Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

5920123882_08625a21cb_zI love this series of photos of empty nesters standing in the room their kids used to live in, which was recently written up in Slate. The project, by Dona Schwartz (who also took a series of photos of couples at the other end of parenthood, standing in the rooms they were preparing for the babies they were about to have), is a fascinating one, trying to capture the emotions of this particular rite of passage using images rather than words. But there’s a weird sameness to the photos, too, and I can’t figure out whether this is reassuring or discomfiting. Almost all the couples (and one solitary mother, who is either divorced or widowed; the text doesn’t say) stand side by side in the bedroom of their college-age son or daughter. Maybe it’s because the kids are still coming home for school breaks that the beds are still there, though some are piled so high with boxes, books, and clothes (and, in one case, a discarded exercise ball) that it’s hard to imagine Junior actually finding any place to sleep.

The only couple that’s gotten rid of the bed is the oldest one, whose children have been out of the house for five years. (The length of empty-nestdom in these families, at least those whose photos were used in the Slate piece, ranges from two months to five years.) No one in these photos is smiling. Is that the way they really feel when they go into their children’s empty rooms, sad and lonely and regretful? Or are those hangdog expressions just the ones Schwartz chose among the many photos she took of each couple, because she was trying to say something about how it feels when a child grows up and leaves? Her own picture, alongside her partner Ken, is the last one in the Slate collection. She says her somber expression is largely because she’s sad about the end of this interesting project. But shouldn’t she and Ken be a little more elated now that the last of their SIX children has flown the coop?

The expressions of these empty nesters are a contrast to the ones Schwartz caught in her series of parents-to-be. While there were a surprisng number of serious (frightened?) expressions among the younger subjects, about half of them were smiling, some quite expansively, as they looked happily into the future, their eyes shining and their faces lit with expectation.


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Nutmeg and I have started a book club, and last night we had our third meeting to discuss Room by Emma Donaghue.  (I think Nutmeg and I loved it a little more than the others did, but we had a rousing conversation even with those who were a little less in awe of the book, which I still heartily recommend.)  In the course of our book talk, we ended up talking about The Bridges of Madison County, a book Nutmeg picked up the summer before she went to college, read without knowing anything about it, wept, and proudly announced that when she went off to college she would have a ready answer to the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite book?”  Easy, Nutmeg said; her new favorite book was The Bridges of Madison County.  To which Meta promptly replied, “That book is crap.”

It was a funny story, and it was germane to our discussion about whether Room is a gimmicky book like The Bridges of Madison County or some Stephen King books, or whether it’s something better.  But I took it another way.  As we laughed at Nutmeg’s story, she said something that made me a little sad.  “Yeah, she knew it was a dumb book.  That’s because Meta was the smart one, and I was the stupid one.”

That’s not exactly true, but it’s truer than I want to believe.  Meta was always super-smart, almost dysfunctionally so, and she was a tough act to follow, even for Nutmeg, who was really smart, too.  Meta always was reading, inhaling Shakespeare and Victor Hugo from a very young age, and Nutmeg liked books but had other things she preferred doing.  I tried to deny that we had typecast the girls quite so blatantly, but Nutmeg was insistent.  “Remember that card Dad made when Meta graduated from college and I graduated from high school?” she said.  “That was the running joke — she was smart and I was sporty.”  She smiled as she said that, and it looked like an  authentic smile — but this morning I’m not so sure.

I was especially sensitive to this whole idea of typecasting and favoritism at the book club meeting because I had, just hours before, had a long phone interview with a sociologist who’s spent the past 20-plus years studying the effects of parental favoritism, both on the parent and on the child.  She told me that almost every mother she interviewed (who were generally in their late 60s to early 80s) was willing to admit that she preferred one child over another along at least a couple of dimensions.  They were responding to questions like “Who do you feel closest to?” and “Who would you call in an emergency?” and “If you need caregiving, who would you most like to provide it?”   Just recently she started asking another question, an especially fiery one: “Which child has most disappointed you?”

And here’s the thing: the preferences are normal, and inevitable.  But the “kids” (who in this study were generally in their 40s and 50s) suffered as a result.  In families in which the favoritism was most extreme, the researchers found, kids were most likely to have psychological problems like depression.  And this was true whether or not the kid in question was the most favored one.  In other words, in families where it’s clear that Mother prefers one kid over another, it’s just as oppressive to be the chosen child as it is to be the unchosen one.

