Parenting, home-keeping: Work that we love?
The thing is, this day pictured here was a hard day, as days go. Many of the days are hard. My sister was babysitting, a rarity for a Saturday, and Monroe wouldn't be left behind while I biked to the farmer's market. It's easier by myself. I can really chat with the vendors, a thing that is always fascinating and lovely; I can buy all the produce and meat and cheeses I want, quickly, and proceed with photographing or browsing; I need never chase or carry or negotiate with a strong, strong-willed child. Monroe cried, fussed, screamed, begged with tears in his eyes and hope in his voice, 'go wif you?" I couldn't resist him, I went, I could barely talk with anyone, I had to rush through my list and never once got to photograph a pile of radishes.
But this picture, as so many of my pictures are, is of joy. And as I look through my photographs I see all my children's personalities, and I see many moments of joy, moments that spark out amongst the hardness. I see much work, but I see love in that work, I see that it is all work that I love, every minute of it. The washing dishes, the gardening and the bread-kneading and the lacto-fermenting, the biking and carrying and chasing children, the bringing to events both minor and major, the "talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution," these are the things I love most!
I have been reading two pieces meant, I am sure, to spark discussion and controversy. The first was a piece in Salon by Babble blogger Madeline Holler. The second -- also written about by Madeline, curiously -- is a cover story from New York Magazine by staff writer Jennifer Senior. Holler spends a lot more of her time comparing her own personal life -- and how hard, indeed, it is -- to the lives of others, specifically the "radical homemakers" of whom Shannon Hayes writes.
She writes of how difficult it was, for a few years, when her husband took a huge paycut -- to $36,000 -- for their family of three. "I enrolled our daughter at a co-op preschool, where, in exchange for low tuition, I wiped down toilets, attended endless meetings and worked several five-hour shifts a month. I spent hours on Craigslist -- and days of follow-up -- to find a suitable coffee table. Meanwhile, Crate and Barrel had the perfect one in stock. Finding a new shirt to meet up with an editor turned into a soul-crushing ordeal, since I shopped nowhere but Target and Old Navy."
She can't grow anything, especially basil -- she hates kneading bread -- "A little piece of me dies when I notice the baby sitter drives a nicer car than us." Living on $36,000 was way too much work. "Also? I sort of hated it."
Senior's piece is more nuanced; instead of professing to "hate" parenting, she portrays many other parents who do, comparing herself as she experiences a lovely moment (her young son running into her arms as she gets home from work) and then the hard "reality" of parenting (she goes inside, seeing a broken toy garage, and a tantrum when she tries to fix it). She writes, "The scene ended with a time-out in his crib. As I shuffled back to the living room, I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—'a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar'—and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment."
She has lots of damning quotes from experts and scientists studying parenting and happiness, like this one: "Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term 'concerted cultivation' to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: 'Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.'" And this one: "It wouldn’t be a particularly bold inference to say that the longer we put off having kids, the greater our expectations. 'There’s all this buildup—as soon as I get this done, I’m going to have a baby, and it’s going to be a great reward!' says Ada Calhoun, the author of Instinctive Parenting and founding editor-in-chief of Babble, the online parenting site. 'And then you’re like, 'Wait, this is my reward? This nineteen-year grind?'"
It's easy to assert, as I find Senior herself does in a follow-up interview about her piece, that "this is really a story about the self-invented misery of the middle class." And a lot of it is about your approach to the business: if you face parenting by continually comparing the reality of the present to the best bits of your childless life ("I could be out sipping cocktails and winking at hunky men, and instead I'm wiping up little tiny bits of my childrens' and their friends' poo!"), of course you'll be miserable. If you decide that you can't keep a basil plant alive and that canning enough beans for winter makes you want to take a nap (it doesn't take many beans for a winter, really), you're probably going to conclude that gardening and canning are drudgery. If you subscribe to the "it needs a bar" philosophy of parenting, well. You'll end up soused.
But there's another option, one that I have come to believe, not quickly, but fully-wholly-as-I-can. And it is that this work of parenting and homekeeping is rewarding in and of itself, that also? I kind of love it, that treating children as if everything they say is a special contribution is not tiresome work, but truth. And this, this is the work that I love.