I just can’t do this!! The thought blasts through my brain at least once each day in those hours before Geoff comes home. It’s my fault, for sure. There is so much I want to do, so much I have to do, and so much being asked of me moment to moment by the four of our kids I agreed to home school this year that I go through the day feeling like I have one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. I lurch and buck and careen, and yes, sometimes crash.
This arrangement seemed like a good idea at first. I have an infant. My 12 and 8 year-old daughters, Jessica and Kyra, were begging to learn at their own home-spun pace. I would do my work in the cracks, around the edges, and after Geoff and our 14 year-old arrive home; 4 year old Kai would come along for the ride.
As for the reality: I’ll be discussing the “Declaration of Independence” with Jessica, interjecting asides to Kyra on short cuts for multiplying nines, while trying to nurse and nap infant Leif, when Kai demands, with every amp of his ample wattage: SOMEBODY PLAY WITH ME NOW! At least I am sitting down.
If all the pieces of the mighty puzzle line up and I manage to write down a thought, it is highly unlikely that I will succeed in placing a second before someone wakes up, gets hungry, has a question, or needs a wipe. By our 3:30 hand-off, my work is curdled into an icky pit in my stomach. It wants out. I want out, now!
It is confusing. All of our best decisions have landed me here. How come it is so hard?
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are in the news again, this time with his contribution to the burgeoning genre of Parenting Lit. In twin memoirs (hers appeared in the spring), this team of mom and pop writers tell tales of what they are learning from life with their four children, ages 14, 12, 8, and 6. At back to back desks, they weave the personal and the public, family and work, coupling and parenting into vibrant texts, written and lived.
Reading about their life, a pang of recognition hits: Geoff and I are making similar moves. We aim to co-parent and co-create, side by side reinventing family life, though in rural New York rather than Berkeley, California. We moved here to create a way of living, of being family, that works for us, for our kids, for him, for me, where each person receives what he or she needs to become who he or she is. So why does their situation sound so idyllic?
The stories of Michael and Ayelet remind me: though I may feel like I am alone in the trenches, I am not. A veritable rash of writers, male and female, are sharing their kid-funded knowledge in books and blogs to a chorus of critics and congratulators. So what of it?
I ponder the question as I spread peanut butter on home-made bread for a hungry Kai. Last week’s news offers a key. In addition to reviews of Chabon’s book, we have been feasting on reports about how much has changed in family life since the 1970s. Marriage is at an all time low; single moms and stay at home dads at all time highs. More parents cross the chasm between workplace and home than ever before, while childhood stretches towards twenty and beyond.
While the realities are shifting dramatically, however, it is also evident that the ideals shading family life are not so quick to turn. We are still contending with visions of the good mother and providing father, as well as those of passionate life-long love and a happy childhood, that loom over us as critic and judge.
Wiping the counter for the third time in an hour, I think back to Tuesday’s article on toxic parents as a case in point. As the author writes, “whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed.” In the deluge of responses the article produced, a pattern emerged of kids protesting narcissistic parents and parents complaining about ungrateful kids. Lurking in the shadows was an ideal of parenting that hardly anyone seems able to attain. Why?
In the light of these reports, the significance of Parent Lit appears. We, as a culture, are in the process of reinventing family life. That reinventing is happening household by household, and reading and writing about such experiments is helpful and necessary, though not without its dangers.
Hearing stories about how other parents tackle inherited expectations of rearing and raising reminds us that there are options. We have options, and we are not alone in wanting to find them. Ways of being family that worked for someone at sometime in some context may not work now for me or for you. I write to find my freedom.
Sharing stories is also necessary, given the nature of the change. We are exiting an era in which cultural authorities did not pay much attention to children as having anything to offer discussions of who they should be and become. Such reflections were the provenance of experts wielding scientific tools over and against nubile bodies. Stories remind us that we have something to learn from (our) children about how best to relate to them. I write to remember the creativity involved in creating relationships.
Writing about experiences is also dangerous for we run the risk of suggesting that one size fits all. There is a temptation to celebrate sentimentally our kids’ eternal cuteness, and another to wax nostalgic for childhoods lost. When changes breed fear and doubt, we tend to cling to the way things were. Sides polarize and we forget what anyone who cares enough to engage in these discussions shares: desire. We share a desire to do the best for our children, for each other, for ourselves, and, for the worlds in which we live. I write to find the wisdom in my desire.
Reading and writing, we learn to trust our dissatisfaction as teaching us how to move in ways that will not recreate the pain we feel. I write to discern what it is my body knows.
Yesterday morning I lost it. I was shredded to a pulp by competing pulls on my attention. During precious writing time, I return to the scene. What do I find? It’s the ghost of the good mother, haunting me: It is your job to meet your children’s needs. This all-too familiar noose of a notion strangles me. I erupt in anger when I can’t, furious with myself. Furious with them.
Of course, I know theoretically that I cannot meet my children’s needs. Even if I had only one child, I would not be able to meet his or her every need. But still, I want to. Why? Because I want to be a good mother! But is that what being a good mother means? It’s what I have learned to believe.
The tip of my pen draws out the hook. If I am to slip free of this need to meet my children’s needs, I have to let go of a lingering expectation that my parents should meet mine. They can’t. They don’t exist to meet my needs.
I reflect back again on the blog complaints of narcissistic parents and ungrateful kids and see two sides of the same ideal that is haunting me. To the parent caught up in needing to meet needs, the frustrated child appears as a living, breathing reminder that the parent has failed. To the kid encouraged to believe in this ideal, the defensive parent appears as an obstacle to happiness. When the frustrated parent (inevitably) lashes out at the (unhappy) child, the child complains (rightfully) of abuse. A cycle of escalating disappointment (and sometimes horrific violence) sinks its teeth into the relationship and shakes. What do we want to create?
I return to the place of my pain and affirm the desire at its core. I want to meet my children’s needs. A new move appears. I want to meet their needs because I want them to have what they need to become who they are. The pain releases; another impulse appears. I write it down. I want to help my children learn to meet their own needs, and to do so, in part, it is my job to demonstrate to them how I meet my own.
Today is different. I make new moves. Leif falls asleep in my lap. I lay him on the couch and turn to the older three. Recess everyone! They run outside into the bright fall air to invent some game involving horses, harnesses, and humans.
I sit at my desk and begin to write. My heart fills with gratitude. I adore my kids. They are teaching me how.