Yes, when I graduated from college, I wanted to make a difference in the world, but my hormones had gotten in the way. My career would have to wait. So I went into childrearing with gusto and woke up years later to realize that I hadn’t done a perfect job, something my children reminded me of…regularly.
Most parents of grown children have heard the phrase, “I love you to death, but…” or some version thereof, followed by “Mom, you and Dad didn’t have a clue how to raise children in the 1950’s, or even the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. But it’s not your fault. They didn’t have family counseling in those days. I’m not criticizing, you understand, but I thought it would clarify our relationship if I pointed this out…with the best of intentions.”
There is always a kernel of truth in any such statement, and every mother wants to feel that a child, no matter how old, can speak honestly without fear of offending. But if you attempt to explain or answer, or maybe even justify some egregious act of parental neglect, like seeming preoccupied and not listening attentively, you are accused of being on the defensive.
“Please don’t take it personally, Mom,” you are admonished.
I have just been told that I failed miserably at the biggest job of my life, and I shouldn’t take it “personally?”
Well, in spite of my being ‘clueless,’ I managed to raise five children in the halcyon days of the 50’s and the tumultuous days of the 60’s and 70’s, who, like most kids, tried out a number of jobs in high school—from shipping clerk to catering to gardening to chimney sweeping—before entering college. And, as adults, they’ve all created their own enterprises, written their own scripts, and followed their own dreams, failing at some, but succeeding at most. Living and traveling off the beaten track has been my choice in life. It seems to have resonated with the offspring. And the changes that occur as they express themselves over the years are, to me, exhilarating and exciting.
As a family we’ve had some great times camping and travelling 6,000 miles throughout the U.S. in a large station wagon pulling a seventeen-foot travel trailer, hitch-hiking and backpacking in Western Europe, and climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire every summer, once the kids were old enough to get to the top on their own steam. Unfortunately there were no baby backpacks, ‘though my husband suggested, regularly, that I might want to invent one. What a lost opportunity that turned out to be!
Obviously, there were pronounced differences in parental approach and management in those bygone days, in part because we had so many children during the postwar baby boom that we didn’t have as much time to obsess over any one, and, in part, because there was a more relaxed, unhurried, laid-back attitude toward time management. At least that’s what I adopted, once I got over trying to push my eldest child to unrealistic goals of achievement in the first grade. (Oh, those poor first-borns. They needed a union!)
Most children in this generation, especially if they lived in suburbia, walked to and from school, dawdling in the leaves or the mud, depending on their age and the weather, and often stopping off on the way home to play at a friend’s house. Cars kept an eye out for little ones as they ambled across the back streets, and crossing guards did the rest. I often went to meet the younger ones after school and we walked back together. It gave me a chance to chat with them and get to know their friends.
My kids were definitely not as gullible or naïve as I was as a child, and although there had been no known pedophile sightings in the neighborhood, they knew what to watch out for and took it in their stride, assuring me that they would never get into the car of a stranger, or anyone, for that matter. I was nowhere near as mature. How well I remember when I was in the second grade and a classmate pointed out a house on our way home, where, she said, a man lived, who captured and ate children. She swore it was true and I ran home, horrified. It never occurred to me that she might have read Hansel and Gretel one too many times.
My parents listened to my story and nodded very seriously. “We’ll have to look into this, Margaret,” said my father with great authority. “Thank you for telling us.” And that was the end of it. I took another route to school, accompanied, for a couple of days, by my older sister. I never questioned the ability of my parents to protect me, absolutely. And I guess that’s what we all try to do as parents.
Raising five children is hard work—especially if you stay at home and deal with the mundane chores, endless cooking, and demands of five little creatures under seven years of age, who, by sheer dint of numbers can overwhelm any single human being. It was twenty-four-hour duty, seven days a week, for longer than I care to remember.
My plight was illuminated one day when Cary, my eldest, came home from second grade, took one look at me and said, “Mother, when I leave in the morning, you’re wearing that ugly yellow housecoat, your hair isn’t combed, and your breath stinks. And when I come home you’re still wearing that housecoat and your breath still….”
“Enough! I get the point.”
I was shattered! Dear God, have I sunk to the level of a slattern in the interest of answering my children’s every beck and call? This will have to change. Now! And it did. I never, again, wore that housecoat. Don’t own one, even now. I brushed my teeth first thing every morning, combed my hair, and threw on whatever decent garment was lying around looking wearable. And all this before tending to dirty diapers or starving children. Thank you, Cary, for the wake-up call.
But don’t get me wrong. I loved raising children. It was fun. It was challenging. And at no other time in my life did I feel so totally needed. I don’t know what Dr. Freud would say about that, and I don’t care. But I do know that there are two things a woman must possess if she wants to be a mother: lots of energy and a sense of humor. One without the other won’t do. If you can’t laugh while you’re cleaning off the mud, or trying to capture a huge spider that is terrorizing your children, or insisting that a boa constrictor—even a baby one—cannot be imported into your living room, then don’t go there.
I hope you’ll enjoy and relate to my collection of family tales that I’m sure are not very different from your own. The main difference is that now I can get a good night’s sleep and have the time to mull them over, laugh at them, and write them down.