Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Parenting in a fishbowl

Nobody said parenting was easy. Most people, instead, say it's the hardest thing they've ever done. It's exhausting, exhilerating, humbling. And it changes you.

But this isn't a post about the lovely and transformative powers of parenting or a flowery exposition about how much I love being a mommy. (I do, but that's not what I'm here to say today.)

Our modern, middle-class world is very different from life just 100 years ago, and is so totally different from the many centuries and millennia of human culture before that. Where humans used to live in tribal groups, we now live in cities and towns with larger populations but more separation between nuclear family units. Where humans used to live in multi-generational groups, we now have mom, dad, and two kids (or any other variant thereof - please don't flame me and say, "What about two dads, or single moms, or whatever else?" They're in my mind. I promise.)

New mothers used to have a lot more experience with small children. New mothers used to have sisters, aunts, and other women to show them the way. If a woman could not nurse (or raise) her own baby, another woman would step into that role. And I'm sure that was great.

But that's not who we are now, as a species. Or at least not in middle-class America. (Yes, I know there are exceptions. Stop arguing with me!!) Most young women have not seen a real, live birth until they give birth themselves (and maybe even then they don't see it...I didn't). Most young women have never witnessed breastfeeding (except maybe as very young recipients, if we were lucky). Many young women have never changed a baby's diaper until they're changing their own baby's diaper (this one shocks me, since I was the queen of all babysitters as a teenager). (And I'm not even going to describe how much less most young men have experienced of providing child care.)

So we're not terribly well-prepared to be parents.

That being said, most of us muddle through all right. When I shared the pulpit on Mother's Day with our minister, Bill, he made a good point. He said, "This is what I’ve seen, anyway, not having any children. I’ve noticed that parenting advice from people with children to people with none tends to end with something along the lines of, “you’ll be fine, you’ll figure it out.” Sometimes there is a lot of advice leading up to that point, sometimes too much, but it often ends there, with a gentle realization that mothering or fathering is something that has to be lived to be learned." (Full text here.) And he's right. Most of us are fine. We do figure it out.

But we also sometimes have a hard time, and the well-meaning advice we receive from the audience (family, friends, the internet, that woman in the grocery store, etc.) can make it worse. Other bloggers have written about it, and the new word "assvice" was coined.

So what do you do when you see that young mother struggling at the grocery store, toddlers on the go, holding onto her temper by an ever-shrinking thread? Do you speak? Do you hold your tongue? What if she asks for help?

I've been that mom, and I've seen her, too. I've received all kinds of advice, as much of it good as bad. I've certainly given my share as well. But I've clammed up, too, and sometimes I regret my silence.

What I try to remember is that the older lady in the grocery store who complimented my children, the hygenist at the dentist's office who told me I'm a great mother, my mom telling me that she loved watching me interact with my kids, their words stayed with me.

And I try to be that older lady in the grocery store. I make eye contact with that struggling young mom. I smile. I sometimes even tell her that she's doing a great job.

Because sometimes just keeping your head above water is enough.


uuMomma said...

Oh, do I remember those days, as if they were...two days ago. But that's a whole 'nother blog entry.

I do remember the worst time of al was when it was time to leave the park: I'd be carrying one, holding firmly to the hand of a second, and hoping to God the third would be willing to walk alongside me without a melt-down. With this in mind, one day when it was only my youngest and me at the park, I saw a woman doing the same dance I'd done many times with a screaming toddler. I walked up to her, smiled broadly and said "I'm not a wacko, just a mom. Would it help you if I carried one of your children for you?" As soon as I did the one who was tantruming stopped. The mom allowed me to carry her not-screaming child so she could pay attention to screaming child. My daughter was old enough to walk alongside me and later said, "Mom, why do you do these things?" as if I had just thrown the baby into the road or something. "Because," I told her, "sometimes moms just need a third hand."

Jenn said...

"Can I help you"?

Sometimes the simplest words are the words we most need to hear and say.

Jennifer said...

I only offer help if I get that desperate look! I know I've given people that desperate look, hoping for help or just a kind comment.

Anonymous said...

When one of my kids is driving me batty, I try to diffuse my frustration by asking "Kid, stop acting your age!"

Becasue I remember years ago when my own mom said that to me and it makes me smile now.


Noodle said...

I have often offered that third hand that uumomma mentioned, whether it's getting packages to the car or helping settle a screaming child in the cart at Target.

I've taught my 9yo boy and 5yo girl to help do the same, since sometimes it's easier for a child to settle when a child is the one engaging him/her. It seems less invasive, I suppose.

At first my (now) 9yo thought it was weird, but I've never been so proud when he's turned to me and said, "Hey, I think that little boy needs some help. Think I should go talk to him?"


Anonymous said...

I never thought of having a child offer help! What a good idea! Obviously, your child "got it!"