NewEssays Katie's musings, mostly on things related to family life
Friday, October 17, 2003
Roots and Wings
By Katie Allison Granju
I dropped my nearly-12 year old son, Henry off for a month at summer camp this weekend. He stayed two weeks last year but wanted to try a month this time. I know I’ll miss him but it was fun to see him happily waving goodbye, surrounded by a gaggle of other boys as we drove away.
In the past few weeks, as I’ve mentioned to friends and acquaintances that Henry would be gone at camp for four weeks, I’ve encountered quite a bit of wonderment that we would allow him to stay away that long, or that he would want to. Interestingly, some of the folks who seemed most startled at the idea that a sixth grader would spend a month away from his parents at summer camp are the same people who have amazed me in the past with their willingness to leave their infants and very young children for days or even longer at a time. In thinking about this riddle, I was reminded yet again of how upside-down I find much of millennial, western childrearing to be. I think we have it backwards in our culture: we don’t allow babies much of a babyhood, but we treat our older children and teenagers like babies for far too long.
As with other higher-order mammals, human infants are hardwired to require certain responses from their adult caregivers in order to thrive. Human babies need to be held a great deal – almost constantly, actually – and experience a lots of touch-time with other humans. They need to eat very frequently and in small amounts, including during the night. They have a strong need to suck for comfort, not only for food. They need to discover that they are able to elicit responses from the people around them when they cry. And optimally, human infants need to wean and reach other important developmental milestones, such as readiness for separation from parents – at their own unique pace.
Notice that I said that they need these things to thrive, rather than survive. I’m well aware of the anecdotal ‘my mother fed me on a strict schedule and I’m just fine” argument ( I myself rode around without a car seat in a haze of second hand smoke as a tyke), but a growing body of respected anthropological and medical research now supports the view that high-touch, fed-on-cue, attachment-style childcare yields optimal neurological and emotional development in babies and young children. Sure, babies can turn out okay under a variety of conditions, just as plants can take root in rocky soil, but we know with increasing assuredness what the gold standard is.
Yet we modern American parents lead the world in our gadgetry and lifestyles designed to maximize babies’ separation from their parents. Although there has been some movement toward more attachment-style parenting in recent years, American babies still spend more time in playpens, swings, cribs, and battery powered bouncy seats than they do in the arms of their parents, siblings, and other relatives. We stay at arm’s length, and it’s almost as if we are afraid to hold our babies too much for fear they will never let us put them down.
But by age six or seven, we begin to obsess over every detail of our kids’ lives and micro-manage every moment of their days. Because we worry about stranger danger and exposure to the wrong movies, advertising, or foods, we no longer allow kids to wander freely through our neighborhoods or even our own front yards, where they should be learning important lessons in autonomy and problem solving. I meet many ten and eleven year old children who, while never having spent a night sleeping in the same bed as their parents as infants, still have never spent a night at a friend’s house as third and fourth graders.
Our parenting style is like asking trapeze artists to learn to work without a net first, and only after they have mastered this, insisting that they perform in full safety gear of nets, wires, and pulleys. I believe that the result of this backwards approach to raising kids is that we are turning out children who may feel an unexpressed longing for something very primal that they can’t even identify, yet without basic life skills or self confidence.
Babies need babying. Big kids need the chance to try out their wings. And when they experience the inevitable bumps and bruises along the way, that’s when we get to hold them close and give them a little “booster shot” of smotherlove. I fully anticipate that we will receive at least one “I’m so homesick I could die” letter from Henry. When I do, I’ll pack and send off an extra special care package for him and continue to count the days until we get to retrieve him. And I’ll be both surprised and a little disappointed if in a year or two, he doesn’t feel ready for a five week stay.
The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” has become a rallying cry for the American far right ever since their perennial favorite object of vilification, Hillary Clinton, used it as the title of her 1996 book about our culture’s treatment of children. Critics of Clinton and her slight tome declared that this talk of villages raising children was all just one more piece of the Orwellian commie-pinko plot to see all childrearing turned over to the state. On the day I first heard this criticism of the book while listening to talk radio, I distinctly remember laughing as I wondered how I could get the government to take my kids for at least the afternoon so I could maybe take a hot bath or go have a beer.
Those of us who are raising children know very well that the idea that parents need support and help in their 24/7 jobs has absolutely nothing to do with politics. Women in every society around the globe depend on what anthropologists call “co-mothers” to help care for their children. This co-mothering comes in culturally specific forms, ranging from Aboriginal older sisters watching younger siblings so their mothers can go out to hunt and gather, all the way along the continuum to the ubiquitous nanny/au pair culture of swanky Manhattanites.
In my own tenure as a parent, co-mothers have been an essential part of family life for both me and my kids. Until we recently moved to a new neighborhood, my next door neighbor ( with whom I originally believed I had so little in common that it was unlikely we would ever even have a real conversation) became my “other mother,” performing mothering tasks I could not, including sewing costumes, french braiding my daughter’s hair for special events, and even convincing my children to swallow nasty-tasting medicine when necessary. On more than one occasion over the years, I would carry a feverish, glassy eyed child next door before bedtime so that Karen could work her magic and unpry the jaws that refused to open for me. After she got the medicine down the toddler gullet, I would whisper a grateful thanks and carry my limp child back home for the overnight shift.
