“I didn’t say it would be a GOOD story”

“Daddy Daddy DADDY!” My son, abruptly, screams from the bathtub.  This is normal: the kids have baths every night, a nighttime ritual.  Nels will play for the better part of an hour by himself and then suddenly be overcome with either fear or imperious need for my husband.  His scream makes me want to hammer my own skull in.

I’m tidying up in the bedroom and I watch Ralph pause in the living room.  My husband has his back turned to me so it’s impossible to tell if he’s irritated or resigned or perfectly happy to enter the bathroom.  Nels’ demanding scream is a near-nightly occurrence.  He doesn’t do it to me, oddly, which is just as well.  Tonight Ralph waits a few beats then travels to the bathroom and addresses whatever it is our son needs.

A few minutes later while Ralph vacuums the living room (a near-daily necessity for a wife who spends a lot of time on the sewing machine) the kids find an online video game, something based on the old Space Invaders (or perhaps Asteroids) and called, unbelievably, Arse Race – including floating human posteriors that need some sort of rescue (the game is perfectly PG, just asinine).  I get praise from my friends and family for my mothering, but truth be told I am often rather torn.  Sometimes I feel like kids “should” be doing chores, “earning their keep”, washing dishes or sweeping if we’re doing the same.  Other times I think, fuck it, why not let them play Arse Race?  My brother and I did very, very little in terms of housework growing up.  I remember feeling a vague disapproval from my parents – sometimes a sarcastic remark from my father or a wheedling plea to do a chore from my mother.  And really, what of it?  We grew up, learned what it was like to keep our own lives, and we both do fine.

So when I think of it that way I often come to the conclusion the best thing we can do as parents is model cheerful, hard work when it comes to the house.  The kids can partake or not; if they don’t want to help in the evening, when they’re tired, they must also wait for the nighttime snack of homemade applesauce – or get it themselves – and know we won’t be snuggling up with a story or a B-movie until our work is done.  For the most part, cheerful, hard work isn’t hard for me during the day because I enjoy keeping house; especially when it’s part of my daily rhythm, of running, sewing, swimming, cooking, running errands, reading, cuddling with the kids.

It seems it’s the evening that housework can be the hardest; Ralph and I are tired but committed to order.  One day – and honestly, it will come so soon – our children will be out of our house and we will likely have all the freedom we occaisonally pine for now.  This is something I should try harder to keep in mind.

of sports and sport peppers!

The legend of the Wendigo holds that the creature who consumes the flesh of his fellow man gains the additional strength of the victim. Life with children is like that sometimes. My kids seem to get stronger and more active as the day goes on – no matter the number of walks, bike trips, swimming dates, and garden-play sessions they indulge in – and sometimes as early as 4 PM I’m ready to lie on the couch but at that point they want to crawl on me or, soon thereafter, eat dinner. By the time the meal is over it’s Ralph who takes over most the household chores; I admit defeat and although mentally awake my energy level has dipped; tomorrow will be another day.

Today the children and I spent an easy, sunny trip to Olympia with a friend J. and her daughter E. The children’s exploits set the pace for much of the trip: playground tomfoolery, a pier walk (Nels and I were adroit at spotting jellyfish), some time in the fountain (why is it although I fully support my children’s right to play in full public in their underwear I also feel the twinge of “neglectful mom” when I do so?), hot dogs from a very impressive little Chicago-style stand*, and a trip to the Hands On Childrens Museum. J. and I rated a ten-minute trip to the fabric store; but we did make determinations that were helpful and relevant to our goals.

I am glad my children had so much fun with a little friend, and a good enough time playing to their heart’s content (although when we got home it was play play play swim play play some more). But for selfish reasons I found the car ride wonderful in having time with J., a woman intelligent and progressive-minded; someone who seems to match me in conversation pace, empathetic drive, analysis, and interests. My mind and heart have been battling for some time now over decisions in the family: new journeys, additional responsibilities, identity crises. In my fashion I tend to research much, and discuss much, with the small but treasured few who provide me good feedback. I work and work and digest and then an answer comes forth. Today J. was someone who helped me along in these ways, besides being a genuinely pleasant person to spend time with.

This evening Sophie, despite missing a significant amount of swim lessons as her bike ride scars healed, passes her last session with flying colors. She has now graduated to “Flying Fish” should she take lessons in addition to the three to five days weekly at the pool on the swim team. My mother glows with pride tonight at our celebratory ice cream sundae – she’s so glad Sophie is such a strong swimmer. I’m just glad my daughter has found something she loves to do, over and over and over. Perhaps this is in part not merely concerning the character and health of my child but for my own sense of personal dissatisfaction in myself; that I am a flighty, purposeless person easy to succeed at many endeavors, easy to please in most as well; but someone who given some sort of discipline and focus might have accomplished “more”. Although I enjoy my day-to-day life – especially my freedoms – immensely, I have never given up the notion that a more rigorous and driven lifestlye would somehow lend itself to better rewards, although what these might be I could not say.

