When Advil Won’t Do

Tonight, I overheard one of our children — the one who had to stay up late to work on his science project — telling my husband he had a headache. “Maybe I should take some advil, dad. Or some tylenol.” There was a pause. “Or how about some morphine?”

Clearly, it’s time for summer vacation. It’s also time to answer litlove’s questions about being a mother. Always happy to help with scientific and literary research, I provide my answers below:

How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?

I’m here to keep them from being killed crossing the road, and from chewing with their mouths open when they’re having dinner with the first person they’ve ever loved. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure I should be standing out of their way, and letting them become the people they’re meant to be. Being a terribly bossy woman, I have an awfully hard time with that, but that’s what I aspire to.

In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?

Every mother I know well (and those are the mothers I think of as being in my “social circle”) has a sense of herself as having work in addition to her work as a mother. Even if she is currently staying home with her children, the women I know are still thinking about this work, and how to fit it in with their lives. So, I’d say, the women in my social circle are expected (because that’s what they expect of themselves) to have pursuits in addition to caring for their children.

As for physically staying at home, rather than going out to a paying job, that’s a very fluid thing in my community of friends.  There’s a lot of in and out — being home for a while when the children are very young, working part time, working from home are all common choices.  Very few women I know who have children my children’s ages (middle and elementary school ages) work full time at those terribly high powered jobs where they travel a lot and wear clean, pressed clothes — the kinds of jobs where you don’t have time to have much time with your children.   I have noticed though that as my friends’ children get older, their clothes are getting cleaner, and they are traveling more for work, and getting to put more time into the things they like to do besides raising children.  One thing I do know is that most of the women I know are too smart and too busy and too aware of how hard it is to parent and work to buy into the false dichotomy that is the stay-at-home mom vs. working mom thing. 

How do you feel about your child’s education? What’s good about it, and what do you wish could be done differently?

I have three children, and what their early educations all have in common is that they have involved the acquisition of a second language because I think that is a hugely important thing for Americans to do for reasons that should be obvious. In the case of my twins, that language was French, which was acquired at a private French school. My youngest child is fluent in Spanish, a language he learned completely free of charge, courtesy of the Spanish immersion program run by the Berkeley Public Schools. What’s good about their education is that we have lots of choices about how to educate them, both public and private. In some ways, that’s also what’s bad about their education. They don’t all go to the same schools with the children in our neighborhood and that makes their social lives a little scattered.

How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?

We’re into being “equal.” What that means is that my husband does the morning childcare jobs (lunch making, breakfast making, dropping off at school) and I do the afternoon childcare jobs (picking up, homework browbeating, taking people to lessons and sports). I tend to specialize in instilling them with a love of reading and a little bit of religious education, despite the fact that I don’t actually believe in God most of the time. He specializes in making them fabulous skiers and windsurfers (and rock climbers). We’re nothing alike, and we think that’s probably good for them.

What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?

To keep their eyes open for the thing they love, and to figure out how to do that thing for a living — or to find a decent day job so they can do the thing they love the rest of the time. Is that a virtue? Yes, in fact, it is.

The other important virtue is a skill as much as a virtue. It is learning to really see other people — to listen to them, to try to understand why they do what they do, and in so doing to become a compassionate and loving person.

What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?

I rush in and out of school so much these days I can hardly tell. I probably feel guilty at some level that I’m not participating in the mother-life of my childrens’ schools. But I feel ruthless these days about doing the things I want to do and not getting sucked into running the school auction. But yes, even though I’m not so great about school participation these days, and so am a virtual stranger to many of the mothers at my children’s schools, I’m pretty sure that anybody I asked for help would pitch in and help me. And I’d do the same for them.

What do you fear most for your child?

That they won’t ever find the thing they love to do.

How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?

I don’t think anybody learns anything from being punished except to sneak around and to be afraid. That said, I have the terrible flaw of yelling at my children when they fight with each other, or are rude to me, or do other stuff that bugs me. I apologize, and try not to hate that about myself too much. How do you get children to do what they should? Well, you model it, of course. Unfortunately, even though I do know this, I still lecture them like crazy. Poor things.

