Thursday, December 28, 2006

Parenting as if I might get hit by a bus tomorrow

A Perfect Post - December Thanks Masked Mom!

Everyone is fond of espousing their preferred parenting techniques. I notice people are especially fond of sharing these techniques when your children, or rather you, aren't behaving how these people think you ought. Even more so if they are utter strangers, and still more likely if you did not ask at all.

Say, for example, you have four children with you at the store, three of whom are practicing for their audition for the Broadway show The Whining Sisters. And say, for example, you state, in utter exasperation, "I will get all of you the light up ring pops if you sit in the cart quietly while we finish shopping!"

In this case, a stranger might pipe up and say, "Bribery doesn't teach them to be good for goodness' sake! The well-known Dutch author and parenting expert Dr. Hasnochildrenofhisown says if you model behavior and blah blah blah and still more blah that has no actual meaning in a real life situations!"

After you finish modeling "if looks could kill," you model "restraint" and say simply, "I'll make sure we look up that book next time we go terrorize the library with our presence."

Then you model "creative cursing" and "incomplete sentences" by muttering, "Stinking...succotash...with flapping...hinges and dog dog dog dog dog dog dog."

Now, I started out this parenting gig with excellent intentions. I was going to do it all right, you see. I was not going to make those mistakes, of course. My children and I would work as well together as peanut butter and jelly. They'd be models of "why you should stop birth control" and I'd never even raise my voice. I read reviews, did some research, and selected the One True Expert who Had All the Answers and who would Guide Me Toward True Parental Gnosis.

I began my quest for Parental Gnosis by trying to follow The Book. The Book, in my case, was Dr. Sears. I wanted to parent in a loving way that had structure, but never made my kid feel bad.

(SNORT!)

I know. Laugh away. It's cool. I know you are laughing with me because if you are a parent, I bet you dollars to low-fat Weight Watchers one point carrot cake (doughnuts being out) that, at least with your first, you too never wanted to make your child feel bad.

But then...the child pulled the cat's tail, or dumped your egg carton on the kitchen floor (more than once) (because you are a slow learner), or black markered your beige suede side chair or whatever it was that rendered you terribly human with a really loud voice and angry words.

You saw your small child cower in surprise, and yes, perhaps a tiny bit of fear of this Deranged Parent, and part of you grieved while the other part of you reeled in shocked triumph.

The Nice Voice and Nice Words had reached a power limit, and you found the new power: Mad Mom who Means Business and You Better Freaking Believe It or Else Serious Logical Consequences and I'm SO NOT KIDDING.

You discovered the power of kneeling eyeball-to-eyeball with your mischevious tot and saying, in a low, calm but serious voice, "This is a WARNING...do not do blah blah blah again or..." and you let your voice trail off while your eyes make threats.

You discovered the power of bribery. The power of limits and boundaries. And your parenting evolved.

At least mine did. My husband's too. By the time the second one came along, we both swore---in the same way we did to Always Lovingly and Always Kindly Parent our First Precious Angel---to not repeat the mistakes we made in that initial well-intended quest to be Perfect Parents.

For example, the second one would learn that the crib was not for clothing storage! it was a bed! for her! she had her own bed! in her own room! where she slept! without mom and dad! sometimes! before kindergarten...

Among other lessons.

We restyled our parenting and renamed it "parenting our way out of a paper bag." Our main technique was something we co-opted from the military called, "flying by the seat of our pants." We'd start out with a plan, and as much intel as we could, but we understood the enemy was crafty and might change directions and tactics at any moment. We promised to back one another up, and keep in good communication. We promised to never leave one another behind, and agreed that sometimes strategic retreat is sensical---live to fight another day.

This man-on-man style of parenting works well, usually, when we are together. But oh-so-often I am alone, and I have to resort to Zone Defense.

At these times, I ask the children to do more for themselves and each other. I might have soapy hands, washing dishes, and be unable to refill a water cup, so I say things like, "Mom's busy, you'll have to do for yourself."

And from this evolved my current style, known as, "Parenting as if I might get hit by a bus tomorrow."

Do you feel it? That sharper sense of mortality? Ever since you grew up and became a parent? Did you find new fears and concerns in life? Do you look at corners of desks and tables differently now?

They say it is because you have made yourself responsible for another life. You feel like you have something to lose that is more important than yourself.

They are right, I think.

If I allow myself to ponder the demise of myself, I am more concerned for the welfare of my children than I am for the loss of me.

"Whatever shall they do?" my mind wails, mentally wringing my lily-white hands, "However shall they go on?"

I think of my husband. Heretofore, I had not realized he was color blind or outfit impaired, but he is. He's excellent at brushing hair, but not so good at the styling of it, and his favorite food to make for the kids is mac-n-cheez with sausage.

Braiding? Precious little Easter dresses with bonnets, Mary Janes, and gloves? Regular portraits? Cupcakes for school? Not so much.

These are my strengths, not his.

His strengths are greater patience, and a greater willingness to rumble around and play with the kids. His concern is that the children be happy.

Thus began my teaching my children how to go on, on their own.

Every day I talk them through each thing I do. I teach them how to do it, and explain the importance of doing it. I ask them to do it for themselves.

