In the Trenches

Mildly (it’s to be hoped) entertaining anecdotes about squirrels and cupcakes set in playgrounds aside, I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time in City of Atlanta parks this summer, and being in such places has made me think.

About what?

Oh,  among other things …  littering; our tax dollars; how children socialize and play; how adults socialize and play; why parks north of interstate 20 are better equipped than those south of 20…

But mainly, just about every time we set foot on a playground and Elder Girleen looks around in dismay and cries But there’s nobody here to play with! I think

Where are the kids?

It being summer and all, you’d think that playgrounds would run a close second to swimming pools as places overrun with children.  This turns out — in Atlanta, GA, at least — to not necessarily be true.  Sure, there’s the random nanny or two, and  sometimes a couple Baby Mamas (by that I mean moms with infants who come to parks to compare notes) but kids above the age of say… four?  They’re an endangered species.

You could explain this away by saying it’s hot; or that they’re too jaded for playgrounds — but the thing is, they’re not really anywhere else, either.  Not on the playing fields, or in front yards, or on sidewalks playing hopscotch or riding bikes, either.

They’re all at Day Camp.

Circus camp, rock climbing camp, tennis camp, art camp, nature camp, science camp — Atlanta’s full of them. And though I don’t have a single bone to pick with day camps (you’d have to work hard to get worked up about something so benign), over the summer I’ve realized that  it wouldn’t hurt any of us parent types to actually sit down for  a second and think about the reasons they exist in such numbers, and examine the implications that existence might have for the ecosystem we swim around in.

What is the reason an aimless kid over six is such a rare bird?

I posit:  If both parents have to work outside the home from 8 – 6 year round, you’ve got to park the kids somewhere.

And voila, just like that, the idea of unsupervised, freewheeling, laid-back summer disappears from our world.

Of course, I have selfish reasons for questioning this status quo — due to The Husband’s enforced hiatus from the working world last winter and spring, we refrained from planning much of anything during the summer that cost much of anything, whether it was a couple of weeks of day camp for the kids or a week’s vacation at the beach.  Because of that, we’ve spent a lot of time trolling playgrounds and the streets and pools for things to do, and gee, I wish we’d find more folks who were doing the same.

But selfish motivations aside, all these empty playgrounds might raise a few larger questions.

Do I have the answers?  Heck no, I’m not even sure I know what the questions are, other than this one:  is this really where we want to be?

Lately, I’ve run across a couple of motherhood-related blog topics/essays on the New York Times website that have given me pause.  One, a posting in Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode called “Scaling Back Career for Baby,” included the following comment from a woman who, having just had her first child, was finding that returning to “work” (by which she meant socially-acceptable work outside the home that one gets paid money for, of course) was more complicated than she’d imagined:

I used to secretly look down on stay-at-home moms. I’m not proud of being so judgmental, but opting out seemed like the easy road to me, an excuse to avoid the 9-to-5. If I asked someone I just met at a party what she did for a living and her answer was “I stay at home with the kids,” I’d mentally check out of the conversation. Surely I had nothing in common with this person.

Oh, granted, she’s contrite, and acknowledges her sins. Oh, granted, this divide’s been around since Day One and is nothing new.  But still…

Also on the NY Times website, exhibit two; a recent Judith Warner column, “Insult and Injury,” which took as its turf Warner’s suspicion “that highly successful working mothers suffer a disproportionate amount of scorn when they fail to have the time or available space on their mental hard drives to do things like memorize school handbooks or master Bundt baking,” in which she offers up her friends’ credentials as a”high level newspaper executive” and “a long-time television reporter, anchor and mother of two…” as if only that would make  them legitimate human beings in her reader’s eyes.

The fact that the major debate of modern parenthood is still being framed in this way — and by highly intelligent women, no less  — astounds me.  The biggest question of our time might be not which is better, the stay-at-home mom, or the “highly successful working mother,” but why we have all  have swallowed the idea, hook-line-and-sinker, that economic productivity makes one a more valuable person. That the “work” that takes you away from your “life” is more important than anything for which we don’t get paid.

Because, meanwhile, the tumbleweeds are blowing through —heck, not just our playgrounds and parks, but down our streets — and wouldn’t it be great if along with the adults getting to be adults, the kids got to be kids?  If we all stood up on our hind legs and roared that all this working  just might not be working?  That women who are fulfilled by work they do outside the home deserve more time, and that women who are fulfilled by work they do within the home are just as productive members of society as anybody else.

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3 thoughts on “In the Trenches

  1. Again, I’m the choir and you’re the preacher.

    Michael Chabon also had some insightful (and depressing) things to say on the subject in the most recent (I think) New York Review of Books. I’ll see if it’s online and send you the link.

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