Monday, 27 July 2009

It Takes A Village

One rainy Saturday I had to take our two daughters to the pediatrician’s for shots. The doctor’s office was a twenty-minute walk from our house, across the train tracks. This meant that I had to collapse the baby's stroller and wrestle it up the station stairs, my baby clutched under one arm and my four-year-old clinging to the other, a diaper bag slung around my neck. On the trip back down the stairs after the visit, my four-year-old decided that she too needed to be carried. Somehow I made it down the stairs, my jaw clenched, a kid tucked under each arm, half dragging and half kicking the collapsed stroller. As I neared the bottom I suddenly saw another foreigner standing there staring up at me, a censorious look on his face. I’m guessing his expression was due to the odd expletive I felt perfectly justified in using. Here is what got me: this man watched me struggling down wet stairs with two kids, a stroller and a diaper bag. At the very least, I deserved a smile and a thumbs-up, but all he could do was frown -- and peg me as a Bad Mommy for swearing.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it's a sad fact that not everybody knows what that means. Some people don't realize that a kind word or the offer of help at just the right moment can make all the difference in the world. That sometimes helping the child means helping the parent.

And yet some people know exactly what this means. Like our neighbour, Murakami-san, who I used to see almost every day, usually on her bicycle, bags of shopping balanced on her handlebars. Night after night I would see her, out for her evening stroll, walking briskly down the cherry-lined lane in the park. Murakami-san was a few years older than I, a woman with five teenage children, all at home. Her husband had suffered from cancer and I knew she’d had a tough time while he was in the hospital having first surgery, then chemotherapy. But even while he was recuperating and she was commuting to and from Tokyo to visit him in the hospital, Murakami-san always greeted me with a wave and a smile of pure, genuine serenity. I envied her calm manner, her effortless placidity. With small children and an almost full-time job, I often felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Murakami-san, it seemed, was a wife and mother who had it all worked out.

Raising kids while going out to work every day is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At six thirty every evening, I’d arrive at the childcare center, tired and hungry. It would take me a full thirty minutes to get the kids packed up, then another fifteen minutes to walk home. Another twenty minutes went to shopping for dinner – always with the kids in tow – and if someone threw a temper tantrum, which she very often did, that might easily turn into forty-five. There were many times my husband or I ended up cooking dinner as late as eight o’clock. When bedtime came, only two of us were ready to pack it in. And it was never the kids.

One evening, after a particularly rough time on my own with the kids, I left the house as soon as my husband got back from work, telling him I’d be back as soon as I’d cooled off. It took me a good five minutes to get my breathing down to a normal rate, and as I walked, my hands were still clinched into fists. After fifteen minutes, as I was summoning the courage to turn around and go home, I ran into Murakami-san. She took one look at my face and hopped off her bicycle, her friendly smile morphing into a look of concern. “Are you okay?”

“I am now,” I told her, “but fifteen minutes ago I could have kicked a hole in a fence.”

“Kids or husband?”

“Kids. They were driving me insane!”

“Oh, you poor thing!” She smiled. “You’re doing the right thing.”

“What, you mean going for a walk?”


“My husband’s with them,” I told her, struggling to keep my voice steady, “because if I’d stayed, I would have hit somebody.”

“Well, I’ve been there and done that!”

I stared at her in amazement. “Really?” She always looked so calm, so relaxed, so good-tempered.

“Of course!”

“But— you never look upset!”

“You’ve seen me out on my bicycle?”

I nodded. “With your shopping bags—”

She laughed. “I go shopping when I can’t take another minute of my kids. When I can’t stand their bickering or their wilfulness for one more second. That’s when I go.”

“But…you always look so relaxed.”

She looked astonished. “Do I?”


“Well, believe me, I’m anything but. Sometimes I tell them that if they don’t get out of my way, somebody’s going to get hurt.” She smiled. “The oldest ones hold the door open for me when that happens. Because they know.”

