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I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit lately.
My kids are ten and twelve years old, and now I find myself caring for a 4-month old baby most days as a way to earn some money. This fall I advertised to provide child care for one infant, thinking it’s one job I know how to do and I can make some money at home while doing it. Anybody would be happy to have their baby in my care all day, I reasoned. I hold the baby. I don’t let him cry it out, ever. I feed him when he’s hungry, and I’m very attentive to when he needs a diaper change whether he’s wet or poopy. And when he’s awake (which is sometimes all day long), we play and talk and bounce around the room.
I’m doing, by my own estimates, a pretty good job with this little guy. And, also to my own thinking, having him around justifies my “still” being at home now that my own kids are growing older. (Never mind that I’m homeschooling my twelve-year-old Asperger kid, in the world’s eyes I don’t NEED to be doing that as there’s a school just blocks away. He could be there all day while I go out and get a job like the rest of the world…or so they say.)
There is so little respect for a woman, or man, staying home and doing the domestic things. The other night on 30 Rock, there was even a joke about this. Southern boy Kenneth gave one of his usual witty sayings. “That’s about as useful as a mom’s college degree!” was the joke, implying a mom had no use for a college degree. I laughed, thinking yeah, what did I get that college degree for?! I can take a joke. It didn’t offend me, but it certainly spoke to me of our culture’s general perception of homemakers and stay-at-home-moms.
All joking aside, I would never give up that college degree. It’s as important to my life as raising my children has been. I miss those days of studying and hanging out with friends 24/7. I miss the intellectual conversations I could have just by plopping into a chair in my college house living room and engaging one of my housemates. I miss being able to sit and read British Lit. or theology until tears streamed down my face from the eye strain. I have often wondered why I ever left college! It was my “glory days”, for sure.
When I look at my kids, both son and daughter, I picture them going to college. I imagine Eli as an engineer of some sort, maybe designing video games, maybe presiding over a wood shop making bows and arrows all day. I imagine Rose as the CEO of some fashionable company, able to boss people around and get things done, leading a life of continual busyness and socializing because that’s what she loves.
What I hardly ever take the time to imagine them doing is raising babies, or vacuuming the floors, or cleaning up dog vomit. Those are just things we DO in life. Nobody talks about them. Nobody makes plans for them. (Well, maybe the HAVING the baby part gets planned, but after that who can imagine all the stuff you’ll have to do with those babies?) And nobody seems to respect that they’re as much a part of our necessary life as all the college degrees and high-paying jobs we dream about.
Making and keeping a home and family take a lot of time. It used to be that EVERYBODY was home. Men, women, children, babies, animals. Everybody was doing housework, whether out in the field or garden, or hunting/gathering in the woods, or tending the fire and soup pot. The focus was on home, food, staying warm and dry and alive. It wasn’t until the industrial age that men started leaving the home in droves, to seek jobs building the railroad or manufacturing goods. And just a century or so later, women in large numbers wanted to “get out” too.
To my mind, that’s no surprise. Our highly mobile society had cut women off from not only their husbands who were at work all day, but also their families of origin and even friends and neighbors they might’ve had a move or two back. It’s lonely being the only adult around. And once some women went out of the house to work, it got even lonelier for the other women “back home”. I look out the window at my neighborhood and see almost no adult my age, male or female, during the hours from 9 to 5. (I see no kids, either, much of the time because even at the day care homes on my block the kids are inside or in a fenced-in backyard. When adults stopped being home, it seems kids lost a lot of freedom.)
When George and Rose were home for Christmas break last week, I enjoyed their presence more than ever. They became more arms to hold the baby, and more smiling faces to entertain him. I declared then and there that “one adult alone with a baby all day is insanity. Babies are meant to be shared!” It was like an epiphany for me, little good that it will do me. I don’t see society changing any time soon, to make more of us at home (depending on how bad the so-called Great Recession becomes, though). And now George and Rose are back at school and it’s just Eli and me home with the little guy all day again. It will be fine, but it does seem over-bearing and I feel as if I’ve lost all freedom (the key word is “feel” there–I think it has more to do with cultural pressures than actual loss of freedom).
