Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.


Apr 9 2011

Standing Up

“Four bad things happened today,” Short-pants announced when I went to pick her up at school one day last week.

I resisted the urge to re-direct her to what was good about the day – an evaluation method I use in my profession suggests a thorough inventory of the positives before listing the concerns – instead, I let her tell me everything she wants to tell me, in whatever order she preferred. I want her to develop the habit of confiding in me. Correcting her syntax about how she reports the day’s events won’t help to keep the channel open. We’re still years away from her sullen adolescence, but I’m planting any seeds I can.

The liabilities of the day were not so grave, for an adult. She even seemed to have them in perspective. They annoyed rather than upset her, although the boundary between those two territories is rather thin. Somebody – a boy who often picks on her – was pulling on her hood as they climbed the stairs. When she turned to ask him to please stop he gave her the French shrug: “I didn’t do anything.”

Later in the lunch line, two girls behind her tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, acted as if they’d never touched her. “It bothered me,” she said, “that they would actually think I didn’t know it was them.”

And so it begins. I’ve suspected she’s a target for teasing. And since teasing often leads to bullying, I wonder if that’s possibly what’s ahead.

The other two incidents were equally benign (and probably normal) on the scale of mean things kids do to each other, but the accumulation of wasted gestures and silly pretending put Short-pants in a bad mood.

“Why do they pick on you?” Buddy-roo asked later, when we were talking about it at dinner. “Because I’m an outlier, a bit of a loner,” she answered, matter-of-factly. I regarded her with that mixture of pride and confusion. How amazing that she can so coolly describe herself, and how does she know that about herself?

“Papa told me I might get teased a little and that would be why.” I’m glad she talks to De-facto about it, too. She’s getting feedback from two genders of sounding board.

A few months ago I purchased a book and tucked it into my closet, waiting for the day that it would seem relevant to pass on to her. This felt like it was the right day. Despite the fact that it is from the American Girl franchise, one that’s over-the-top merchandising horrifies and impresses me at once, it is a well-conceived text. Straight forward, plain language, esteem-building advice for young girls about bullying, being bullied or just observing the act. Short-pants is a bookish type, you can talk to her about anything, but if she sees it in a book, it reaches some understanding place deeper inside of her than simple conversation can penetrate. So whenever I want to help her out, or make a point, I find a book about it.

She read the title of the book, Stand up For Yourself and Your Friends, and squealed with delight, “American Girl!” She cares little about the dolls and their accessories but has devoured the books – which contain great stories portraying how girls in other generations have grown up. She ran upstairs and I didn’t hear from her for over an hour. She read the whole book in one sitting. And then read it again. She came downstairs standing tall and empowered.

I have been waiting – obviously, since I bought a book about it – for the days when Short-pants would be teased at school. There have been a few incidents, the perpetrator always one of a handful of predictably mischievous boys. But what disturbs me is that maybe the girls are starting now to pick on her, and when pre-adolescent girls start, they get worse. And when they get mean, they get mean.

Up until now, the fact that she’s so sweet and kind and a little quirky has seemed to amuse her classmates as much as us. She is a loner, but not because other kids didn’t ask her to play. She often refuses their invitations, opting to wander around the school courtyard on her own, making up her own poems and rhymes, plunging into her rich inner life. But there you find the catch-22. As she refuses, repeatedly, they cease to ask her. And the less she is “with” them, the greater the odds that they will turn “against” her.

Whether kids are the most popular in class, the geek, the jock, the brainiac, the chatterbox (that would be Buddy-roo) or the loner, there is no way to protect them from the backlash of their particular role. The popular kids will be envied and bad-mouthed, the jocks adulated in person but derided behind their back for their “lesser” intelligence, the geeks ignored but stereotyped nonetheless. Protection is useless; it’s even counter-productive. The trials of childhood graduate to those of adolescence and prepare us for the occasional cruelties of life. How else would we thicken our skin?

I know I can’t protect her. But I can help her to be prepared, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. The question is, how do I prepare myself?