After talking to Murakami-san that evening, I went home with a spring in my step and renewed confidence in my parenting skills. By letting me know that her patience had limits, she made me feel like I wasn’t alone. She told me I’d done the right thing, getting out before I flew off the handle and let someone have it. Every time we met after that evening, we winked and smiled at each other. It was like we had a secret handshake.

When I look back on those early parenting days, I remember many other women I am indebted to. The receptionist at our local swimming pool who saw me struggling with my temper-tantrum prone youngest daughter, for instance. “You know, the really smart ones give you so much trouble at first,” she whispered, as soon as my daughter had quietened down. “You wait and see: one day that child will be as good as gold, your best friend. I guarantee it.” Amazingly, she was right. And even if she hadn’t been, her words on that occasion were like a soothing balm. Or another neighbor, Takahashi-san, who caught me in tears, just outside the house, after a nasty spat with my eldest daughter. “Hang in there, Mary!” she said, taking my hands in hers. “We’re all in this together, you know, all of us mothers! And don’t worry – it gets easier!” Her kind words made me burst into fresh tears, but they comforted and fortified me no end.

Being a parent is the single most difficult and rewarding job I have ever had and my husband feels exactly the same. Our girls are teenagers now, very capable and self sufficient. We look at them and shake our heads just remembering all we’ve been through with them. And we will never forget the village that helped us raise them.


debra said...

My oldest is now 21. An adult! And the younger will be 18. The richness or our lives amazes me, and the path of motherhood is----it just is.
Sometimes I think about being part of the continuum of generations of mothers. And it is good.

Robin said...

I love mothers. I almost never sympathize with kids who come to me. I always sympathize with their moms. I can count the exceptions on one hand.

My kids read my blog and crack up at what idiots they can be. They fully agree that being a mother is the toughest job around. They're a little skeptical about fathers, though. That's not the greatest sign for my poor husband. He tries.

Charles Gramlich said...

I can empathise to an extent. But I had only one, which makes a whale of a difference. Still, there were times when I felt much the same way.

MG Higgins said...

Touching and beautifully written. A good reminder of the power of empathy.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Your vindication arrives when you have grandchildren. You get to play, have fun, do adventures, teach them silly songs... Then about the time they start getting cranky and whiny you get to wave bye bye as "mommy and daddy" drag them home to bed. Top that with a lime-aid Margarita and you know your life is complete.

Hang in there, Mary, your time will come.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this one! It's so true. I can't believe that guy just stared at you!

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- Do you ever feel that it's easier to describe the pain and trials of motherhood than it is to describe the joy? Maybe it's just me, but I find I'm all too good at recalling the angst. The joy of parenting makes everything worth it and then some, but it seems so much more elusive to describe than all the trouble you go through.

Robin -- I knew this already: I've read your book! The fact that you support parents really cheered me up. Granted, some parents do a terrible job, but I've found that even bad parents have a tough job. Kids are allowed to slack off and screw up all the time, but parents are expected to give 150% with never a stumble.

I write for kids -- or try to -- and one of my biggest stumbling blocks is representing the parents honestly, but in a kid-friendly way. No kid wants to read about a mother's struggles, fears, and impediments. If you're a kid, it's all -- or mostly -- about yourself. That makes it tough on a writer who is herself a parent.

My husband tries too -- very hard! We should start a club or something: 'Wives of Fathers Who Try Society'.

Charles -- I think it was Bill Cosby who said that parents of one kid were beginners and parents of two just nicked intermediate. I agree to some extent, but I still say it depends on the kid, or kids. Then again, I look at people with over six kids and my brain goes numb. I don't WANT to imagine what it's like.

MG -- Thank you for those kind words. Really, if anyone in this world needs empathy, it's parents. There's something endlessly touching and reassuring about a couple of parents fussing over a child, doing their best.