So to get back to my original question and the title of my post…Why don’t we think more about raising our children to be parents? Why don’t we see it as the highest calling that it is, and get as serious about preparing them for it as we are about preparing them for the “real world”, aka school and jobs?
For indeed, most of us do become parents, college degree or not. Most of us do end up vacuuming floors, cleaning up after pets, and doing what has been called the “hardest job of all”, raising babies. Yet in today’s world we do it woefully unprepared and woefully short of respect, support and help.
I know there is a fringe culture, namely Christian fundamentalists of a certain ilk, who are raising their girls to be submissive wives and doting mothers and homemakers, and their boys to be providers and heads of household. I have had many glimpses into this world as a homeschooler and a curious seeker into the lives of others through their writings. A few blogs on my blogroll come from this fringe group, and there’s one I found recently, The Aspiring Homemaker, which is written by a homeschool graduate girl of 18 who calls herself a “stay-at-home daughter”, learning the so-called “gentle arts” of domesticity and waiting for her knight in shining armor. (That sounds derogatory, “knight in shining armor”, doesn’t it? Not a hundred years ago the majority of young women lived at home until they found a husband, doing exactly what The Aspiring Homemaker is doing. It should certainly be her right to choose to live her life in that way and I don’t mean to put it down.)
But should it be that only fundamentalist Christians (and by no means all of them), with their limited views of gender roles, are the only ones raising up the notion of the domestic arts? Indeed it’s not the only place you find it. Martha Stewart gets much credit for doing this, for placing value *again* on so-called woman’s work of cooking, baking, sewing, keeping house, etc. But she does it all, perfectly no less, while running a Fortune 500 company and sleeping four hours a night. She presents a model of “having it all” that is all too common and all too exhausting in the current Western, particularly American, world.
I think there can be a middle ground between the submissive wife/homemaker that goes along with the head of the household husband, and Martha Stewart’s model of perfection and having it all. We hear talk of there being “seasons” to our lives, time to go to school, time to work, time to have babies and raise them, time to pursue a career. This can be a middle ground, but only if the time of being home doesn’t take a lesser place than the rest of it. By no means do I suggest all women should again stay home, anymore than I suggest men do. But I would like to find ways to elevate what I’ve been doing for nearly 15 years now, namely being home, and make it part of the conversation with my children.
I’d like to raise my children to become parents, and maybe do other stuff too…
How can we go about that? I’d be interested in any ideas you might have. But one way I’ve been thinking about it is to at least start talking about it with them. At least as often as I say to them, “you must do this to get into college”, I’d like to say to them, “here is how you hold a baby”. At least as often as I dream of my daughter running a company, I’d like to talk to her about establishing a housekeeping routine. With at least as much emphasis as I put on her about making money someday, I’d like to show her how to balance a checkbook and budget for groceries. At least as often as I imagine Elijah being some guy in the woods building his own cabin, I’d like to see him (and talk to him about) bundling up his baby and carrying him/her in a backpack through those woods. And at least as often as I picture my son being a computer geek, I’d like to picture him making beds and cooking dinner too.
I need to start PICTURING my kids as spouses and parents, in order to help them get there. And whenever I talk to them about it, I’m sure to add that this Grandma will want to help out as much as possible! I’ll be there.
We’re off to the Bluegrass Festival this weekend. In fact, we’re already there. Sort of. This morning we went to set up camp, but then Elijah and I had to come back into town so he could go to Cartooning class from 1 to 4 this afternoon. We’ll be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon, coming back into St. Cloud for his Paramount Arts Center class (we have the best arts in St. Cloud!). But other than that, we’re relaxin’, jammin’, dancin’ and just plain enjoyin’ a weekend of Old-time and Bluegrass music. Last year, I wrote about the Minnesota old-Time and bluegrass music festival here on The Zahn Zone.
Before I leave, I thought I’d post a few photos of what we’ve been up to this summer, besides painting and working on the house that is. I’ve been away from blogging too long, I know!
George and I celebrated our 14th anniversary in June.
We had our simplest celebration ever–our favorite pizza and a stroll through the gorgeous Clemens Garden in St. Cloud. It was really nice.
