During an extended wait today at MedExpress (one of J's ear tubes has come out, so we're back in the valley of the shadow of the constant ear infection), I dipped into a book I'd started reading a while back, called All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting.
The book examines why parents invest so much in their children's nurture at this moment in history. There are a few points in the book I'd quarrel with, like the notion that parents prior to the 19th century weren't emotionally invested in their offspring (a lot of Puritan writing contradicts that point--the Puritans believed their children were sinners for sure, but they were also deeply devoted to them). And there are some pressures described as universal among middle- and upper-middle-class American parents today that I really can't identify with, such as a burning ambition to have their children become "successful," with success defined in ever more elusive terms (perhaps the benefit of both Sam's and my having grown up in modest circumstances is that we are just so pleased to have made it this
But although the book isn't speaking to me on those points, it is helping me think some about why I do reject some of modern parenting. I've noticed that my children don't do many structured activities compared to their peers. Both girls take ballet through the school once a week, and they were in a 4-week pottery class after school last month. I've thought about putting AC into piano lessons, but I hold off. I do want her to have the opportunity to pursue music. She seems to have a good ear, and Sam's family is musical--I am not, so I'd love for her to have the gift of the pleasure of musical expression if she wanted it. But she has a fair amount of homework every day. It sometimes takes her an hour to complete, partly because she's not very efficient at it, something I have a hard time faulting her for, since she's been in school from 8:30-3:45 and then has just a few minutes' break before having to sit down and do the homework before dinner. I can't imagine adding piano practice in there too (which is one more reason I wish she didn't have so much homework). Not adding extra activities is one way that I try to protect the time she has to be a child.
Sometimes I think it's silly to resist activities that are actually enriching, since what does she do during her resulting free time? Well, she asks for the iPad or TV, or she fights with Gillian enough to make one doubt one's decisions regarding the fruitful investment of time. But those particular behaviors--the really annoying ones like pestering for electronics or fighting with siblings--are the result of boredom, and I can't believe that boredom is all bad. Boredom, or a lack of external stimulation, presses us to turn inward. She writes and illustrates little books. She invents games for herself and her siblings to play. She and Gillian fight, but they also interact a lot, and a fair amount of that interaction is forming bonds that Sam and I could not synthesize between them even if we tried. They have sleepovers, and I have no idea what they are talking about while they stay up too late, or what activities have their feet padding quickly across the floor and then hopping back into bed. And AC is what people call a "high-spirited" child, a nice way of saying she's intense, highly strung, and strong-willed. A little boredom, I think, is probably good for her. It takes a lot out of her to participate in structured activities--I noticed that on the days she had the pottery class and came home an hour later from school, she was completely wrung out--just more irritable and less able to go with the flow. She loved the class, but the extra time being good just wore her out (I wrote on Facebook that once, when I asked her why she didn't behave as well at home as she did in school, she commented, "I don't think I could do both. Do you want me to just switch?").
As children, Sam and I both read a lot and spent a fair amount of time playing without direct adult supervision. We want our kids to have some of that unstructured time, but to be honest, we also still want some of it for ourselves. Somehow we started a tradition of setting iPads and little snack bowls of cereal by the girls' beds on Saturday mornings. The original purpose of this activity was to allow us to sleep in if Joshua happened to sleep in, back in the days when he was still waking up in the middle of the night and occasionally sleeping later in the morning. But now I have to admit that I love it--AC wakes up first, but she knows not to come out of her room until she hears Joshua wake up and me bring him into our room. Gillian usually wakes up next, and then all three kids are piled in our bed. Sometimes I doze or read, and it's cozy and sweet. It's the only day of the week that we don't all have to be up and out the door to various places, and I'm quite loathe to give it up in favor of structured activities.
This habit has all the hallmarks of shame for the modern parent, though. Particularly electronics. Even sugary cereals are frequently involved. There was a regrettable escalation from a simple mix of Cheerios and raisins, to the same plus a few marshmallows for a special surprise once, to all those and then butterscotch chips--how did that happen? I think it was a holiday and then again became de rigeur for a few weeks until we put a stop to all of it. Now that the girls are older and don't wake up needing to eat immediately, we've backed off on the snack a bit, but when we do it, it also allows us to have a big family brunch without my having to get out of bed immediately and start baking or scrambling eggs while children appeared to faint with hunger (not quietly) around my feet. Now that AC can read, she could read to herself, but Gillian isn't to the point yet where she can read to herself happily for any length of time, and I have to admit that Joshua's new ability to work simple activities on the iPad has been a lovely development. He plays happily while we wake up, get up, get dressed, etc. I've done all those things without supplying entertainment, and our mornings are much more relaxed and predictable when he's amused instead of getting into everything or otherwise making mischief while I get ready and Sam gets the kids' breakfast.
