No Time Off for Good Behavior

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Marion and Tony Winik with their children, 1992.

Readers: I wrote the following essay a long, long time ago. Whether you are raising small children now or whether you are, like me, looking in the rear view of an empty nest, it could make you feel better about things. Yours truly, M. Winik, setting the low bar on parenting since 1988.

I see a couple with a tiny baby at a party; they are so happy. I go over to ooh and aah at the baby, and ask to hold him. I have two boys, I say.

Oh, really, how old?
Two and four.
Is that hard?
It’s hell.

They exchange looks. Is this a depraved person to whom they are speaking, or is it the voice of doom resonating from their future?

When I see this in their faces, I start rambling, trying to explain. Well, it’s so awful really, I begin, they never listen to me, never, and I turn into a maniac, I scream, sometimes I spank them, which I thought I would never do, but they won’t listen any other way. I never realized how demanding it would be, how much it would compete with other things in my life. When I’m working, I feel bad about not being with them. When I’m with them, I ignore them half the time, turn on the t.v. or send them outside and go do something else. No matter what I do, I feel guilty. And it’s hard on your marriage. They fight all the time, the big one is mean to the little one, maybe it’s their ages, I don’t know. I’m sure it will get better. Though people with teenagers tell me it’s the most intense of all. You guys enjoy this time. Having one little infant is dreamland. It’s never the same again. Unless he has colic or something.

They are staring with thinly-disguised horror. Don’t get me wrong, I assure them. I love my kids. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. If I had it to do over, I would.  It’s too late, however, to convince them I have any maternal instincts or redeeming qualities. They smile politely as I hand them their baby back, and make a beeline for the other side of the room. It could be contagious.

I did not get into the business of Marriage and Children, Inc., without big ideas about how homes should be run and how kids should be raised. Interweaving feminist theories with conclusions based on personal experience, I formed my ideal of how the egalitarian, emotionally healthy, politically correct post-nuclear family could operate.

Children should be raised by their parents, not by paid help or pre-schools, I thought. Men and women should divide household and parenting duties equally and not necessarily along traditional gender lines. This would be easy, I assumed, because once you are a parent, you are magically filled with all the qualities it takes to raise kids, like patience, energy and wisdom. It is odd that people think this, even in the innocence of childlessness, since God knows nobody thinks their own parents did it right.

An article in the New York Times about mothers in prison discussed whether they should be allowed to keep their babies. In a survey, they asked these women — whose own childhoods had invariably been rough — if they thought they would be better mothers than their own mothers had been. They didn’t. I was not as surprised at this as the author was.
How do you judge your mother and say she was bad and you’re going to be better? She wasn’t perfect but neither are you. The fact that she loved you as best she could has had to be good enough. You want it to be good enough for your own children.

At the same time, you don’t want to make exactly the same mistakes they did, the ones you’ve been bitching about to therapists all these years. One of my own enlightened precepts, the idea that I should raise my children at home without paid help until kindergarten, is typical of a parenting ideal formed in reaction to one’s own childhood.
My father was a textbook-case workaholic, gone from 7 a.m. til at least 7:30 at night, when we’d race through the house as if the mechanical thunder of the garage door heralded the Second Coming. After dinner, he’d sit right down at his adding machine, or later his PC, in front of the TV. Weekends, more of the same. It just figures that he died while we were in our twenties, heart attack of course, and certainly didn’t spend any time with us after that.

My mother was around a lot more than my father, but she was also very busy. She played golf, bridge and tennis, did a little work for my father’s company, talked on the phone, managed their busy social life. To be fair, she was class mother year after year, drove an ungodly number of carpools and threw a great birthday party, but parents do not get time off for good behavior.

The history of my childhood was divided into reigns, like those of Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible, only our occasionally-benign despot was not chosen by bloodline or birthright but by the difficulties of finding and keeping live-in domestic employees. The first in the dynasty was a German nanny whom I know only through a 16 mm black and white home movie of my mother leaving Mt. Sinai Hospital after I was born. The car pulls up, my mother appears smiling and waving, and I am bringing up the rear, swaddled and carried by the nanny. Look, my mother says whenever we watch the film. There’s Trudy.