The whole family sat in the hot sun all day to see Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion Radio Show live in Avon, Minnesota on the 4th of July. It was pretty good fun.
I’ve sold vintage aprons and some other old stuff a few times at this flea market.
The kids learned to groom and ride horses at horse camp at Hillcrest Stable.
We went to an SCA camping event in Boscobel, Wisconsin–Warriors and Warlords! (for Elijah’s sake…)
My mother and father-in-law came for a few days, from Virginia.
They had stopped in Chicago on the way and got these glasses for the kids.
We visited the White Garden with them, too. Everyone has to go to the Gardens in St. Cloud!
And then we took them to Duluth, to wave at the boats with us.
Now that it’s August, I’m hoping to do a lot of the above…
I’m stealing this post idea from Sarah over at Clover Lane, a blog I recently found which is just delightful. Today she wrote about her past experiences as a nanny, and it reminded me of the summer I was a nanny for wealthy families in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
Way back in high school, during one summer break I was accepted into a babysitting agency. I remember the interview with this little old lady who ran the agency. She was the type of woman who was maybe not so rich herself, but you could tell from her dress and demeanor that she wanted to be. Running a babysitting agency for wealthy families gave her a type of “in” into the lives of the rich that she likely enjoyed.
She was very prim and proper, and she made sure that we sitters knew the rules of proper behavior amongst the rich. (Namely, your job is with the children, do it well and stay out of the way of the adults who have important.things.to.do.) While I knew my manners, and loved the children, I had some real issues with this lifestyle of the rich that I was supposed to just observe and accommodate.
Some people were very nice to me. I remember one couple who were a bit older, had just had their first baby together, and adored him. They were very kind and the mother, at least, made it very clear that she hated to leave her baby at all but she had adjusted her schedule to work part-time and she needed to do it. Likely both parents had important careers, but they had their priorities right it seemed to me and they loved their baby boy. I only babysat a few times for them, in their lovely but not ostentatious home.
There was another family, however, for whom I nannied for a full month while they were between full-time, live-in nannies. The mother was a high-powered Buyer at Dayton’s, Minnesota’s very best late, great department store (for which we all still mourn). The father had some sort of seemingly less powerful but still time-consuming job. They were never home.
I arrived at their home at 7 a.m. and stayed until 7 p.m. five days a week, and they would’ve liked to have me on weekends too but I couldn’t work that much. I fed their two young and beautiful boys all three meals of the day. I was responsible for their non-stop entertainment and educational pursuits. If the mother called and we were watching TV, I could sense the pursing of her lips and restraint in her voice as she encouraged me to get them outside, or go over their abc’s some more. (I’m sorry, I was with these boys twelve hours a day, unlike you madame, and sometimes I needed a break! Even then as an 18-year old…)
Now, those boys and I did have lots of fun. The family lived near Lake Minnetonka and their “mansion development” had walking and biking trails on which we could drive the requisite, every-family-has-one, golf cart. We spent lots of time down at the lakeshore, riding the golf cart, and playing on the playgrounds. I’m sure I didn’t do enough school work with them to satisfy the mom, but then you all know I’m an unschooler now and even then I thought summers were for a break. I loved those boys and my heart broke for them many times over.
Their parents were so obviously unhappy. When they were home, they were usually throwing adult-only dinner parties (one time the mom asked me to shop for that night’s dinner party ingredients. When I came home brussels sprouts-less, she was so angry with me. I told her the store didn’t have any, but the truth was I wouldn’t have known a brussels sprout from anything back then!) or, I suspect, they were fighting. It was obvious to me, from the little I saw of him, that the dad was extremely unhappy with his marriage and probably wanted out. He disliked me in a big way, too. I was another stupid decision his wife had made.
But their home was lovely with nothing but the finest Oriental rugs and heavy furnishings. Their clothes and hair were lovely. They took fabulous vacations. They lived on two acres of pristine grass, within a stone’s throw of one of the best lakes in the Twin Cities. They didn’t have to lift a finger to wash dishes, do the laundry, mow their lawn, wash their cars. Not even, I dare say, to take care of their children.
