Friday, 20 April 2007

Parenting: a Good, Hard Dose of Reality

Thirty years ago, I watched gob-smacked as a friend's daughters, one after the other, used her skirt as a towel after washing their hands. She didn't even seem to notice. I made a mental note never to be the sort of mother who allowed that kind of thing. My kids would not see me as a dish-rag, an object there to be used and discarded. Things would be different for me when I had children, I told anyone who would listen. Those of my friends who did not have children generally nodded in agreement. So did a few of those who did, but some of them, I noticed, smiled and changed the subject.

At my local laundry, I watched as a mother directed her three-year-old to fold and stack the towels as they came out of a drier. I smiled and nodded in approval as the little tyke industriously folded and piled under his mother's tutelage. When I had kids, I made sure to tell my friends, I was going to show them how to pull their own weight too! My children wouldn't be like so many I saw around me: obnoxious, lazy little slugs who never expected to do a lick of work. Once again, my childless friends thought this was a great idea, and I got the same reaction as before from my friends with children.

For a long time, I didn't have children. I worked and travelled and spent many of my child-bearing years accumulating friends and interesting experiences. But sometimes I thought about the children I knew I would have some day, and how smoothly parenting would go for me, especially because I had given the subject of child-rearing a little more thought than most. My kids were going to be artistic. They would be funny and disciplined and creative, and we would have a wonderful time doing housework together. They would admire and want to emulate me, and all I really had to do was work hard to make it happen.

Now, of course, I have kids, so I know better than to have such ideals or make such sweeping statements -- even in the privacy of my own mind.

We parents can do a lot for our kids. We can encourage them and get them to perform to the best of their ability. We can nurture their talent and help them build character, and do any number of things to give them a good headstart in life. Conversely, we can discourage, belittle and criticize them so severely that they lose all their confidence. There is no doubt about it: we have a lot of influence in their lives. But to imagine that our efforts can mold our children into what we want them to be is sheer nonsense.

My kids are artistic. They are funny and creative and we sometimes do housework together. But it has been one tough, long slog, and I'm not going to mention all the things I haven't managed to get them to do -- it is just too depressing.

One thing I can tell you, though: they've stopped wiping their hands on my skirts. Why? I now wear trousers.


Kanani said...

It's never what you think it's going to be. I thought the same things. And then when I see kids like eryl's then I feel good, it gives encourages me.

My son has autism, and life has been extraordinarily rough as I've shuttled from specialist to specialist since he was all of 5. He's 17 now, and last year I had to get a lawyer to put him in a specialized school. And still, it's far from easy. Every single resource has been expended: time, money, love, support.

The only way I've gotten through this (and the slackness of his father) is to be adamant about maintaining my own interests. It reminds me that I'm a person, not just a caretaker.

It just kind of helps me from slipping down the drain altogether.

Mary Witzl said...

Raising a 'mainstream' kid (for lack of a better term) takes a lot of patience and stamina. If you are raising a kid with special needs, you can multiply that any number of times.

In Japan, I was friends with a small circle of women who had met because they all had children with disabilities or special needs. One had a son with dwarfism, another had one with Downs, and two had severely autistic children. These women took good care of their children, but more than that, they all took good care of themselves -- and each other -- because they knew they had to. I consider myself a better than average mother, but next to these women, my own stores of patience, stamina, and wisdom seemed pitiful. I still keep in touch with them and I still count them as role model mothers.

Have you ever read 'Born on a Blue Day' by Daniel Tammet? If not, I strongly recommend this.

You should give yourself frequent pats on the back, Kanani. Raising a child with autism takes enormous stoicism and patience, and it sounds as though you are doing a tremendous job.

Kanani said...

Thanks Mary. That means a lot! I've left you and eryl something on my blog ;0)

Kim Ayres said...

I don't know what it's like for girls and women, but for men, their relationship with their father defines a great deal about who they are and their attitude to life. We are constantly either trying to live up to his standards/ desperate for his respect and approval/ kicking against the old bastard (delete as appropriate).

Apparently 30% of men don't speak to their fathers at all; 30% do speak to them but it always breaks down into an argument; 30% talk to their fathers but it never gets beyond the weather, what was on TV or the football; and only 10% talk about their fathers as friends. I found this shocking as every guy I ever met who was a dad wanted to have a great relationship with their sons, but 90% get it wrong.

Sometimes the odds feel stacked against you.

Mary Witzl said...

My husband was largely raised by his father after his mother died in an accident when he was only eight. He and his father almost never talked, and when they did, they tended to argue. And yet he loved his father very much and wanted nothing more than his approval and respect. And eventually he did get this, though it took him quite some time. I do often wonder what it would have been like for him if we'd had boys.