We moved from New York to New Jersey when I was two, the year Nancy was born. Trudy did not come with us. Instead, we were taken care of by a series of live-in cleaning ladies, for whom we were in general a layover between the place they were escaping from and the place they hoped to end up. Mainly it was girls from the islands whom my mother sponsored for U.S. work permits and girls from the south on their way to the big city. There was Johnnie Mae, Jeannie Mae, Ella Mae. Dolly, Dory, and Daphne. My sister and I generally referred to them by their preferred mode of punishment. The Pincher, for example.

There was a well-worn typed list of duties for the maid which I was fascinated by: Monday, living room and bathrooms, Tuesday, laundry and bedrooms, every other Wednesday off. Looking back, I realize that the maid’s most important duty was not even on the list. Us. We were every day.

My sister and I shared a room and the maid of the moment slept next door, in a room with red carpet and a fold-out sofa bed with a leopard corduroy slipcover. It was in that room that I watched JFK’s funeral on television, with Nancy and Johnnie Mae, all of us crying, though Nancy was not even 3 and probably had no idea why. Later, to cheer up, we begged for our favorite thing: Put “Mashed Potato Time” on the record player and dance with us! Please!

So of course my initial plan as a mother was to do it all myself. For one whole year after Hayes was born, I would not leave him with a babysitter. Not only was I nursing, but I carried with me the childhood resolve that I would never do this terrible thing that was done to me to my own children.

The night we finally left him with a sitter, we went to a restaurant just a couple of blocks from the house. I called midway through dinner and heard Hayes shrieking in the background. I flew out the door and ran all the way home in high heels. After paying the babysitter and sending her off, I took Hayes back to the restaurant for dessert. Soon after, I refused to attend a cousin’s wedding because no children, not even babies, were allowed.

As Hayes got older and could not so easily be taken to adult gatherings, my attitude began to change. He’d be better off at home, I thought, with his toys and his movies and his own bed. But does this mean that I should deprive myself of grown-up fun? I thought not. Then my second son was born and it became an even bigger pain in the ass to take them places where there was nothing for them to do and lots of things for them to break, to restaurants or parties or shows for which their attention span was a tenth of my own. One night a week off from small children doesn’t seem like much to ask. I try to remember — is this how much my parents went out, really, and did it just seem like all the time? Will it seem like that to my children?

I used to think of the fact that I started school at two as further evidence of my parent’s lack of interest. They couldn’t wait to get me out of the house! However, when Hayes attained the age of two, I began to notice how much he loved to play with other little kids. I could see how he enjoyed singing and duck-duck-goose and making necklaces out of painted macaroni. When I didn’t have the energy to orchestrate these activities, he quickly became bored and difficult. What to do? Montessori, of course, which he adored. So on this bum rap as well, my convicted parents must be pardoned.

When Tony went away for two weeks last summer, I hired a young woman to help me with the boys. Mostly she watched them while I was at the office, Tony’s usual tour of duty, but a few days I stayed home to write and had her come in anyway. It pains me slightly to admit that I loved it. I loved being able to have lunch with them or play with them for an hour and then say, Meredith, could you come get the kids, I need to get back to work, and not feel that I was imposing or using up favors or not doing my job. Which takes us to the ongoing drama of dividing domestic chores with one’s spouse.

As do most women of my generation, I believe that men should be involved fifty-fifty around the house. Unlike many gals, however, I managed to get a husband who actually does his share. You never know what evil lurks behind the liberated line and the ponytail; you marry them and take them home and they forget they ever saw a can of Comet. With a husband who does laundry and mops floors in addition to manly activities such as lawn-mowing, I can hardly complain.

But redefining gender roles in the domestic arena is a tricky thing; the division of labor can be loaded with tension. Everything I do around the house, I seem to think I’m doing “for” Tony. When I wash the dishes or make the beds, all the little everyday stuff, I feel I deserve some kind of recognition, some brownie points. Everything he does, he thinks of in terms of money. How much would I, the main breadwinner, have to pay to get these jobs done if he were not there to do it? It’s so exhausting, and so stupid. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just reversing the traditional male-female attitudes. I fantasize about living in a co-op or on a kibbutz, where the work is split among a greater number of adults and, at least in my imagination, they don’t hate each other over it.

On some days, even parenting falls into the realm of tedious trade-off: one takes the kids to the park for a while, or stays home so the other can go out, and the free one is grateful, and guilty, already thinking about the payback. The grunt-work of raising children is more challenging than keeping house, and sharing it an even bigger deal.