A little illustration of that point–near the end of my time as their nanny, and just before a family vacation to visit with Grandma, the mother asked me to take the boys to the barber shop for a haircut. I don’t think she even knew where the former nanny used to take them, so she suggested the barber shop in the nearby village. I brought them in to the old guy that ran the shop and said “just give them a regular boys’ cut”, having no idea about boys’ hairstyles (I still don’t, even with a husband and son now). For that barber, a regular boys’ cut was pretty much a buzz job. I still thought they looked cute. But when their mother saw them, it was all she could do not to become furious with me. Her mother was going to see them looking like this! What had I done?!
When the family found the young woman who would be their new full-time nanny, I spent a few days “training” her in. I said nothing in warning about how life would be with these people, but I suspect she found out soon enough. Or maybe she expected it, being a regular nanny and all.
I walked out of that house for the last time with no regrets, happy to be out of there. I wonder what those boys are up to now? I hope they turned out okay, and know they’re loved. But I can’t imagine it was easy.
My nanny experiences were yet another life lesson in getting my priorities straight. I can be thankful for that.
Many people who’ve read my Zahn Zone blog and seen my apron photo as the header have commented on the aprons. Everyone loves the aprons. I love the aprons. I would call them a collection if I had more than–let me count…eight–of them, and if I were a collector, which I try not to be. I only buy aprons that cost 50 cents or a quarter, which is a rare find these days and happens only at the occasional garage sale. (I still kick myself, though, for years ago passing up boxes of old gingham aprons for a quarter apiece at the secondhand store in our former little town in Iowa.)
Those old gingham aprons, with their carefully cross-stitched decorations on them, are my favorite. For some reason the ones I find generally look new and unworn. Were they ever actually used for their purpose? Or did the ones that got used get so threadbare they were turned into rags and then thrown out? Sometimes I think about these things, and about all the women who came before me, putting their spare time into making a pretty apron and then wearing it around their home.
But the main reason I like the aprons is that they remind me of my grandma. I don’t actually remember Grandma wearing aprons, but they remind me of her because they remind me of home, and homemaking, and they give me that feeling of nostalgia for my childhood past.
Grandma’s house was just one block from ours and her home felt like my home. Grandma (my mom’s mom, still alive and 90 years old) was a constant presence in my young life. Since I had a deadbeat, non-existent dad and a mom who was emotionally distressed and obligated to work to support herself and two little kids, Grandma was my caregiver.
Now, Grandma was no Martha Stewart-type homemaker. Her cooking was pretty adequate but she didn’t like to do it. She didn’t sew (mom was the fabulous seamstress) or knit or cross-stitch. Her home was nice in a cluttered, old-lady sort of way, nothing fancy. And while Grandma likes pretty things, I wouldn’t say she had a sense of “style” as is the fashion today.
The thing is, though, at Grandma’s house, everyone felt welcomed. There were always cookies in the cookie jar, whether store-bought or homemade, and coffee on at 3:00 every afternoon. There was always a big smile and hello when someone came to visit. And Grandma was always happy when I brought friends over to make forts in her basement or play ball in the vacant lot next store.
What this says to me, is that the most important part of homemaking isn’t the stuff a homemaker does (nor is it the stuff a homemaker has, like aprons, though those things are necessary and fun in their own way). It’s not about being the perfect seamstress, or cook, or even the perfect hostess. To me the homemaker is the one who is home. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Home to welcome the kids. Home to take care of the day-to-day things. Home to visit with friends and neighbors and serve up the snacks.
My grandma was home. A lot. In fact, since she didn’t have a driver’s license she was almost always home when Grandpa wasn’t. It was with Grandma that I baked cookies. With Grandma we kids walked to the ice cream shop for treats. It was Grandma who said my bedtime prayers with me so many nights. I feel that my Grandma’s greatest gift to the world, and to me, was her constant, dependable presence at home. The world sure doesn’t recognize that kind of gift much, but for my life it was essential.
And so here a post about my apron “collection” turns into a tribute to Grandma. It’s long overdue. She turned 90 last year, and I hope she knows how loved she is.