All of which makes me wonder: when we joke around with our kids about which one’s smart and which one’s sporty, when we make the suggestion to one of them that the other one’s driving us crazy, when we babysit more for one son’s kids than for another son’s or give one daughter a necklace that the other one wanted, are we doing more damage than we know?  In that same hand-made graduation card that Nutmeg referred to last night, iDaddy and I had included the line, “and they loved them very very much, and exactly equally.”  Because we did — we do — love them equally.  But is that enough?

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Articles that make sweeping claims for an entire generation make me crabby, and the essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine was no exception.  It was by Judith Warner, who isn’t usually prone to over-generalizing, and her point (I think; it wasn’t a great essay) was that we Baby Boomers have ruined our Gen Y children, raising them with an eye on boosting their self-esteem rather than teaching them skills and humility, creating a generation of young people who are entitled, narcisstic, unwilling to work hard, and have that annoying interrogative way of talking.  OK, the interrogative thing is just my own pet peeve — all the others are stereotypes that come straight from Judith Warner.

She defines this cohort — who have also been called, variously, millennials, echo boomers, Generation Me — as people born between 1982 and 2002.  Really?  That includes Nutmeg, who’s 26 — but it also includes my 18-year-old niece and my cousin’s 10-year-old daughter.  These people could not possibly all be in the same generation.

That’s the first objection, then.  The second is that there are so many exceptions to Warner’s observation that her whole point strikes me as meaningless.  Yes, my exceptions are anecdotes — but so are her generalizations.  Warner herself admits that she bases her opinion on interviews with nine young people.  Nine.  Based on that, and on a couple of interviews with a couple of psychologists, she concludes that kids today feel entitled to jobs that are rewarding, creative, and worthy of them; they turn down job offers as though there’s a whole string of alternatives waiting in the wings; they don’t know how to make compromises; they wear flip-flops to work.  What emerges based on her nine interviews, she writes, is

a picture of emerging adults with a striking ability to keep self-doubt — and deep discouragement — at bay. Many were jobless, others were dissatisfied with their work or graduate-school choices, yet they didn’t blame themselves if life failed to meet their expectations. They didn’t call into question their choices or competencies. It was as if all the cries of “Good job!” they heard as children armed them against the repeated blows of frustration and rejection now coming their way.

To her credit, Warner defends these kids — they’re resilient, she writes, and maybe the fact that they were raised in an atmosphere of “unremitting ambient anxiety” from 9/11, Columbine, and blah blah, has given them a higher tolerance for the kinds of stress they’re facing now as they try to figure out how to make a living in a tough economy.  But I’m sorry —  even positive generalizations make me twitchy.  My own two daughters never acted especially entitled — there might have been times when Meta felt insulted by the demands made at her entry-level jobs, but she reacted to that the way any mature employed person is supposed to, by doing her job while looking for a better one.  Both of them always seemed willing to work long hours if that’s what it took to do their work.  (Warner writes that employers complain about kids who expect to work 40 hours a week and no extra.)  And since I know a bunch of their friends, especially Nutmeg’s friends, I can say that most of the young people I know are serious, hard-working, willing to put up with an employer’s crap if they have to.  They might grumble about it — often on Twitter and Facebook, which does make me nervous — but they do the work.  They are not the Generation Me kids that Warner describes.

And anyway, what would be so unusual about that if they were?  Wasn’t the Me Decade the term Tom Wolfe invented to apply to MY generation, those of us who were young when he wrote his classic New York magazine cover story in 1976?  Maybe a little self-focus and high self-regard is part of what it means to be in your twenties, no matter what generation you’re in.  Maybe that’s what it takes to figure out your rightful place in the world.

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I don’t know much about poetry, but the poems that strike me most deeply are the ones about parents and children — in particular, the ones about mothers and daughters.  I kept one on the refrigerator for years, until Meta, at the time an English grad-student with heightened sensibilities, told me it was banal and tacky.  But I like banal and tacky!  That’s the stuff that makes me weep!  And besides, I had created such a nice little tableau with that poem.  I had posted it on the fridge with an ironically childish refrigerator magnet from Nutmeg, which she made as a camp counselor the summer after she graduated from high school, when we had already abandoned her for our new life in NYC.  I have the magnet still: it’s an apple (Big Apple, get it?) on which she pasted a yellow taxicab, a blue C (for Columbia, where iDaddy had his new job), and a steaming cup of cappuccino to represent all the cafes in which I would soon be doing my writing.  As for the poem, it’s gone, I fear, taken down because both girls wanted it gone.  I recently searched the web site of The New Yorker, where it was published, to see if I could find it, but I can’t remember enough of the poem for that.

