More Than Mom

Recently, I played a set of concerts with the vocal ensemble, Cantus. There were rehearsals, call times, and genuine ticket buying audiences. I did not plan on bringing my children to any of the performances. They are 8,6, and 4. Hot Swede would have to bring them by himself and he does not enjoy courting disaster.

After one concert, a friend of mine told me that I needed to bring my kids. I told her that they had come to a rehearsal and she said, “No, not good enough.” They needed to see their mom as a professional- in concert dress, under lights, making music in front of an attentive audience. I was immediately struck by the wisdom of her insight and grateful for it because it had not crossed my mind.

I take the raising of my children more seriously than I do anything else. I chose a career as a freelance musician and violin teacher knowing that I would want the flexibility when I had children. And when I got pregnant, Hot Swede’s job was the one with the health insurance so, duh, I stayed home.

As a woman of my generation and particular formal education, I have deeply engrained ideas about what it means to be a successful person; becoming a mother is a fine choice, as long as I don’t sacrifice my career. Being just a parent and spouse is not a valid option and is a waste of everything I’ve worked for and am capable of.

betty-draper

Another woman who would have benefited from a diversified identity

Well, guess what? That’s what I chose. I think it is the right choice for me and my family, but I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and little nagging voices that tell me that what I do isn’t valued or respected and that I should have nurtured my nascent career. But I know myself and I know that if I tried to build both career and family with equal priority, I would do neither to satisfaction and I would carry crippling guilt about the state of both. Still, I hate being in social situations where everyone is asked what they do and some polite follow up questions about their work. If I say that I am a stay at home parent, that is the end of the conversation.

So I don’t say that, because I do try to hang onto the person I was before children. I say that I am a violinist, but am mostly a mom now.  Up until last year, I taught lessons out of my home. (The reasons why I gave it up are for another post.) I play gigs for pay and chamber music whenever I get the chance and sometimes, I even practice. The hardest part is carving out the time and finding babysitters. But it is vital to remain true to who I am without kids, because, if I do my job well, they will grow up and leave me some day. And then what will I do?

The beauty of my friend’s counsel was that it considered the benefit to me as well as my children. Knowing that I struggle with balancing my identities as parent and freestanding person, it is important that my children become aware that I am more than their mother. I want them to know that I’ve made the choice to spend my years on them and that it is an action I take, not a consequence of their birth. As adults, they should know, if they or their partners choose a stay-at-home role, that doing so does not diminish the other facets of who they are or of what they are capable. And they should not readily sacrifice those aspects of self.

So, they attended the performance, because of the kind words of a friend and Hot Swede’s willingness to take the wheel of our family ship, Chaos. He told the children that they would have a surprise and they needed to be ready to go. I texted him when intermission started. The kids threw on their coats and shoes and got in the car. Their father drove the 3-minute drive to the hall and parked up on a snow bank, right in front of a hydrant. He unlocked the doors, pointed to the hall and said, “Run!” AJ got about 10 feet and stopped because her feet hurt. With no time to put her shoes on the right feet, Hot Swede scooped her up and ran to the hall, arriving just in time to usher them in quietly as the second half began. They stood in the back in their coats. I could see their huge smiles from the stage. Q gave me an enthusiastic double thumbs up. They were thrilled. Hot Swede backed them out of the hall after my piece, still carrying the misshod AJ, returning to his illegally parked car. I ran from the greenroom to meet them and thank their father for making it happen. I think Q sees me in a slightly different light- one with a touch of awe. That is just fine.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don't know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don’t know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

The Labor of Children

            My kids have chores because I want them to grow into functional adults. Also, I am mean and cruel and sneer like Cinderella’s stepmother. They sweep the ashes, black the stove, rub my bunions, slop the pigs and darn their own socks. Okay, I darn the socks (read: throw them away.)

Except I'm not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Except I’m not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Daily, they must make their bed and put their clothes away. On weekends during school, they each have one housekeeping job to complete per day. I choose the jobs based on what is needed, how long it should take to complete, and how much whining I can stand. Common tasks include: sort or fold laundry, pair mismatched socks, sweep a room, wash cupboard fronts, empty the dishwasher, pull a bucket of weeds, pick sticks out of the yard, and organize books. It is not much, but it takes half a day and half my daily allotment of positive energy to enforce it (which is why they only have one job.)

I started daily chores last summer. The first morning of summer break, they each woke up to a job list like this: bed, piano, small job, small job, big job. 7 year-old Q got a written list; 5 year-old Bear and 3 year-old AJ got theirs in pictures. Happy summer! (insert sound of whip cracking.) Mouths hung agape; tears welled in eyes; threats of running away were made, and then we had breakfast.

After 3 weeks of this, Bear and AJ didn’t like it, but they accepted it as a part of life that was just “toopee [stupid]” and horrible. Q, on the other hand, was shocked, SHOCKED each morning when greeted by a fresh job list. She fought it every single day, seven days a week. The week before school started, at the end of August, she was still appalled that she had to make her bed.

