your children, but you have to fill your own "bucket" periodically before you have "water" to give to those little ones. By fill your own bucket, I don't mean, going out and selfishly doing whatever you want while leaving your kids in the care of others. I mean, finding little things that give you strength, small moments of peace.

I also think it's very important to show kids the real world - they need to go grocery shopping with us, they need to see us paying bills, they need to work, they need to earn money and pay for things on their own. They need to be exposed to the real world from a very young age and learn to behave and function in it. The only way they learn these things is by experiencing it! This also means that those of you who don't have kids need to be understanding at the grocery store or restaurant when there is a unhappy toddler screaming his lungs out - his mom is trying to teach him important lessons - don't roll your eyes or feel the need to point out the obvious - smile and support.

Loved the post Cali. Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts and theories with the world. You are a wonderful mother!!

Love, RaLynne

Anonymous said...

where is the father in that book? I don't know how I feel about the whole idea. As a mother of a 16 year old and an 8 year old, both of which are total opposites, I sometimes wonder if we really are as significant as we like to think in their development. It seems they come into the world with personalities and their own agendas. As parents we can help them along their way, but ultimately,I think they have journeys which have little to do with us.

Cali said...

great comments, ralynne. i agree with your thoughts about taking the kids out into the world with you in order to learn how to interact within it, learn her relationship to it. i also like your comment "about finding things that give you strength, small moments of peace" during the day. that is a difficult thing to do, a skill that we get better at when we practice.

but i do think that people have different ways of refilling their buckets... for me i use sitters and do in fact go out and selfishly do whatever i want. but i make sure that the childcare is high quality. i think it's important for the kids to be around other people, to be cared for by other people, to learn to accept comfort from people other than mitch and me. if we lived close to family, my mom or his mom or aunts would fill that role naturally. because we don't have that i have to create situations for it to happen. besides, when my bucket is low a sitter is better for them than i am.

but, again, the key is figuring out what fills the bucket for you. which can be a hard thing to do!