I had a wonderful relationship with my mother, but a rather difficult one with my father. I wonder what it would have been like if it had been the other way around. As I had only sisters and my mother and I were very close, I am a lot more comfortable with women and girls than I am with men, but when the girls and I are spatting, I often think that maybe things would have been easier if I'd had boys.

One thing is sure: being a parent is never easy -- or at least never very easy. I still remember a midwife acquaintance laughing when I told her I was pregnant with my first. 'Oh, NOW you're in for it!' she said, rather rudely. I thought she was exaggerating then, but how right she was.

Brian said...

Both my parents were thwarted in their ambitions -- my mother to be a teacher , my father to be a doctor.

I have not regretted the final result, but my mother transferred her ambition to me , and drove me academically , despite my total lack of ambition.

I became a teacher .

I tried to encourage my own lot of boy girl girl to go their own way , and with that support from me during the looser 50's and 60's , all three of them did well , two doctors among them satisfying my father , and two ( overlapping categories here ) feminists satisfying my mother .

Even more important was the totally loving support from their mother , which now carries over into total a devotion to her grandchildren .

I have many gaps in my own abilties to make personal relationships , but in general I think the balance has been corrected by them and by time .


Mary Witzl said...

Two doctors in the family! And you're not even Jewish! Your kids sound as though they have done you proud. I've got two feminists too, and I swear that I hardly had a thing to do with it. The youngest was once quarreling with her sister and wanted to insult her, but got tongued-tied. '' she stuttered, incandescent with rage -- and then she suddenly had an inspiration: 'You BOY!' The eldest drew herself up to her full height and spluttered 'I am NOT! You take that back!'

It is interesting that your mother had to drive you to achieve academically. I think that is the way of it for a lot of us. And I am convinced that women socialize men. Without women around, men would stop changing their clothes, setting the table properly, perhaps even getting together with friends. But maybe I just want to feel that we are needed...

Brian said...

There's a minefield in that last paragraph of yours , Mary my sweet !

In fact I ran my Dondingalong household without Bet there but with grace , skill , economy ( in the original meaning of the word ) -- utter domesticity with concomitant complete efficiency !

But I did miss the feminine touch too !


Eryl Shields said...

Parenting is probably the hardest but most rewarding job a person can do. Even though your ideals got severely diluted once you actually had your kids, the fact that they were there in your imagination probably had more of an impact on them than you can know.

When I was about sixteen I made a conscious decision that if I were ever to have kids I would not repeat the mistakes of my mother. My mother-in-law became my role model, she teaches by example rather than by dictating. I'm a great beleiver in showing not telling.

kuri & ping said...

Mary, thanks for stopping by my blog! I just bookmarked your blog so I can read regularly. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- You are one of a hundred if you ran a household smoothly without the aid of a woman, and who needs a feminine touch if you can do that? I take my hat off to you! I like to think that this is the way it will be in the future. My father, who would not be much older than you if he were still alive, couldn't even look after himself on his own, so it is impressive that someone of your generation could do this. I seem to have come from a family where the men are especially domestically inept. My husband can do a lot, but he gets a few very basic things wrong. But then I am writing this blog and not him...

Eryl -- You are lucky to have a good mother-in-law. I know a number of women who are happy with their mother-in-laws, and I always find this heartening.

I try to 'show and not tell' myself, and I do my best to be a good example for my kids. Sometimes I wonder if they really take note of what I am doing; they give little sign at times. But then I remember that I didn't always let my mother know that I was learning from her, and that it was only after I left home that a lot of her lessons made sense to me. Even now, I find what she told me and showed me useful, and I wish that she were still around so that I could tell her this.

Kuri and Ping -- Hello, and welcome to my blog. I used to live in Kyushu (in Oita), and I spent 17 years in Japan in total, so I am interested in having more people who are Japanese or live in Japan -- or just interested in Japan -- on my blog.

Brian said...

I should say that though I can be self sufficient , bachelordom ain't my favourite state !
There are feminine touches that I thoroughly enjoy .

Nice to see your blog reaching out to more and more interesting people .


definitely NOT the one who inhabits Doctor Phil's site !

Mary Witzl said...

Now I'm intrigued. Who's Doctor Phil?

avocadoinparadise said...

Dr Phil is an american pop-psychologist. See and don't believe too much of what he says. He's an over-simplifier.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Avocado in Paradise. Live and learn.

I've lived outside the States so long, I'm really out of touch. If I went back tomorrow, I suspect I wouldn't just be considered a Resident Alien, I'd be a for-real one.

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