Q: What? Again?!

Me: Did you sleep in it last night?

Q: Yes.

Me: Then yes, you need to make it.

Q: Fine. I’ll just sleep on the floor.

Me: Well, that’s one solution.

 

Now, 10 months in, she still doesn’t like it (that’d be weird,) but she doesn’t raise a personal insurrection every day.

It's fun now            Children should do chores as soon as they are capable. My grandmother was in charge of making the family bread at age 6. She was too small to knead it, so she used to stand on a chair and beat the dough with a rolling pin, gather it all back up with her little hands and hit it again. I’m pretty sure that if 6 year-olds can make bread and young farm kids can be expected to milk cows, gather eggs, and muck out stalls, my soft city kids can fold clean dishtowels.

It builds confidence in skills that they will need when they are grown and (god willing) no longer living in my house. We all knew 18 year-olds who couldn’t do laundry, sew a button back on, or use a knife without fear of losing fingers. At some point, they will have to do their own housekeeping. Until they do, I want them to learn to appreciate what it takes when someone else does it for them. And I want them to leave my nest with the skills required to make one of their own. Then, I’ll be changing the locks.

Chores nurture self-confidence (which is earned) and independence. Recently, Q asked if she could help make an egg casserole. Because I knew that she had enough experience in my kitchen, I gave her the recipe, reminded her to tie her hair back, and she and Bear made the batter by themselves.  It was a banner moment for us all. They were proud of being trusted with a new task, and I was grateful that I had seen and taken the opportunity to let them try.

When I don’t want to hold them to their chores for their own sakes, or my own, I think of their future roommates and spouses. A grown up who doesn’t think to empty the trash when it’s overflowing and instead puts her empty chip bag on the counter is inconsiderate and kind of a pain. Yes, we can all be slobs, but we should know we are being slobs and know enough to not habitually inflict our slovenliness on others.  Non-slobs, I believe those people are called “childless”, are busy enough with their own garbage and don’t need to wade through someone elses’ who can’t be bothered.  My kids got so tired of me telling them, “Picking up after yourself is like wiping your butt or brushing your teeth- it’s just part of being healthy and living with other people.”

I am joyful as I watch them learn new skills, real skills that they will need everyday, or at least once a week, when they are grown. My biggest challenge is to continue expanding the chore list and giving them more and more complex and challenging work, as their skill and maturity warrant. My mom waited until my brother was 9 before making him plan and cook family dinner for a month. I can’t wait. Then I will sit on the porch, sipping a gimlet, whilst the youngest rubs my bunions.

 

The book, Cleaning House, reenergized my belief in chores. It is full of real ideas.

Moustache Day

mustache_tiff_by_incrediblealyssa-d3wkdtlMy husband calls in the late morning, “So, did you send the kids to school with moustaches?” Crap. Instantly, I feel like a failure. I had forgotten Moustache Day at school- this just-for-fun theme day that has never happened before but had to be scheduled the day before Christmas break, when there is nothing else going on. I was ashamed of, disappointed in, and disgusted with myself. The working parent remembered Moustache Day, but I didn’t. Isn’t this kind of minutia exactly why we decided I should stay at home? So that there was someone who’s JOB it was to answer all their questions, taxi them around, soothe fevers, keep us stocked with toilet paper, and draw facial hair on the second grader on December 20th? Arghhh!

I don’t think most mothers realize how fragile their mother egos are. (I didn’t include fathers because, in my experience, dads don’t carry around the same kind of guilt that mothers pack in with extra diapers and a clean set of drawers.) It seems that self-doubt and self-flagellation come with the territory. We all look at that parent who does that one thing better than we do, and instead of congratulating her on teaching her children complete sign language, in Portuguese, or instead of simply coveting her energy/patience/clean shirt, we do to ourselves what we would never do to our own kids. We look at ourselves and say, “Why can’t I be more like her? I must be [insert favorite pejorative descriptor: lazy, disorganized, not that smart, impatient, selfish, etc.]”

Well, I’m all of those things, and most days, I accept it. I also don’t have the mind of Carl Sagan or the bone structure of Gisele Bündchen, and that’s okay. Most days, I live comfortably with most of my shortcomings. My family is getting what they need from me. I’m doing okay. And then it happens- the little wisp of a breeze that topples the tissue house that ego built- Moustache Day.

I hung up the phone. The dust settled, and the wise part of my soul (she is very small) spoke up in her tired voice, “Get a grip. You got your kids to school on time, fed, with all their snow gear. They practiced their piano and got homework done. They went to bed at a decent hour. They are fine. You are fine. You covered the big stuff. Luckily, most kids forgive their parents’ mistakes, even the big ones. Lay off yourself and go make us some coffee.” And with that, my wispy mother ego was righted and there it will stand… until I forget snack day.