* My choices: veggie dog on poppyseed bun, sweet mustard, dill pickle spear, and sport peppers!

while you were dragging that stick through the dirt

I used to be into the Love and Logic books and methods for successful parenting – not so much now. As a result of a class we enrolled in over a year ago I’m still getting the program’s weekly emails, consisting of “tips” – alternately douchey, authoritarian-sounding advice (“Is Your Family A Team?”) vs. decent advice (“Looking Calm When We’re Not”) – and ads for seminars and products to buy.

Ultimately, I’ve decided L&L reeks of control and manipulation. I don’t think it means to, and I genuinely think some of the methods, when practiced by adults who have their shit together, are good ones; I’ve employed some of them. But Love & Logic sets up family environment as a conflict where no matter what the parent must TRIUMPH over the will of a non-cooperative child, a team sport where the grownups make sure they win out over their children through humane-seeming, but ultimately domineering, principles and occasionally ridiculous, cumbersome consequences meant to mirror “natural” ones (whatever that means).

Today I was thinking of the temptation to not want to be made a fool of by our children, while I hung up the kids’ clothes in the closet and they played outside. It was that little voice that piped up, they’re playing while you’re working, and it reminded me of my own family’s, “Kids need to learn…” mantras. As in, “kids need to learn things aren’t handled for them”, “Kids need to learn how to clean up after themselves”, “Kids need to learn their actions have consequences”, etc. etc. It took me a few years but now I feel genuine puzzlement or delight when I hear such foolishness. I was part of a “need to learn” upbringing, and in most ways I didn’t give a damn about doing housework or handling my own stuff – until I was an adult. I do housework joyfully and rather well, these days. Because being out in the world I made it my own.

These days – for now – I have come to believe young children’s best primary job is to play. Not to be sitting in a desk at school, or being smacked by other kids at free-for-all recess, or zoning in front of a television, or being shuttled about from fast food restaurant to t-ball game etc. No, simply to play – and if possible and appealing to them, outdoors. I have been continually astounded by my children’s imaginative abilities and desire to play: ten thirty at night, after bath, and my daughter wants nothing more than for me to take up her little plastic dinosaurs with her and make up elaborate scenarios for them. She still has steam; I am tired and ready to sip a glass of wine and watch an old movie. Most parents reading this will relate, and pause thinking how uniquely play-oriented our children are. Can we trust to nature and let them play?

Yes, meanwhile, the child grows and needs to be fed and washed and have their clothes mended.
Yet my children do more work voluntarily around the house than my brother and I did. I have dealt with the potential chore discrepancy and resentment rather successfully – so far* – through a few principles:

Number one, self-talk. I try to tell my kids why I do what I do, and this includes the work around the house. Kids learn what they see you doing; if they see you taking care of yourself, of them, and of the home in a joyful, matter-of-fact manner, they may adopt similar attitudes and behaviors.

Number two, again – freedom. Children being allowed to do what they want, and then fed a decent meal, you can sit down at the table and say, “Do you guys want to finish reading your book then come help clean up your room?” The answer has so far most always been Yes. If the answer is No you can ask them what, then, they expect to do? I have found that being agreeable to their wants and predilictions, combined with the self-talk I exercise, makes them ready in equal measure to assist in age-appropriate jobs around the house.

And number three: responsible ownership. My children have so few toys that there is no mess they can make in their room that doesn’t take about fifteen minutes to clean up. The kids seem to enjoy their room and the ease they can clean it; last week Nels even took the initiative to mop, in order to prepare the room for his favorite game, that of Restaurant (the children have named the establishment “Pumpkin Jack’s”). If my children learn, as I feel, that it is a joy to care for their material posessions and treasure them, they will be ahead of my young adult self when I gained emancipation.

It is in play, freedom, and autonomy that my children grow their personalities, pick the things that are important to them, and perhaps most importantly exercise their considerable – considerable – vigorous natures to a full extent. They remind me that the adult world is often a grim one of power plays and resentments; they encourage me to take a sip from their boundless energies and emerge refreshed.

* Altho’ I do notice the Universe often deals me a dish of, “Yeah, you think you got it figured out? Try THIS on for size” whenever I’m feeling peaceful and triumphant on a familial issue…

those spare, Socialist housekeeping tenets

I feel kind of chagrined that my husband did not mow the lawn before putting up our “Obama – Biden” sign – but I’m not irritated by this because, did you hear the part where I said he mows the lawn? Still, I’d like to look a little more “respectable” and less, oh, “welfare-recipient lazy Democrat”, and lawn care being a source of pride for many in Grays Harbor, I fear we fail in this regard.

