Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Parenting - A Spectator Sport

John survived his four-year check this afternoon. Four shots plus the flu mist -- the boy worked hard for his stickers and Frosty. He was nothing short of angelic during the office visit. While John appears to have flunked both the hearing and the sight tests, he charmed the socks off the doctor and two nurses. Tho doctor made several comments about John's good behavior.

When John is being sweet, the glare from his halo could blind you.

Earlier in the day, I'm sad to report, sweet was overtaken by sassy, and John's potty mouth got the best of him. For about the ninety-seventh time this summer, I got A Bad Report about one of my children. ( Note to the reporter: Thank you! We can't address it if we don't hear about it).

So for the ninety-seventh time this summer, I found myself reflecting on the public nature of parenting. Do you ever feel that you're in the spotlight, and you'd rather avoid it? This is the story of Summer 2011. The highs (and I'm not just talking about the temperatures) have been high; the lows have scraped bottom big time.

Several years ago Elizabeth Foss shared a thoughtful piece about being on bed rest. She was expecting Sarah Annie, her ninth baby, and complications with the pregnancy left her attempting to run a house and family from the confines of her bed. Elizabeth compared bed rest to camping -- both experiences tend to expose the fault lines in relationships, to bring into sharp focus both the good and bad habits of a family. I couldn't find the column I had in mind, but, in summarizing bed rest, Elizabeth wrote:

I learned that you absolutely cannot expect your children will behave a certain way if you are not right there seeing that they do. Whether this involves how they use their time (television, computer, Xbox) or how they do (or don't do) their chores, children need close and careful supervision. Mothering in my house is a very active undertaking.

We have spent over one third of the summer out of town. What Elizabeth said of camping and bed rest,  I have found to be true of extended vacation. Want to see your every virtue and vice in living color? Try moving your family  -- an almost two-year-old, a choleric four-year-old, a mostly amiable ten-year-old, and an occasionally moody teenager -- into someone else's house for a month. Or into several different houses. Make sure dad is AWOL for at least half the trip. Choose a house on a lake and ensure that two of the kids can't swim a stroke. Double check that the place has long since ceased to be baby- or toddler-proof. Add record-breaking temperatures and biting flies. Sprinkle with a dash of marital discord. Let the whole mess ferment for approximately twenty-eight days.

Am I exaggerating? Unfortunately, not so much.

Out of our usual element, I suddenly found myself noticing habits (or lack thereof) that wouldn't have been quite so glaringly awful were they not on display in front of a live audience. Most of it caught me off guard.  Some of these were fairly minor. You think you've covered your bases,  and then you suddenly glance at a child who has just snagged one hot dog and approximately seventeen desserts at a family potluck. Haven't we been through this a few hundred times? Bahhhhhhh!

Manners and  helpfulness? Dicey, at best. Ability to stick to our family rules without a  parent within eye or ear shot? Questionable.

Hygiene? Let's not even go there.

Children thrive on routine. Routine is challenging to maintain at home and well nigh impossible to maintain when you're shuttling from house to house. Meals, nap times, bedtimes -- we did our best, which sometimes wasn't so great.

We dealt with a four-year-old who persisted in wandering off again and again and again. Our two-year-old lifted someone's lipstick and wrote all over a wall with it. I squared off with an older child who couldn't quite get the drift of  "Ask before you leave the house." One of the younger set would continuously let the dog out of her cage and then would climb in and eat the dog's food. Someone wet the bed, a bed that had no mattress pad or giant plastic Ziploc bag protecting it. A toddler repeatedly ran off with a cousin's I-Touch which precipitated meltdowns of epic proportions. Someone wrote on a piece of furniture. The lake beckoned the non-swimmers.

We spent a chunk of our vacation sharing a house with a very nice couple. The husband, however, repeatedly looked at Ainsley and said, "My, she sure is active!" This clearly wasn't a compliment. How many times do you say that before the mother (me!) wants to jump up and shout out the obvious translation: How did you manage to birth this undisciplined, tyrannical hellion? And Ainsley is, hands down, my easiest baby. Cease and desist already!

By the last day of our trip -- and this was the day the mercury hit 100, and the biting flies were merciless -- I was ready to strap the little ones into their car seats and spend the day driving around. They'd be safe; we'd all be cool; the flies couldn't devour us.

In the interest of full disclosure, we also had a ton of fun (all of which I detail here). We spent hours and hours floating in the lake. Kolbe landed a five pound Walleye! We took long, leisurely bike rides and hikes. We laughed and played cards and dug sand castles.

I also drank a glass of wine at five o'clock nearly every day.

One Sunday, while Dave was still in Georgia, I took the kids to Mass alone. They were the only children in the tiny church. The deacon smiled at us and commented how nice it was to have children in Mass. The following Sunday, we sat behind an elderly couple. They stopped us after Mass. "You have a lovely family," the wifed shared, "and they were so well behaved."

Mothers need to hear the good because, believe me, we hear the bad often enough.

Years ago, when I had one son, I watched a Christmas pageant with a friend of mine. This was my friend's moment of triumph -- her daughter had landed the role of Mary in the nativity play. Heady stuff for a Catholic mom -- I mean big, really big. And there stood her daughter -- flowing blue gown, white veil secured with bobby pins, piously gazing on the plastic baby Jesus ... and picking her nose.

My friend -- the mom of many and a seasoned veteran of foreign wars -- rolled her eyes, and we all shared a laugh.

This is motherhood at its best and at its worst. Sometimes parenting is, like it or not, a spectator sport.


Anonymous said...

Oh Kelly, I am with you on this one. Three thoughts: 1) travelling is REALLY stressful on families and children. If you were undergoing surgery or something equally stressful but No Fun, everyone would sympathise and give you credit for how well you're all coping. 2) I often wonder if people in bygone times felt so judgemental of children and thus of their parents? My grandparents and their generation seemed to take children completely in their stride, good and bad. Now, as you say, it can really be a spectator sport. 3.) I was once on an intercity coach sitting directly behind a boy with behaviour problems and his granny or perhaps carer. The boy got louder and more restless and began to fight with her, and even using some bad words. That boy could have been my son. I watched his granny get redder and redder, more and more flustered, and I knew exactly how she felt. I wanted to lean forwards and say, "It's okay, it doesn't bother me, I have one who's exactly the same, you're doing a great job." It just wasn't possible to do this (the Scots aren't known for such effusions) but I gave her a really big smile when I got off the bus. And ever after that, when I was trying to cope with my son in public, I liked to imagine that someone in the vicinity was a secret ally of mine. It did help me to relax!

Kelly said...

I totally agree with #1. Even good stress is stress.

I am much better about #3 since our family has grown. Sometimes I write the things I write because mothers appreciate hearing "You're not alone."

I will always remember the most intimidating presentation I gave during my years in big business. All the top dogs were present. One manager sat in the front row and smiled at me the whole time. It helped.

Amy Parris said...

Wow Kelly! Sounds like your vacation needs a vacation. I had one that was similar...only it was only a week, but I counted every single minute.

Glad you're home:).