And one other thing that I've realized that I believe, that I'm not sure that all mothers believe--at least not the ones in the book I've been reading--is that my wellbeing and Sam's are as important as our kids' and deserve priority in our family life. I don't mean that we fail to recognize that we should sacrifice for their wellbeing. But I think the zeitgeist suggests that to be a parent is to sacrifice oneself as much as possible, and that the measure of one's parenting is one's willingness to do so. I do hope that I am willing to sacrifice myself where I am supposed to, in this life--I know that I am not so willing, in many respects. But I don't think that the call to absolute
self-sacrifice on the altar of one's children is concordant with Christianity--which is perhaps a paradox, since Christianity does call for absolute self-sacrifice in other ways (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before his own death as a martyr, "Wherever Christ calls us, he calls us to die"). I am called to die in that selfishness in me must die. But I don't think that the current emphasis on parental self-sacrifice is limited to killing off selfishness. I think that it goes further and equates all behavior in one's own interest with selfishness; it suggests that my life and Sam's life exist solely for our children. But it is true for me as for my children that, in the words of John Henry Newman, "God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another." There are things I need in order to offer my best service to God, even though I feel some cultural pressure to deny those things, or else to fetishize things like massages and pedicures as signs that I "deserve pampering" due to my work as a mother.
But it's not pampering that I need. It's investment in being a fully realized human being who can serve many people, not only my children.
One of the things I've realized I do really, really need is time for friendships with other women. One evening last fall, I found myself weeping on the couch with Sam over a longing for intimate local friendships. I'm not sure why the desire was so strong, or why it had gone unnoticed for so long. I also couldn't really articulate what I wanted from such a friendship. (Anne Lamott, in a great essay about going on Match.com in late middle age, wrote that ultimately what she wanted was "someone to text all day, and watch TV at night with" . . . that about summed it up for me too. Someone besides Sam to tell weird stuff to, or watch chick-flicks with.) It feels like a gift in the truest sense of the word to have found such a friend in the last year. Someone to tweet me about the bizarre smell that woke her up one night, and for me to message about the hilarious characters who bought our old washing machine.
Also, a few days ago, I was presented with an opportunity for a girls' weekend with a few friends I rarely see. It felt like I should ask someone permission to go. Sam? Of course I'd need to discuss the invitation with him, since he'd be watching the kids and he is not a person with endless free time. But even after he assented, I still felt like it was self-indulgent to leave my family behind for 3 days. It's almost as if the mere fact that it will be so fun makes it not a worthy endeavor; if someone were in crisis and I were going to help, I wouldn't feel that way. But extending friendship is also an act of love, and sharing in it is an act of worship--worthy in its own right. And when I think about the benefits of the weekend, I know that it will be very good for me--fun and restorative and a blessing to all four of us who go. And I wouldn't think twice about telling any other person to do such a thing, including my husband, whom I've happily sent off to the desert for a week or three at a time, in pursuit of the things that feed his spirit.
(Also, I don't think it's bad for the kids and Sam to live without me for 72 hours. When a beloved friend had a new baby and the girls were 4 and 2, I took a trip for two days to see her little family, and Sam commented, in words that made me love him even more, "I think it's good for the girls to see all that you do for them" by having me not at home for a little bit.)
Moreover, I think that for our family to organize itself around what is beneficial for our children, without attention to what is beneficial for all of us and what is worthy of all of our time and investment, would be a kind of idolatry. There's a radicalism to the discourse of contemporary parenting that troubles me, with a devotion to doctrinal purity and a pursuit of an illusory perfection that seems almost religious in nature. Obviously, I think a great deal about being a parent, but part of my thinking involves how to situate that one part of my being in concord with all the other parts, and it feels as if this is somehow counter to an enormous pressure in our culture.