July 12, 2007, 6:59 pm
Tags: parental guilt, showing up, working parents
I went to Visiting Day at my daughters’ day camp this week.
I had a lovely time.
I used some of the mindfulness meditation techniques that I’d learned recently in Yoga Nidra to keep out of my mind thoughts of the two-foot-high stack of papers I was scheduled to go through that day, which was one of exactly nine days I’d set aside for working on my now-two-years-overdue book.
The techniques worked very well. I was present to myself and my daughters, relished the feeling of the cold pool water on my skin, sang along heartily with the camp songs and, when asked to participate in gymnastics, connected so well to my long-betrayed inner child that I found myself cowering behind my daughter Emilie’s back, hoping that, if I dropped my eyes to the floor, I’d become fully invisible.
(As a teenager, I applied for a job as a camp counselor once. Under skills, I put “typing.” Not much has changed.)
I am fortunate to have a profession that, on non-deadline days, doesn’t require me to be in any particular place producing work at any particular time. If I miss a couple of hours of work or even an entire day no one necessarily notices – though my anxiety level is sure to rise and my bank account, if the situation drags on, is sure to dip.
Other people – most people – don’t live their work lives that way.
“My dad promised he’d come,” one of the 7-year-old girls complained, as we crowded together on Emilie’s towel, sharing cookies and Ritz Bits and sandwiches — in that order, unfortunately — at lunchtime. “He always breaks his promises.”
“My parents always break their promises, too,” another lunch companion chimed in.
Their eyes fell on Emilie.
“You know how it feels, Em,” said the first. “Your dad isn’t here, either.”
Indeed, he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. Max had a story closing that day and was chained to his desk.“What’s more important to him – work or us?” 10-year-old Julia had cried when I’d told her, the week before, that he wasn’t going to be able to attend.
We were in the car. It was the post-camp-bus-pickup cranky hour, and we were all a bit testy. It was also the end of a work period for me in which I’d been reading a whole lot about family leave – about the 40 percent of Americans who have none; the 50 percent who have no right to sick days; the 25 percent who get no vacation. I let Julia have it.
Don’t you think that Daddy would rather be running around with you in the woods than sitting at his desk in front of a computer screen? I snapped.
I lectured her on the unfairness of judging parents for things that were beyond their control. I lectured her on the injustice of presenting parents with demands that they can’t meet. I peppered her with rhetorical questions: Does the fact that I, with my flexible schedule, can manage to take a day off from work make me a “better” mother than another woman who can’t?
“Okay, okay,” Julia said, staring glumly out the window. “I get it.”
“Can we pause this now?” Emilie chimed in. “Can we listen to ‘Harry Potter’?”
Conversations about parents who break promises or let their kids down or generally make them feel less important than work shouldn’t be common. But they are. I hear snippets of them every time I attend a school event during the workday. And I’m fed up. I’ve just about had it.
But not with the ill-accused parents.
I’ve had it with a culture that willfully refuses to face up to the fact that almost 80 percent of mothers with children beyond pre-school age – and, of course, a much greater percentage of fathers – work. This refusal to face facts, coupled with the ideology of “parental involvement” as a panacea for all social ills, has created a situation in which not only guilt-ridden parents, but children are needlessly suffering.
It doesn’t need to be this way. It only takes a quick look across the Atlantic to see that many other countries have done what’s necessary to grow up and embrace the 21st century. They provide kids with a longer school year, a longer school day and subsidized summer activities. And they consider that a parent’s place is in the home – not in the classroom.
Parental involvement is key for school and life success and truly does need to be encouraged in struggling communities where parents aren’t able to be hands-on enough in their kids’ lives. But that’s simply not an issue for most middle- and upper-middle-class people.
Whatever need these parents have to “be there” for their kids 24/7 (and no one is more guilty of such neediness than me), we’ve got, for the greater good, to counterbalance it against the realization that meeting these needs – constantly – is creating an unfair situation in which some kids are left feeling like second-class citizens. (And if you think that young kids whose parents don’t show up for daytime events don’t feel – at least briefly – like second-class citizens, you’re wrong. They do.)
We need to push back against the trend toward excessive and inappropriate parental involvement that weighs so heavily upon families in certain communities. We should start by requesting – ever so politely – that school events requiring parental participation be scheduled in the evening. Or on weekends. And not too often at that.
Let’s get parents out of their school-aged kids’ 9-to-3 lives. It’s a cost-free solution to one of the major sources of family angst today. And, more globally, let’s grow up as a culture and face reality – so that our kids can grow up less stressfully.
Friday, July 13, 2007
July 12, 2007, 6:59 pm