But another poem came my way just this morning from its author, whom I met at a literary dinner the other night.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to Becky, and we talked all the way through our meal, from the cold cucumber soup to the blueberry cobbler, about our writing and our kids.  Today Becky sent me this poem about her daughter, who’s 27, and she said it would be okay to post it on my blog.  So in honor of that generous spirit, and in honor of National Poetry Month, here it is.

Ode to a Pair of Pants

by Rebecca Okrent

For my daughter

Like moulted skin they tell

you’ve become other than you were,

no help from me since my misguided offerings

are piled like insults at the back of a drawer.

Well-worn when you found them

beside junked Tee’s and

catechism frocks at the thrift shop, the pants,

unwashable, must carry your DNA,

might have foretold

the rheumatoid arthritis that translated

your body into another language,

spooling your hopes.

The threads are Christmas tinsel,

interwoven with psychedelic blues.

The elastic band sagged at your waist –

I watched: daughter as saltlick

for Beelzebub bar mitvah boys.

Where they’ve been: college,

Appalachian Trail, dance studios,

Vancouver, Seattle, etc., Greece,

Istanbul, on your body,

into my lap, pants frayed to transparency as

you never will be, dear enigma.  It’s insulting,

you say when I wonder what I might have done

differently, not from disappointment,

but to spare you the bloom-bruising

hail and a garrisoned heart.

I never get it right.  If I found these pants again

I’d be too late.  Presuming your desire, confusing it

with mine, I have failed.  I wear my love,

tattered as these pants are,

its weft not tinsel, but mail.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Two ideas here are the ones that resonate the most with me, the ones that seem best to capture the quandaries of parenting grown-ups: “Presuming your desire, confusing it/with mine” is one of them.  And the urge “to spare you the bloom-bruising hail” is another.  Both things to watch out for, and I thank Becky for expressing these universal sentiments so specifically, and so poetically.

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I made the bed in Nutmeg’s old room today with a quilt I created for her with my own two hands.  It wasn’t supposed to be here in my apartment, dressing up Nutmeg’s old twin bed.  It was supposed to be with Nutmeg, in her grownup home.  But things took a different turn than I’d anticipated.

I’d had such a great time making that quilt — well, not a great time, really, since I’m a total domestic klutz.  But as I pricked my fingers and strained my eyes piecing the thing together all through the winter of 2006, I kept picturing how excited Nutmeg would be about it when I gave it to her for her college graduation in May.  I had made a quilt — my first, and till then my only — for Meta’s high school graduation in 1997, but Nutmeg’s high school graduation in 2002 had come and gone, swamped by the frenzy of that time, as iDaddy and I sold the girls’ childhood home and, just a month after the school year ended, moved hundreds of miles north.  I had always felt bad that the quilt I’d promised for Nutmeg to take with her to college, just as her sister had taken hers, had never materialized.  Now, four years late, I was about to present her with her handmade quilt at last.

“Don’t get ahead of her,” iDaddy told me whenever I mentioned how psyched Nutmeg was going to be when she opened her gift.  It was something he’d often said to me — a piece of advice that has always irritated me greatly, but that is, of course, very wise, because iDaddy is a wise and temperate man.  Making the bed with Nutmeg’s quilt this morning, I realized that this phrase is especially wise when it comes to parenting grown-ups.

“Don’t get ahead of her.”  Don’t get more excited about the quilt than she will (reader, I did that — details below).  Don’t like her boyfriend more than she does (I’ve done that, too).  Don’t urge her to take a class she isn’t sure about, go to a college she doesn’t want, consider a job that isn’t right for her.  Don’t live her life for her.  Don’t live your life through her.

Now, Nutmeg is a thoughtful, sensitive, delightful person, and when I gave her the quilt, gift-wrapped awkwardly in a huge shopping bag, she smiled and expressed much gratitude.  She even took it with her to Boston when she moved in with the boyfriend I liked so much (with whom she’s since broken up; as I said, I’d gotten ahead of her).  But she never really loved it — not the way I had pictured her loving it, not the way I had loved picturing her loving it.  When she moved from Boston to Brooklyn, Nutmeg gently gave the quilt back to me.  “It works better with your color scheme at home,” she said, even though I had deliberately picked colors — with the help of my best friend Judy, who creates spectacular art quilts in her spare time — that I thought were Nutmeg’s colors, not mine.  Wasn’t that apple green the exact color she’d painted the walls in her college apartment, the color she told me she wanted to have in every apartment she lived in for the rest of her life?