The errors I tend to focus on beyond table manners?  In giving freely, without expecting things in return, there is an enormous amount of happiness.  So, I try to model that, and try to encourage them to be that way.  It’s a work in progress.  I’m not always as generous as I could be, that’s for sure.

Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?

Well, their childhoods look different from mine, with much more privilege and a different style of parenting, but no, I don’t think the fundamental nature of being a child — the imaginative life, and the way children develop — has changed one bit.

What’s the best compliment your child could pay you for your parenting skills?

You might have yelled at us and lectured us and never made brownies like the other moms, but we know you love us and we’d like to invite you to come see us do the thing we love. (Oh, and by the way? We know how to chew with our mouths closed. We always did know how. We just pretended like we didn’t to bug you.)

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10 thoughts on “When Advil Won’t Do

  1. I noticed it is very important for you that your children find their life’s passion – and to spend their lives doing it. I have to agree – that is so important.

    Many of my friends have careers that allow them the expensive cars and expensive houses – but they are so unhappy. They don’t know what they want, because they spend so much time “getting ahead” they never stopped to consider what is it that they love.

    They don’t chew with their mouth closed? Oh dear.

  2. What a marvelous parent you are, Lily. I loved reading these heartfelt thoughts. I’m not a mother, but I do believe the most important thing is that children feel they are loved unconditionally and that they are eager for you to enjoy their successes (which is not the same as being in constant need of your approval). Bravo my new friend!

  3. I want to steal your answers. Lovely perspective.

    (I am secretly relieved that you, like me, are bossy and lecture even when you know you shouldn’t.)

  4. Yogamum, There is a great song (at least in William’s view) called “I’m Bossy.” He sings it whenever I get really, really out of control. It doesn’t actually help, but it does make me laugh.

    TJ, There’s a lot to be said for unconditional love. I do have to admit that there are times when I find that difficult, but then I just take a little break in my bedroom, and find that if I breathe deeply, when I come back downstairs, I’m usually feeling the love.

    Ms. Orpheus, It is not easy, the finding what you love and figuring out how to support yourself so you can do it. But it is a worthier goal than making enough money to buy a hot car, if I might be judgmental for a moment.

  5. Bloglily, these are fabulous answers (as I knew they would be). I applaud wholeheartedly your concern for your children to find themselves, rather than become what you want them to be, and you know what, I do that lecturing thing too, even while a part of my brain advises me warmly to shut up.

  6. Being certain that someone loves you unconditionally does not imply they will accept all of your crap without comment (or lecture, or occasional raising of voice). 🙂

  7. How refreshing to read that your most fervent hope for your children’s lives is that they find the thing they love to do. I believe so much follows from that, things like happiness, fulfillment, generosity, confidence…all the those virtuous ingredients which make a better person.

    In my days of childrearing, which are guite long gone, I don’t remember parents actively encouraging their children in that way. I was lucky enough to have a child who knew (nearly from birth it seemed to me) what he was passionate about. But the emphasis among his generation seemed to be how to make the most money in the least amount of time.

    And, oh yes, I did the lecturing thing as well, even (as Litlove noted) when my brain was screaming at me to shut up.

  8. Here’s another question that a friend and I laugh about together (like me, he also has three young kids): is there anything you do as a parent that in your pre-parental days you swore you’d never do?

    I use the DVD player to keep the kids out of the kitchen while I’m cooking. He bribes his kids with gum.

  9. Oh Ben, that is a REALLY long list. Currently, it involves electronic games. But I’m still drawing and holding lines! (Gum! Would that I could bribe my children with gum.)

    RR — Maybe it is just in our dna to lecture. Anyway, they don’t hear it so it does not harm.

    Dear Marie, I think about those future mates all the time when I’m lecturing about how the dirty clothes basket is there for a reason, that the toilet seat has a default position and it is not “up”…

    TJ — Exactimundo, as we say around here.

    Litlove, Well, lecturing never hurt anybody, really! It did occur to me this morning that it might be sort of fun to see what a week without a lecture looks like, but I’m not sure I could go that long.

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