Coffee Break

The NYTimes Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times blog always makes interesting reading; the most recent post, by Tim Kreider, contains this funny gem of a paragraph (among others):

Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. In fact it seems from the outside as if these people have joined a dubious cult: they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.

Food For Thought…

First grade.  Those first few weeks as the family transitions back into the school year schedule can be a killer.  Elder Girleen has bags under her eyes like she’s been cramming for a final, but honest, Ms. M the First Grade Teacher, she’s in bed by eight!  

Last night, though, I know she was up a little later:  I could hear her in her bedroom reading On the Banks of Plum Creek to herself for at least half an hour.  Reading a chapter book.  The second week of first grade.  I myself don’t remember much about first grade besides the tedium of Sally, Dick and Jane and the morning nit-check (it being 1970 in small town Georgia after all).  
First grade is just not what it was back then in those primitive days; in fact, a couple of times it has already seemed to me like Elder Girleen’s first grade is my first grade experience, completely inverted.  She can read like nobody’s business already; I was grinding through books with little more two words on each page at that age.  But on the other hand, I was walking by myself to school.  Elder Girleen can’t.  
Her school isn’t within walking distance from our house, which makes things easier for me:  I don’t have to face any hard choices about whether or not she should.  But every morning when I drive her there or carpool with the neighbor, I think about the way things used to be — the quarter bestowed upon me so I could stop for ice cream at the soda fountain at the pharmacy on the way home, the fact that once I walked all the way home from school backwards, and down one of Athens, Georgia’s main artery streets, no less — and the way they are now, when letting a first grader play in the front yard of your house may be a fraught proposition.  
All this is a rich vein to mine.  And Leonore Skenazy, a New York City mom and New York Sun columnist does just that, here. In case you missed the uproar (as I had), Skenazy let her nine-year-old take the subway home from Bloomingdale’s without a parental escort and then wrote about the experience for her column.  Two days later she was on the Today Show (this is much worse than ending up on the cover of “Bad Mommy Monthly”).  
Not saying I agree with everything she says … but it is food for thought.   

All There Might Be To Say

This essay has apparently been bouncing around the momosphere for quite a while now, but I’d managed to remain unaware of it.  A friend sent it my way yesterday; in turn I put it here.  Why?

Because this might be the piece of writing I was frantically looking for six years ago this spring, when Elder Girleen was a babe-in-arms and I was certain there must be some kind of manual out there somewhere that would tell me what to do.<

Because this, I think, might be the best gift  you could give any brand-new mother.  

It’s by Anna Quindlen, from her book of essays, here.

Pour another cuppa, sit down, read it… and maybe even weep:

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief.  I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once poured over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories. What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations –what they taught me, was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all.

Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One child is toilet trained at 3, his sibling at 2. When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk, too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the ‘Remember-When- Mom-Did ‘ Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, ‘What did you get wrong?’. (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them, sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night.

I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less. Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top.

And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.