My two-years-younger sister and I have been constant co-mothers since the day I gave birth to my first child eleven years ago. Betsy - dashing away from her final college exams, was in the room, holding my hand while my husband held my other. She missed birth #2 because she was overseas, but made it for birth #3 in 1998. Ten months later, that baby and I were both in the room as Betsy herself became a mother with the arrival of infant Eleanor, and I was there again last year when she had a wonderful waterbirth and became a mother to a son. I have nursed her babies, so close in age to mine, and she has done the same. My children long for their Aunt Betsy when they’ve had enough of me and vice versa.
There are other co-parents in my “village,” as well: my friend Katie C., who has covered field trips and class snacks for me more than once in the past year as I’ve adjusted to being a single, working parent; my daughter’s riding instructor, Susan, who offers my athletic child a focus and perspective she needs that she doesn’t get from me; and even my longtime pediatrician, the wonderful Dr. Glover, who assures my almost-adolescent son that he isn’t going to be a midget (I had already explained his to him over and over, but he needed to hear it from Dr. Glover before he actually believed it).
These individuals, and many others, provide a safety net for me and for my children. I never feel as if I have to do it all myself and in fact, with some years of parenting experience under my belt, I am increasingly aware that I can’t do it all myself. No one person can. Kids need teachers and aunts and neighbors and coaches to weave the supportive web in which they can best thrive.
Call it a village. Call me a commie. I’m just glad that I can call my friend Karen when I need to figure out how to make cookies shaped like inchworms for the preschool spring festival.
In her memoir, The Lunchbox Chronicles, writer Marion Winik tells how awe-inspiring she used to find single parents, wondering how in the world they managed to get by. She both admired and pitied them, and thanked her lucky stars every day that she didn't belong to their ranks.
And then her husband died, leaving her with a three-year-old and a six-year-old to raise all by herself. She writes that after the initial shock of her loss wore off, she suddenly realized that she had become not only a widow, but a single parent, and when she thought of the years of "hard labor" stretched out ahead of her, all she could say was "Holy %$&@!!"
I too am now a single parent. After sharing parenting duties for the last 11 years with my children's father, he no longer lives with me. My children still have two parents, of course, but we two parents no longer have one another. As a result, I am suddenly being forced into a steep learning curve at a time when I really thought I had this whole running-a-household thing mostly figured out.
I have never mowed a lawn. I have no idea how to fix a leaky faucet or clean the gutters. I don't even cook. In our family's unofficial and voluntary division of labor, these tasks fell on my now-absent husband's shoulders. And when the children are at his house, he too is now facing alien tasks that formerly fell within my purview. He is learning how to fix a ponytail, plan and referee play-dates, and get three children to three different lessons during his work hours. And both he and I are facing the reality that after all the kids are finally bathed, read-to, and asleep at night, there will be no cozy adult discussion of the day's events or shared laughs and commiseration over spilled milk—literal or figurative.
Interestingly, since my kids' father moved out, many of my still-married friends with children have admitted to me in a somewhat furtive way that they envy me. Looking around as if someone might overhear their blasphemous confessions, one after another has told me of their secret fantasies of being able to run their households exactly as they choose, with no need for compromise or cooperation.
"I'd get rid of that ugly recliner in about two seconds," says one. "I'd use all the hot water every night and I'd park wherever I want to in the driveway," declares another.
Other pals have expressed their suppressed desires to eat in bed without fear of crumbs bothering anyone else; keep the heat turned as high as they like in the winter; or throw out the stacks of decade-old newspapers and magazines rotting in their laundry rooms.
As for myself, I never fantasized about single parenthood. In fact, I fought with every fiber in my being to prevent the break-up of my marriage, and I fell into a dark depression for many months after my husband moved out. I was sad for my children and I felt sorry for myself. Like Marion Winik, my commentary on the turn my life had taken was usually in the form of angry expletives or tears or both.
But as the longest, darkest winter I have ever experienced began to fade last month, and as the weather began to warm and the crocus and daffodils poked their first tentative tendrils up through the dirt in my yard, I began to notice for the first time how much I was enjoying certain aspects of living without another adult. Married at age 22, and a mother by 23, I now I find myself reveling in certain guilty pleasures, such as eating ice cream in the bath tub and leaving my bedroom light on until 3 a.m. if I want to finish a book. I let my dog get on the sofa and I have stopped storing the bread in the refrigerator, as my ex-husband preferred.
Last weekend, my children and I moved out of the home our family had lived in for the past seven years and into a charmingly dilapidated 1940s cottage that I love and my husband would hate. I see built-in china cabinets, an appealing, ivy-covered exterior, and a yard that backs up to a library in my favorite local neighborhood. He would see a house with no garage and a topography that has "drainage problems" written all over it. I felt giddy on the day I signed the lease in my own name. And last night, for the first time, I slept in my own bedroom—which I painted pink—in my very own bed. The dog was snoring under the covers and I read a mystery deep into the night.
I still miss my marriage a great deal. I have a feeling that I will grieve this loss in my own way for the rest of my life. And there is no doubt in my mind that my children have lost something irreplaceable. Some days I still have the unsettling sense that I have somehow woken up in someone else's life. But more often than not now, I am able to see that in fact, the opposite is true: I am composing and reclaiming my own life.