Robert -- I think our vindication may be right around the corner: our eldest daughter is looking after a little boy in Tokyo, taking him to play group, etc., and finds herself exhausted. She's not holding down a full time job, doing housework, cooking, or laundry, and she doesn't have to do things like paying bills, bathing, shopping, or diapers either. She's a smart girl; she's bound to recall that we never had an au pair. And sometimes she even reads this blog too (please oh please oh please).

Mary Witzl said...

PN -- (Our posts crossed!)

I couldn't believe it either. I considered what I'd done almost superhuman: I got two struggling kids and a bunch of stuff down a dangerously slick flight of concrete stairs on only two or three mildly bad words. But this guy was a missionary and he no doubt thought that mothers should be super-superhuman -- and never swear.

Lily Cate said...

oh, this reminded me of an incident I witnessed in a store just a week ago or so.
A boy about my son's age and his mother walked passed me, the boy whining and begging for a toy. Poor mom was just trying to get her errand done, and when she finally said "No," the kid began shouting "She's not my mom! I'm being kidnapped!"
It was all I could do not to laugh, or give the poor woman a hug.

adrienne said...

This reminds me of times when my kids were little, and my husband arrived home to a greeting of, "I'm outta here!"
Some days you just have to get out of the house.

Susie said...

Great post, Mary! I've been behind in my favorite blog reading as we've been in the middle of a big move this past month. It was nice to come back to your blog and read this post!

I'm in the land of the twos now and my daughter's words are usually, "I do by self" whether that means getting a book from the shelf or wanting to drive the car!

I loved the encouraging words the woman gave you about your little one being smart and becoming your friend someday--great words to hear as your you have to pick your screaming kid off the floor :) Thanks for reminding me of the gift of a quiet walk and the need for support from other mothers to lift up and encourage us!

Vijaya said...

Amen! Just what a needed to hear ...

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- That's a great story. Some day the kid's mother will tell that story and laugh about it. I too can laugh now; in the thick of things, it was no laughing matter.

I was a terrible toddler myself, right up until I was about six. And even if I couldn't remember, my mother kept a diary. Reading her diary of that time kept me sane when I was struggling through my own kids' lengthy toddlerhood.

Adrienne -- A good friend of mine who had six children once said that there was a reason parents came in twos. How single parents cope, I will never know. My husband and I used to take it in turns. When his patience was exhausted, I stepped in; when I was shattered and ready to snap, he was refreshed. Thank God for the emotional relief we got from our village!

Susie -- Glad to have you back!

Parenting is a tough call. You want to encourage and nurture your child's sense of independence, but you also have to protect her from dangerous situations she can't possibly cope with. Like driving the car all by herself. Our eldest always used to say "I'll do it by my own!" about everything. I got a backache running around after her, trying to make sure she wouldn't take out an eye or fall headlong into a ditch.

Here's to plenty of encouraging words from other parents. The one thing I loved hearing was, "We're all in this together." We really are: parenthood is a big, crazy club.

Vijaya -- You're not in the middle of this yourself, are you? If you are, I'm sending all the good-parent thoughts I ever got your way. Expect a wonderful big bundle!

Eryl Shields said...

It seems every village has its idiot.

Anne Spollen said...

We used to live where they measured the snow in feet, not inches. The boys would start fighting when they woke up and we were stuck in the house all day. We used to build "igloos" just to get out of the house for a few minutes. Every time I see scenes from "The Shining," I remember those years.

Kim Ayres said...

I remember my mum saying you only really know how well you've brought up your kids by how they turn out by the time they reach 40. By which time, of course, it's too late to do anything about it :)

a. fortis said...

You know, this is really good--you could publish this as a magazine article. Really.

We miss you and hope you'll be back soon!

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- We actually had more than one idiot in our village, but we were lucky: the number of enlightened people around us was vastly higher.

AnneS -- Your comment made me laugh out loud. The Shining makes me remember certain rainy days myself.