And they are very good at it. They are tremendously independent and do so much.

Both children can get food for themselves from the pantry and the refrigerator.
I keep healthy food within easy reach, and tell them frequently the importance of eating healthy food first.

They can dress themselves, and Patience can even change Persistence's diaper. She can clip her own and Persistence's nails. They know the bedtime and morning routines, and Patience will tell Dad clearly if he makes lunch the way she expects. We're working on learning time, and how to read a calendar.

They are "sharpening their saws," and I am doing my best to help.

Not to be morbid (again) but I know that were I to be lost, they'd lose their female model. I have asked friends and family to please ensure they know how to do things they'll need to. They have extracted the same promise from me. It feels creepy, but also reassuring and responsible.

And that got me thinking (again, more).

Would my husband really let my kids go snarly-haired, ragtag dress, lunchables in the lunch kits every day, cavity-ridden teeth, off schedule for well-child check-up and so on if I were not around?

I seriously doubt it. I'm sure he'd step up to the plate, but as we all know or can imagine, doing parenting solo means some things get compromised.

I compromise many times every day, and that's with another parent bracketing the ends of each day.

And that got me thinking (yet again, even more).

Does the loss of a mom versus a dad matter to a different degree, in a different way?

Up to this point, I had pondered losing a parent in the same way: a tragic loss.

But perhaps, just perhaps, it's not an equitable loss.

I'm sure type of personality for the parent, age and gender of children matter in the weighing of it all, but it strikes me that in general, at my kids' ages, you tend to see more moms doing the little things that grease the wheels for a comfortable life.

Why is that?

Do moms naturally "mother?" Can dads fit into this same role, and do many of them simply step aside not because of a lack of ability, but because the job is already being performed?

Do these little things I value so much---eating how I deem "right," knowing certain manners, keeping tidy, and so forth---really matter?

Does a child in a schoolyard look more obvious if missing a mother, versus a father?

Do fathers worry about how their children could get on with things they (the fathers) would teach, if the father himself wasn't around?

My husband says that in all honesty, he doesn't think about it. Heart-wrenching Michal Keaton movie plots aside, he says it doesn't occur to him---at least not in the way it does to me---to worry about being mortal. He has a will, and a life insurance policy, and has set up as much as is possible were the unthinkable to happen. So with those safeguards in place, he shut that drawer and exists solely in the "parenting day by day" mentality.

I'm the only one who worries about teaching...just in case...I get hit by a bus tomorrow.

Lest you think that everything I do is governed by this mode of thinking, let me assure you it is not my overiding thought. It is merely a passing one.

My "hit by a bus" parenting is really more in the way of not wanting my kids to grow up, move out on their own and suddenly realize, "Oh SHIT! I have NO CLUE how to wash laundry/cook healthy meals/clean a house/pay bills/fix a garbage disposal/repair a tire/and so forth."

I recall plenty of young adults I knew being utterly mystified about the practicalities of life. For some, it never even occured to them to wonder how these things were done, or they had no idea they had some responsibility in such-and-such area because it was always magically done for them.

Although my parents spent ample time rendering me quite capable of many accomplishments, I still find myself forgetting tasks such as, "Oh rats! I'm supposed to drop ice and soap in the disposal once a month," after paying a repairman $55 to clean it. That's simply the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other things I forgot or never knew.

I know I can't do it all, all of the time, perfectly. I don't expect that.

I understand that, as with parenting, life is compromise and some things are more important to each of us in different ways at different times.

But I want to ensure that my girls have the basics down. I think, in general, my husband and I are pretty good at that portion, even though we might fly by the seat of our pants most of the time.

More than anything, I want them to know that, even if they didn't or don't have a specific person (say, me) to show them how to do something (say, make monkey bread), they are very competent and can figure out how to do it themselves.

And that's what I really mean by "parenting as if I might get hit by a bus tomorrow."

All text and images exclusive copyright 2006 by Julie Pippert.

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14 comments:

jen said...

julie.

i am standing up and applauding you over here. what an incredible post. and what an incredibly lovely mum you are.

you taught me something today, and you helped me feel a part of something bigger, as the similiarities between you and yours and me and mine are visible and spoken in a way that i might never have been able to do.

what a terrific post.

Julie Pippert said...

Thanks Jen, seriously, that comment rocked me. :)

bubandpie said...

I don't know anyone who has lost a father, but lots of my friends have lost mothers, and all of their fathers did exactly the same thing - married a more or less unsuitable woman within 12 months. Which meant that even the best of the more or less unsuitable women resented the hell out of the stepchildren who reminded her still-grieving husband of his dead wife, and reacted by refusing to allow the children to openly remember or acknowledge said dead mother.

So I've made hubby promise that if I die while the children are still at home, my replacement does not enter the home for at least two years.

bubandpie said...

P.S. You're supposed to put ice and soap in the disposal once a month? (This may explain that rancid smell in my kitchen...)

Mad Hatter said...

