Monday, October 13, 2014

The Changing Face of Child-Rearing

Mom got married at 19 and wanted kids immediately. She’d been the youngest of four and wanted about that many herself. My father was amenable to both of her desires, but wanted the two of them to be childless for five years before embarking on a brand new adventure. When it was time to have children, I came first. One of my younger sisters came two and a half years later, and the third and last came six and a half years after me. Had Mom not endured a week-long labor, plans were in the works for a fourth child.

My father made good money during my early to mid-childhood, allowing Mom to be a traditional stay-at-home housewife. He worked long hours and was never home much during the workweek. Until I was 9, she focused full-time on myself and my youngest sister, but seemed more content at the time to be mother than to be innovator. This isn’t to say that she didn’t take the time to rear us properly, but that she gave my sister and I the reins rather than express herself and her own creative acumen.

It has been noted that stay-at-home parenting is growing much less commonplace these days. My father’s parents were raised poor and never had the financial resources to make one income stretch for an entire family. In fact, my grandparents rarely saw each other. My grandfather worked the first shift at his employer for nearly forty years, a textile mill. My grandmother worked second shift at the same mill, making them both ships passing in the night until the weekend.

The phenomenon of only one parent working has always been beholden to those financially well-off enough to manage it. The average fast-food worker or migrant laborer likely cannot support children without the income of a spouse or partner. And for my own family, my earliest memories of my father are few and far between. He was never an absentee parent, attending my ballgames and school functions, but he always went to work before I woke up for school and returned late in the evening. These were happy times for him, which is why I don’t resent his distance. He believed he had made good, escaping the crushing poverty of his upbringing.

On a recent trip home, I noticed significant changes in my mother and both of my parents. I should add that they very recently have retired. The two of them were miraculously relaxed and upbeat in a way I had never seen prior to that moment. It was a restorative moment for everyone involved, even if only by observation and proximity. I couldn’t help but wonder if it merely took voluntarily quitting their day job after years of toil to reach a zen-like moment.

I notice now in my own mother a creative streak she rarely displayed before retirement. She held a very responsible job in a school system for years, one that allowed her to modify curriculum and put into practice progressive educational theory, but the work was very political and backstabbing. When a hostile group of local politicians took power, they considered her an enemy, or at least an impediment to their own whims.

Rather than be demoted, and dealing with her own physical problems due mostly to age, she formally retired a year ago. One could, I suppose, be understandably bitter about the entire sordid affair, but it has produced something very positive and uplifting in its place. Projects and passions long delayed have been allowed to flourish. I wish I had seen my mother's talents on display before now. She has many skills that amaze me with their complexity. Now that she has stopped working, she's taken on a variety of creative pursuits and and succeeded in each of them.

Some years ago, I got an inkling of her talent when I found a short story Mom had penned on a long-antiquated computer. I wish she had shared it with myself and my two sisters, but curiously never gave us any window into who she was underneath being the best, most flawless mother ever created. Since then, I’ve recognized that many women follow her lead, throwing themselves into being the best mother possible, and it comes at the expense of not merely their families, but also themselves.

I am not a woman, nor am I a parent, so I recognize my insight might be somewhat limited. Still, I can’t help but wonder how many mothers hurl themselves headfirst into parenthood at the expense of their complete autonomy. Numerous articles have criticized parents whose desire to be the best at child-rearing comes at the expense of nearly everything else. The intentions are good, but the same intentions are evident with the so-called helicopter parents who truly don’t intend to micromanage their children, but do so nevertheless.  

One round of statistics leads a captive audience in one direction, but a conflicting study points us in an opposite direction. For a few years, even though my mother wrung her hands about it, I was a latch-key child. Decompressing from a full school day in front of a book or the television, I learned to manage myself reasonably well. I missed the comforting presence of my mother, but knew she had only returned to work because my father took a sizable pay cut and she had no choice but to return to teaching.

The post-World War II days of housewives and husbands who come home from work at the same time every evening have been in decline for a long time. The influx of immigrants streaming across the border from Mexico cannot financially afford the middle-class dream. Poor and working class families have never been given this promised opportunity even fifty years ago. Aside from anomalies like stay-at-home mothers whose religious conservatism insists they remove their children from the sinful world, I see a vast decline growing evermore vast with each passing year.

My friends who have recently married and intend to have children will not have the opportunity to stay home with them. One of my doctors is married to an oral surgeon and they rely heavily on nannies to supervise and raise their three children. But the two of them are unusual, even for Washington, DC, and have a higher income than most.

I don’t observe anyone who is especially contemptuous of old ways, but I don’t personally know of anyone who could afford more than one child. I most assuredly could not. If this metric shows us anything, it may help prove that the middle class is shrinking. Ours is a vast, diverse country, which makes it difficult to prove or disprove existing trends. I live among alongside highly-educated professionals in a culture where women are stringently encouraged to establish themselves in a career before settling down and having children, if they have them.

But to reiterate, it is possible for mothers to be more than parents. It’s too easy, culturally, for women to submerge or deny their identities for the sake of some higher pursuit. Self-sacrificial behavior for the benefit of children has never changed. The same duty is rarely required of men, though I know many doting fathers who have taken an active role in the lives of their kids.

The egalitarian existence that I and others aspire depends on the presence and participation of men. I think I see this among some of us in an embryonic form, but among those of a different racial community to my own, it takes men who are not incarcerated or stuck in a revolving door of recidivism. That is the most crucial distinction of all.

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