Thursday, December 29, 2011

Family Values

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I had a lovely Christmas with my family and stayed far from the computer, hence the lapse in my posts. Here is a second excerpt from my essay, Mother Mother.
Wishing all my readers a prosperous, healthy and happy New Year!
(Excerpt from essay Mother Mother)
Dad was a traditional father who provided for us and was not at all involved in rearing us. He did, however, take us to church every Sunday. Ma was a converted Catholic and had nothing good to say about the Church. “Christians on Sunday, heathens the rest of the week,” she said of Catholics in general and Dad, his family, and, as his progeny, us, specifically. She stepped inside the Church three times in my memory, when Andy got baptized, when my oldest brother got married, and for my father’s funeral. She was not present at her own memorial service. We cremated her just as she had requested in the months after Dad died.
I only remember a few tender moments between Dad and me. The most memorable one was when, at about four years old, I fell down the cellar stairs and my neck lay in the crook at the bottom where the rail post met the stairway. Dad carefully untangled me, my head in his hand, and cradled me against his chest. I knew from that moment on, despite his no-nonsense approach and explosive outbursts of anger during which curse words sprayed the room like buckshot, that he had a soft spot for his children.
Ma did, too, and I see those times it was expressed more clearly now: the way she sat and played Scrabble with me for hours, our bone china tea cups beside the playing board; how, when I finally learned to read, she let me take any book off her bookshelf stashed in the narrow hallway; how we watched old movies made in the 1930s through 1950s together, before color TVs, VCRs and DVD players. Andy and I became movie aficionados. Andy could name every actor and actress as if it were for a school exam. These were the times I felt wanted instead of resented.
They are the things I did with my daughters. Even though Cara and Mackenzie are grown women, we still talk about getting together to watch movies – a girls’ night.
But I fretted as a mother. In the age of intensive mothering that began in the 1980s when my daughters were born, I felt my inadequacy. Sharon Hays describes the onset of intensive mothering in her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.  She says:
What Every Baby Knows is the title of a child-rearing manual by the pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. In many ways this title epitomizes current notions of appropriate parenting. Child rearing today is, more than ever before, child-centered – it follows not from what every parent knows (needs or wants) but what every baby knows (needs or wants). This, as we have seen, is the approach that has come to be called permissive. And this…is also the approach found in most of today’s top-selling child-rearing manuals.
I read T. Berry Brazelton’s book and watched his show. I wanted to be a better mother than Ma but I didn’t know what every baby knows or every mother, for that matter. Most women of my generation didn’t have role models, even those who had loving mothers, because we would enter the workforce in numbers not seen since World War II when Rosie the Riveter dropped her children off at a government sponsored day care center on the way to the factory. Unlike our mothers, we had the innate sense to know that we needed more than childrearing to give us purpose and identity, but our guilt drove us to over-mother.
Quality time became the goal. Even if it was five minutes, if we were completely child-centered, it was more effective than the mother who spent the day at home with her child but spent it cleaning or doing other things while her child played in proximity. I came to question this in later years, but as a new mother, it weighed on me.
When I discovered I was having twins, I spoke to my husband about how long I would stay out of work. “Three months,” I said.
He nodded but said nothing. After I brought Cara and Mackenzie home from the hospital, suffered my own bout of post-partum depression, and discovered how much work it was to take care of two babies at once, feeding on demand and trying to log that all-important quality time, singly and together, I realized I would not feel comfortable leaving them with anyone else.
“I need to extend my leave,” I said to Ronald.
“I know,” he said. “I figured you’d come to that conclusion.”
I stayed home for nearly eighteen months, feeling guilty for not earning a salary when we needed a house. The apartment super kept asking us when we were going to move. Our apartment building housed mostly single professionals or childless couples. Two babies crying and then, later, two toddlers running back and forth in stiff-soled shoes were more than most of our neighbors could tolerate. Notes were slipped under our door or taped to our mailbox: Please keep your children quiet or If you would keep your voice down, maybe they would be quiet.
Did they know what it felt like when one baby went one way and the other the other way? How helpless and paralyzed I felt standing too far from either to do anything? Or how I felt when both were crying and I could not figure out if they were hungry, colicky, tired, or wet? It took time to change two babies and fix the source of the tears. Mackenzie howled as if death were upon her when she was hungry, and Cara nightly cried herself to sleep while I sat crying in the living room. I realized early on that holding her only made her scream and fuss more, her body stiff and recoiling from my touch. She was already over stimulated and sometimes she would cry for as long as forty-five minutes before she would abruptly drop off to sleep. But, even as I knew I was right to let her expend her tremendous energy until there was nothing left but to go to sleep, it still made me feel like a bad mother, judged by others. When Mackenzie, who was born with Metatarsus Abductus, a C-shaped foot (crooked like Ma’s had been), had to wear a cast at five months old, people glared at me when I took her out in public.
“What happened to your baby?” strangers felt comfortable asking in a judgmental tone. Each time I carefully explained that she was born that way and we were getting her foot fixed. Just as I calmly explained to people that yes, they were twins, fraternal not identical, or that their father is black. That was a frequent question, “what is their father?”

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