Whenever I think about having babies and toddlers, I always remember that Dickens quote from A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times and the worst of times." Doesn't that just say it all?

Kim -- What a scary thought.

The people I really ache for are the parents who have done their best but have still watched their kids turn into miserable 40-year-olds. What do you do then? Mercifully, most of us are out of the picture by that time. My kids had better hope I will be.

Sarah -- You are so sweet to say that. From time to time I do send pieces out to parenting magazines, but the consensus is usually that they have 'enough of this sort of thing'. I will keep plugging away,

(I thought we were on holiday! We're not? Eeeek! And I have a whole TON of stuff I want gone over, too! I will be in touch...)

Anonymous said...

Have I told you that I learnt a lot from you about parenting?

Charlie said...

“We’re all in this together ..."

Takahashi-san hit the Village nail on the head.

kara said...

and that way, you can blame the village for any bad habits they possess.

Carol said...

I love reading your blog. Mark and I have tried to reach you by e-mail, but no response. Please give us your latest e-mail address. Much love! Carol Burrill

Stewart Sternberg said...

It's a shame. I think people feel distanced from one another. I believe that people would love to offer, but sometimes are afraid of boundaries. I passed a child on the street, stopped my car, and watched her, trying to decide what to do. If I stopped, I had images of sirens going off and people running out to accuse me of things. If I went on, who knew what would happen to the kid.

Another car came along and I watched as a woman approached the child. Then, and only then, did I feel able to offer help.

Maybe that says something about our society. Maybe that says something about me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

A link you are sure to appreciate:

Mary Witzl said...

Anonymous -- Dear God, I hope what you've learned wasn't what NOT to do, as a parent -- which would be entirely possible, watching me with my kids. (P, is that you?)

Charlie -- She did, didn't she, and there was something so good about those words. It's so easy to see the whole world as a bunch of happy successful people who all instinctively know how to do the right thing and lead satisfying, productive lives. It's wonderful to know that others out there are just as human, just as prone to sadness and insecurity and irritation as we are. We really are all in this together.

Kara -- Just as my faults are pretty much my own (my parents' screw ups notwithstanding), my kids came with their very own faults. Nature and nurture play a combined role, but nature trumps nurture in so many ways. Wish I COULD blame the Village Idiots, though -- that'd be handy.

Carol -- I've written to you -- hope you got it! (How is it that I only have ONE e-mail address for you? If you don't get my e-mail, I'll have to resort to snail mail!)

Stewart -- Thank you for commenting.

I know what you mean, and my husband definitely does too: we've been in the same position a few times, where we hesitated to do something, fearing misinterpretation. Often, I've stayed with a lost or wandering kid while my husband chased down the mother; even still, it's so easy to fear being suspected. But my fellow American at the bottom of the stairs could not have been hesitating because he feared being taken for a pervert or kidnapper; I was right there, in his face. A few times since this incident, I've offered a struggling parent assistance and been turned down rather curtly, and it's tough -- but in situations like this, where the mother is right there, offering help is always the best option.

Robert -- I'll check that link out as soon as we get a more dependable internet service. The mobile service we are using now is as capricious as all get out.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post. This was so well-written and expressed a perspective on parenting that you rarely hear about.

Vivian said...

Wow. Such a wonderful post. I'm a first-time visitor to your blog- you are a great writer. That post was actually comforting. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your post means a lot to me, as I am now at the very beginning of this journey - I recently had my first child, who is now only 6 weeks old. Have had many a crying jag when feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and its my fellow (and more experienced) moms who have gotten me through it, with telephone cheerleading and actually showing up at my house with food or to do the dishes. When I'm farther along on this journey and have more of a clue (that day will come, right?), I look forward to lending a hand or ear to other moms. We really do need to look out for each other, I appreciate that sentiment wholeheartedly! - Tinamarie

Barbara Martin said...

Parenting has always had its up and downs. I love your posts as I'm doing a bit of catch up.