Weird. I've spent the entire day ruminating on the fact that Miss M is in the "MOMMY DO IT" phase of toddlerhood. I try, lordy I try, to invest her with a sense of agency but she is a wiley and adamant little devil at the moment. As you know, my thoughts have turned to mortality a lot of late. I'm just praying I've got a couple mor years to get it right or for her to grow out of this before I get hit by the bus. Fortunately, the transit system around here has a small fleet that never passes through my neighbourhood.

Great post.

jen said...

i came back to this because i am that smucky - and focused on the morbid side a bit more. i, too, worry. i, too, have that the mommy #2 discussion w/ J - (I like bub's 2 year rule a lot)

I also write M letters periodically and keep them all in a folder, the off chance she's got to weather things sans mother.

am not entirely sure why i felt compelled to add that, but there you have it.

Julie Pippert said...

B&P, you know...that's my anecdotal experience with widowers too: the rush to fill the vacant shoes, perhaps to forestall the feeling of grief? And less talking, too, about the grief, and the lost person. But, that's simply a few examples I personally know.

And LOL, yes, maybe not so often as once a month, but once a quarter and/or when it smells drop a big load of ice cubes and some dish soap down the drain and grind the disposal. It cleans it. Get a flashlight and look before and after.

Mad Hatter, thanks for the nice words, and you know, I have two kids who are so similar and yet so different it boggles the mind. #1 has typically been happy to have it done for her. I thought many things, but currently have settled on "am a perfectionist and would rather someone who can do it better than I do, do it" as the reason why. With her,I have to work very hard on the "practice makes good" philosophy...which is tough since she HATES TO BE TAUGHT and is stubborn as all get out. #2 will shriek my eardrums into pieces if I dare to try to do it for her ever, LOL.

Jen, oh my goodness, I LOVE the letter idea. Sometimes I think of my blog like that...maybe not specifically soley about my children, but about me, mothering, my opinions, my experiences, etc. A sort of window to me.

ITA about the 2 year rule...makes sense. DH has personal experience with a "married too soon after losing wife" sad story so I think he learned that lesson indirectly through another's mistake. I hope. I'll check. LOL

Gwen said...

I've met someone recently through blogging whose wife died in April, leaving him with three small children and he seems to be a million miles away from bringing an unsuitable replacement into the home. Which is good, I think, because like B&P, I also had some childhood friends who went through that. I've never thought about his experience in your terms, however, raising my kids to function without me. I guess a part of me wants them to need me; and I'm lazy, too. It's easier to do it myself.
This has definitely given me something to consider. Thanks!

Julie Pippert said...

Gwen, I think men of our generation are different than the previous ones.

In one of my anecdotal cases, the man thought he needed to provide an "instant mother replacement" for the kids. He wasn't used to parenting them, and didn't know what to do and it was generally accepted it was the woman's job, anyway.

And actually, "it's the woman's job/I need a woman" was part of the rationale in all the cases.

Masked Mom said...

Julie,

Wanted to let you know I gave this post a Perfect Post award for December. If you want the button code, just e-mail me at masked_mom@hotmail.com.

Have a great day & thanks for such a thoughtful post.

MM

Lisa said...

Julie, that was an excellent post. I'm trying to teach my son to do things for himself (important things, you know, like buttoning your pants and putting socks on and wiping properly), and I've asked him on occasion what his little 4-year-old self would do if I got hit by a bus tomorrow. He looks at me in puzzlement, like the concept of mama not being there is so far removed from his realm of experience that he can't even wrap his brain around it. But you and I know it *could* happen, and that's why we worry.

I don't think men have that same worry-about-the-future gene, or if they do, it doesn't work the same way for them.

Sandy. said...

I found you by way of Petroville, by way of Chilihead.

What a thought-provoking post. Unfortunately, I'm living the what if you get hit by a bus tomorrow. Okay, actually, it's more what if daddy dies in a helicopter accident.

Being he was the full-time parent and I offered support services (or "bracketed" the day as you so rightly put it), it's been a whole new adventure. Talk about flying by the seat of your pants.

I often wonder how things would have been different had I died instead of him. Oh yeah, the kids' clothes wouldn't have matched and they'd probably have long dirty fingernails, but would they be having more FUN? Probably. Would he have gotten through the grief quicker and with more grace, thereby allowing the kids to "live" sooner? Probably. Oh, the dangerous route our mind sometimes takes us in the world of "what ifs."

I second-guess my parenting now more than ever, since I no longer have someone to balance me out or pick up the slack. Parenting rests solely on me and that weighs heavy.

I often think he'd be doing a better job - in the big picture, that is.

Congrats on the "Perfect Post" award. It was well deserved. You made me think, and perhaps inspired my own future blog post.

Warmly,
Sandy.

Jenifer said...

I am tempted to send this post to my husbands ex-wife. I agree completely... and opt for a similar mode of parenting for my two children. However i have just "aquired" into my household a 16 year old step-son where this "making a responsible and independent person" mode of thought was nowhere to be found. So tell me how do you atrt making an independent person out of a completely DEPENDENT 16 year old? How do I make up for the time lost?

green3 said...

That was an awesome post, and you have just made a difference in my kids' lives. I will spend more time teaching them how to do things for themselves, rather than me just picking up the slack just because it's easier. Thanks for making us think about this.