It wasn’t about the color scheme, though.  Nutmeg returned the quilt because she could sense, I think, that it was loaded with more freight than she wanted to bear.  I’d gotten ahead of her after all.  The quilt, in a weird way, contained my own vision of how her life should shape up, and she was trying to tell me that ownership of that vision was hers.

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Gypsy” was on TV last night.  Quite apart from the misguided decision to cast Rosalind Russell instead of the iconic Ethel Merman in the lead as Rose — and quite apart from the fact that, like so many of the musicals I adored as a child, this one turned out to be a lot less magical than I remembered — it did raise some fascinating questions about how to be a mother to adult daughters.

It’s easy to feel superior to Rose in the mothering department.  She’s the quintessential stage mother, getting in the way at every step — see her off Stage Right, pantomiming the words and doing the steps as Baby June auditions for a dancing role.   It’s obvious to the viewer, even if it isn’t to Rose’s daughters June and Louise, that she was frustrated in her own ambitions, and is living her life through her kids.  Bad motivation, obviously.  And it’s a memorable moment — so much so that iDaddy and I both spoke the line aloud along with Natalie Wood– when Rose, feeling cast off after Louise has turned into the incredibly successful stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, asks an anguished question, one that is asked, in slightly different forms, by many discarded mothers.  “What did I do it for?” she asks.  All that work, all those those shows, all that hustling,, all those times of trying to stretch one dollar to feed five mouths, Rose said, only to be told now to get out of her daughter’s life.  “What did I do it for?”  And Louise answers, calmly, “I thought you did it for me, Mama.”

Of COURSE she did it for Louise — or at least, of course she was supposed to.  Rose seems to think it’s ridiculous for Louise to assume that a mother’s efforts to help her child succeed, however frantic and excessive, are what she does for her child instead of for herself.  We the audience are supposed to think that this is simply a reflection of Rose’s grotesque narcissism, a stage mother gone mad.

But what makes this play so powerful — not this movie necessarily, but the play and memoir that it’s based on (that’s the real Gypsy Rose Lee to the left, by the way, a little more zaftig than Natalie Wood).  Because while Rose might be an exaggeration of a bad, self-centered mother, there’s actually a little bit of Rose in all of us.  We all have dreams for our children, and even if our support is intended to help them accomplish THEIR dreams, our own dreams are often there, too, lurking in the background.  We work so hard for them partly because we feel that their success reflects on us somehow.  Isn’t that what those infernal Christmas letters are all about?

And while I think it’s less common for mothers of my generation (the 50-somethings, who came of age at the dawn of feminism) to live through our children than it was in my mother’s or grandmother’s, we do get vicarious pleasure from their accomplishments — and refracted pain from their sorrows.  There’s probably a biological explanation for this.  But damn, I hope it’s a tendency I manage to keep under control.  I’m already taller than both my daughters; I don’t want to overshadow them metaphorically, too.

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happy yet?

The lovely fiction writer Amy Bloom has an essay in this week’s New York Times Book Review that’s supposedly a round-up of happiness books — something close to my heart because many years ago (long before this current publishing phenomenon) I wanted to write a book about the science of happiness.  The books she describes seem pretty annoying, especially the mega-seller by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project.  But Bloom, who is usually a very incisive writer, isn’t quite snarky enough in this essay for my taste — she seems to think that Rubin, who spent a year trying to follow get-happy advice, is at least”pleasant company.”  Really?  A woman who writes about how organizing her closets is one of the surefire routes to happiness?

What I want to write about here, though, is Bloom’s insight at the end of her essay.  I knew she’d get around to something brilliant eventually.  Happiness, she concludes, is inherently transient; in fact, its transience is what gives it meaning.  “To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies,” she writes.  “No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.”

It seems that if I read these lines closely enough, I can find in them some wisdom about what it means to parent grown-up children.  I used to say that parenting was the cruelest job in the world — you give your children every ounce of your love and attention, all your passion, all your concern, and if you’ve done your job right, after 18 years they leave you.   I know now, almost 30 years into this cruel job, that it doesn’t really end, and that it isn’t really cruel.  It creates moments to savor, moments that constitute some of the deepest joys of your life, but those moments can’t last forever.  Not only can’t they last — those ephemeral moments are, maybe, the whole damned point.

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