I should confess here that I have never once mowed a single lawn (princess alert!) except one time, pregnant with our first child, when my husband taunted my expressed desire to cut our knee-high backyard with our old school push mower. For some reason (pregnancy hormones?) I took this as a slight and proceeded, in the sun, red-faced, to finish the job. It looked horrible of course, like my cat’s shabby ass when she’s been chewing on it during flea-season. Turns out those non-electric mowers are meant for the types who apparently always have short, trim yards and just walk about going snip-whisper when it’s 1/4″ above code (I picture some foppy overly-posh kind of a lifestyle when I think of this). In any case one of the reasons I haven’t mowed a lawn, besides being disinclined in this regard, is my fear of those whirling blades and rocks or whatever they might dislodge. Directly at my eyes.

Yesterday a woman stopped over for help with her sewing machine. On walking in she exclaimed, “What a beautiful home!” I was a little surprised, because I felt my home looked a little messy and disorganized (including children in underwear, not in school, playing on the floor) but I said, “Thank you.” My home has been complimented on its order and appeal but what most people don’t realize is their experience is not one of “nice things” but one of “less stuff”. Now, I’d been to this woman’s house and it was full of furniture, clutter, dogs and dogs’ detrietus – in other words, a typical American dwelling. Oh and I must say, a tremendous amount of McCain Palin signage in the yard… something I almost brought up because I have been loving political discourse lately. But I was first concerned with A. getting her machine fixed if I could, and B. getting my kids dressed and out on the bike.

Now that I think about it, in light of my ever-pressing desire to simplify, I guess one solution for the lawn is, possibly, pouring a ginormous slab of concrete.

as i said to my husband, relative job security

One of the chief universal aspects of parenting – very intense at least in the first, oh say decade of caring for young children – is the constancy of revolving concerns around the “Mouth-Gut-Anus”; shopping for groceries, preparing food, cleaning food up, a few years of diapers (an endeavor I didn’t much mind then but would like to avoid here on out), the various maladies and preferences our children display in their relentless puppy-like growth spurts. In today’s example I am privileged to work around the rare scenario where used foodstuffs are expelled the atypical way: yes, vomiting. Painstakingly shaking out pillowcases outside then washing in cold then hot water – ad infinitum, scrubbing the floor, taking off a mattress cover and shampooing the foam underneath.

More unpleasant than today’s activities cleaning the bedding, blankets, and clothing aftermath was last night, listening to my son every couple hours groan, awaken, cry and scream while choking on his own vomit. I alone knew something like this was coming; I sensed an illness within him yesterday when he woke up. His head was hot, his nose slightly runny but congested, his mannerisms peevish. By turns last night Ralph and I were up with him in that kind of effortless strength parents are provided, running baths, getting clean underwear, snuggling and reassuring the child. I remember, dimly, from my own childhood being kept up with an earache and the presence of my parents, the knowledge they were always there for me when I suffered.

Nels sleeps now (it’s after 11 o’clock) and I feel glad for his restorative powers (my children seem to possess in hardiness rarely seen in adults). Upon his waking I’ll bundle him up, mittens and all, for a bike ride out in the brisk clear autumn day.

"threshing herself to pieces over all the mean worry of housekeeping"

This morning a little after 8 my husband, daughter, and son rode off in my girlfriend’s minivan. Sophie to school, Nels and Ralph across the state to see about a wallaby.* As soon as I’d had my half cup of coffee I did the following:

Swept / vacuumed all floors
Watered and weeded the garden
Hung laundry
Re-washed stank laundry and threw out offending stank-gear that stanked the laundry up
Washed dishes, cleaned table, cleaned cupboards
Cleaned rat cage and tidied kids’ room
Took a bath and packed my bike for a roadtrip**

All of this done by 10:30 so I could go about the rest of the day.

My friend Shannon calls the work we domesticiles do “the Cinderella Chores”. At about day five in a row of backbreaking housework one can choose to die inside or decide, somehow, this work is worth it. It must be nice for the people who don’t do this sort of work, or don’t do it very often because their spouse does it, or they don’t have children to care for and who have conveniently forgotten they were once infants who had others do this work for them. You could trick yourself into thinking you were smarter or more accomplished or hardworking than, say, people like me and Shannon.

But of course then you’d come over and have dinner with us and think, wow, this is a nice family and Kelly’s a good cook and somehow family life is just easy and falls together. And you’d be a totally wrong asshole to think so.

For this morning: biking with my mom in the sun and against the wind, protecting oneself with sunscreen.

* Mercedes sedan we are interested in purchasing.

** In light of the weather’s caprice I packed gear to change into should it rain; of course today was a record high and so hot I wished I could have spent the day in my back yard, naked and cowering under an awning.