"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, May 14, 2010

Play With This!

Take the scenic route: St. Peter's Way
A Pedestrian Friendly Greenway in the Middle of a Busy City

Looking for the perfect childhood?
You can almost find it here,
on this beautiful street in Philadelphia


"Wow . . . When did this happen?
You're like a little gnome to me now."

You may have seen this picture
last month, when I devoted my
book blog to
"Catching Up On Anne Lamott."
Here it is one more time,
a current photo of my sons
towering over with me,
captioned with Sam Lamott's
sweet "little gnome" remark.

And this long ago picture:
[Porch at left can be
found on street above]
Back When They
Were the Gnomes.

Not forgetting, of course,
that back when they were
the Gnomes, I was the Ogre!

Actually, I kind of had forgotten that, but was reminded of it the other day when looking through a collection of Anna Quindlen's Newsweek columns. In one of her many essays on child rearing, she says that "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." Looks like this is going to be one of those essays! I was touched by Quindlen's truthfulness about trying to be the perfect parent, and accidentally focusing on all the wrong things:

"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?"(Anna Quindlen, "Raising Children," Newsweek, March 2006).

I showed this to Ben and Sam and had them read it, so that they could see some things from my angle. They still love to punish me for not letting them watch the movie Billy Elliot when it first came out and for the time when I refused to play hide & seek with them at bedtime, and for the time when I got mad and took all their toys off the shelf and threw them into a big pile on the bed, shouting "play with this; play with this; play with this" -- after they had complained to me that they had nothing to play with. These are the embarrassing things they said they'd make me include if I ever decided to write an essay about the parenting errors I made during their childhood. Well, now I've confessed voluntarily, so no one has to make me. Ha! (See also: "Perfect Parent? Not!")

Rereading Quindlen's essay makes me feel less like an ogre or a hopelessly flawed parenting figure and more just like a normal ol' mom out there learning by trial and error. It allows me to forgive myself a little bit, just like when I read Anne Lamott. Because -- guess what? You can't promise to be perfect; and you're not really an ogre, after all.

Her example of driving off without the food at McDonald's reminded me of something that the boys don't even remember. Sam wasn't born yet; Ben was just six months old, and I had taken him with me to pick up a package at the post office. The obvious thing to do was make a request for re-delivery to the house, especially since it was a large package (full of gifts and toys that my sister had sent from Germany). But I suppose to make the trip worthwhile, I was determined to complete the task myself.

Somehow or other -- I don't even remember how -- I managed to get the big box and Baby Ben back out to the car, tuck Ben properly into his car seat, put the car in reverse: crunch! What? It was the package, still sitting on the parking lot behind the car! Luckily this small-scale collision caused no damage to the Christmas presents, and no one saw me do such a stupid thing! But now you know, and obviously I haven't forgotten. Even now, every time I pull into that post office parking lot, I am reminded of those days when getting the child in and out of the car, and getting myself in and out of the building seemed like such a mission accomplished that I completely overlooked my reason for being there in the first place. Well, raising children does require focus! And, indeed, the baby is more important than the toys! So maybe I wasn't too far off track, just not fully functioning.

Quindlen's essay closes with the heartwarming prospect of our kids growing up into our favorite human beings:

"Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't . . . 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 awhile to figure out who the experts were."
(Quindlen, "Raising Children")

Here are a few related ideas about "quality time"
from some of my favorite writers:

Peggy Jones and Pam Young (aka The Slob Sisters): "I had never agreed with the idea that it was 'quality time' that was important when raising children. I think it's quantity time that counts. A child can't be expected to concentrate all the important things he or see feels and thinks into some arbitrary hour or day that a parent designates as 'quality time.' . . . In the end, the person who is there all the time is the one who gives quality time" (Get Your Act Together, 133 - 34).

Al Franken: "Quantity time is quality time. My dad never took me horseback riding. We never went white-water rafting. He never gave me the seven-thousand-dollar fully functional scale model of a Ferrari that I coveted when I was twelve. But he did spend time with me. Not necessarily quality time, but quantity time, hours and hours and hours of nonproductive, aimless quantity time.

"What did we do with this quantity time? Mainly, we watched television, hours and hours and hours of television. My fondest memories of childhood are of sitting on the couch watching comedians on TV with my parents. . ."

Funny Franken goes on the describe his father's laughing fits, pipe-smoking habit, and eventual death of lung cancer at age eighty-five, concluding that "it was this quantity time spent with my father, laughing and coughing up phlegm, that inspired me in choosing my life's' work: making people laugh and raising money for the American Lung Association" (Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to Success, or, Failing That, Happiness, xiv - xv).

Barbara Ehrenreich: "Forget 'quality time.' I tried it once on May 15, 1978. I know because it is still penciled into my 1978 appointment book. 'Kids,' I announced, 'I have forty-five minutes. Let's have some quality time!' They looked at me dully in the manner of rural retirees confronting a visitor from the Census Bureau. Finally, one of them said, in a soothing tone, 'Sure, Mom, but could it be after Gilligan's Island?'

" . . . The only thing that works is low-quality time: time in which you -- and they -- are ostensibly doing something else . . . "

Ehrenreich's essay draws to a conclusion with this amusing yet truthful advice: "Do not be afraid they will turn on you, someday, for being a lousy parent. They will turn on you. They will also turn on the full-time parents, the cookie-making parents, the Little League parents, and the all-sacrificing parents. If you are at work every day when they get home from school, they will turn on you, eventually, for being a selfish, neglectful careerist. If you are at home every day, eagerly awaiting their return, they will turn on you for being a useless, unproductive layabout. This is all part of the normal process of 'individuation,' in which one adult ego must be trampled into the dust in order for one fully formed teenage ego to emerge. Accept it."

Like Quindlen, Ehrenreich points out that one day, just on the other side of those teenage ego years, our children will relate to us as adults. They may start out as Little Gnomes, but that doesn't last long. As children they are just smaller versions of that bigger person who is soon to come. "Your job is to help them . . . get on with being that larger person, and in a form that you might like to know."

All Ehrenreich passages are from
the essay "Stop Ironing the Diapers,"
found in her book The Worst Years of Our Lives
(see pp 146 - 48)

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, May 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Take a look at
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. Really one of your best essays! Ha, ha I am so reminded of something that happened not long ago. Young parents were discussing their children and said something about worrying that their kids might hate them at some future date. I said, "Stop worrying. Of course they're going to hate you." The look of horror on their faces was worth a whole bag of tea from China! Boy, you did a great job raising those boys. More laughs. Do they remember how you use to park that oldsmobile stationwagon?