Ever since I read Nancy Chodorow in college, I’ve been convinced that sexism can only be ended by a generation of boys and girls who are equally nurtured by both parents, who see parents of both genders changing diapers and pouring apple juice and sitting on the bench at the playground, working and leaving and coming back. The idea is that when children form their concepts of themselves and of the opposite sex in this environment, the psychological foundation of sexism will no longer exist.

In perhaps this one regard alone, my adult life conforms to my youthful ideals. At our house, the daddy switched to part-time work after one child was born, and moved his hair salon to the house after the second. My boys are growing up with a father who’s around almost all the time, who not only works for money but changes beds, packs lunches, and applies bandaids. Though this means a great deal to me, I no longer am sure it will change the world; I don’t even know how it weighs in against the male stereotypes they get from t.v. and stories and other people. Maybe they’ll end up following in the footsteps of their neurotic mother, forever trying to bond with tall, skinny janitors who remind them of Daddy.

The relationship between how people are brought up and how they turn out cannot be reduced to any simple formula. In the face of this —like the mothers in prison, like your own mother, like everybody else you know — you do what you think is right. And when you can’t always live up to that, you do the best you can.

Here’s how tired I am sometimes. En route from the office to the kids’ school, already late, I pull up at a red light behind a car with a bumper sticker that reads “Don’t Postpone Joy.” I stare blankly for a moment. Running on just enough stress to catapult me past exhaustion, I can’t imagine having the time or energy to entertain joy should it unexpectedly arrive.

Averting my eyes from the bumper sticker, I notice a sign outside a hamburger joint across the street. WELCOM MUSIC FESTIVAL PARTICIPANT! This is the last straw; I almost burst into tears. At this moment, these four words somehow represent the very essence of hope and hard work, entrepreneurship and enthusiasm. The people who conceived the music festival, organized it, and publicized it; the musicians who will play at it and the people who have traveled to hear them; the reporters and shopkeepers and restaurant owners all trying to make their respective hay; the kid who climbed the ladder to put up the red marquee letters, coming up short an E. The sheer presence of all this energy swirling around me is overwhelming, completely enervating.

Yet if I can make it through the rest of the day, if I can have a peaceful afternoon with the kids and if they eat their dinner and listen to their stories and go to bed on time, if they do not whine and fight and break things, if I do not lose my temper, if Hayes does not cheat at checkers, if Tony is in a decent mood — it will, in fact, be joy. And I will not postpone it.

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Such a great, golden chestnut.

    I remember being out in a Austin once with you, Tony and a few friends. One (childless) couple shared a few of their thoughts about child rearing which set Tony off. He was very adamant that, unless you had children, he didn’t want to hear any theoretical ideas on what it meant to raise kids. He loved his kids immensely. I still see him smile at them now, thinking back to that little blue house….

  2. Love the picture! My step daughter is getting ready to have our first grandchild and I am v curious to observe the whole thing. Her dog has already decamped to my couch whenever possible.

  3. Oh, Marion, you are so NOT ALONE! I love your article and wish I’d written it!
    As you know, I also have two “kids” (my daughter just turned 50), who somehow managed to survive my dubious parenting and blossom into fantastic adults. Only 17 months apart, they’d blessedly never heard of sibling rivalry. They’d also never heard of exhaustion. Our home was a high-decibel war zone occupied by two sprinters in diapers (the smelly cloth kind with safety pins). I denied my kids rice, which meant scrubbing the floor after dinner. I was a free-lance musician with variable hours, and spent much of my “life” digging up reputable sitters. Daycare, a dirty word, seems not to have been invented. My husband, unlike yours, did not share parenting chores. As you know, he was a medical resident who was rarely home before the kids were asleep. To preserve (what remained of) my sanity, I used to hire a saintly neighbor to “mother” them while I locked myself in my bedroom and took a nap – neglecting my children, whom I adore and wouldn’t trade for anything — except maybe some sleep — for which I paid the price of unbridled guilt.
    Now they have their own kids, who had the benefit of daycare – my grandkids are happy and thriving , their parents happy and exhausted.
    Thanks for sharing your wit & wisdom, Marion. I love your books! I miss your wacky classes, where I learned so much about writing.
    Ellen

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