February 17, 2005

Time to Ratchet Down the Expectations

JAMES LILEKS has today written a hard-hitting Bleat on the matter of parenting, a subject which he addresses through examining a Newsweek article on the topic of motherhood.

We shall not address Mr Lileks' post here, as it discusses certain topics which we do not discuss on The Rant. But we do wish to note, as he did, a part of the Newsweek article which struck us as a bit off.

The magazine's scribe writes as follows:

Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility—for children, for families, for anyone, really—and so they must take everything onto themselves.

As I write this, I have an image fresh in my mind: the face of a friend, the mother of a first-grader, who I ran into one morning right before Christmas.

She was in the midst of organizing a class party. This meant shopping. Color-coordinating paper goods. Piecework, pre-gluing of arts-and-crafts projects. Uniformity of felt textures. Of buttons and beads. There were the phone calls, too. From other parents. With criticism and "constructive" comments that had her up at night, playing over conversations in her mind. "I can't take it anymore," she said to me. "I hate everyone and everything. I am going insane."

That first paragraph's a doozy, isn't it? Like Mr Lileks, we would not deny that motherhood is a difficult and often tough experience. But for one to say that society offers no support for mothers or children -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is a bit much.

After all, we are all constantly bombarded with messages and edicts and policy papers which remind everyone how important parents and children and the elderly are. Along with this, billions upon billions of dollars are regularly doled out from the public fisc to help these groups. Whether it's free public education, child tax credits, welfare schemes, government pension programs or health care for the aged, this country shells out rather a lot to support children, parents and lots of other people. We do not intend for the foregoing to serve either as criticism or support for those measures, because we know folks have differing views about them. (You all can argue elsewhere whether we collectively need more or less support for those endeavors). But we would note those things do, in fact, exist. That's just the way it is.

In fact, now that we think of it, the only people who don't get outright support from society in some way are young, jobholding, single people with no children and no home through which they can claim a mortgage-interest deduction. Say! Wait a minute ...

But let's move on, for the first paragraph wasn't the one which really struck us as a bit odd. It was the second and third, which describe that poor woman going crazy over a party for schoolchildren.

As we read through that, it seemed to us the schoolchildren were entirely secondary to the mix -- all the fuss and bother and expense and everything else were being driven by the mother, who was consciously or subsconsciously seeking approval from her fellow parents, and who wanted to make sure everything was all right because of that. For if things weren't all right, Mrs Smith from across the way would make a catty remark at the bridge group, and Mrs Jones and Mrs Thompson would disinvite the poor woman from the neighborhood potluck, and scandal and calamity would result -- especially if Gladys over on Spruce Street got word of things.

Now, that's just madness.

We do, though, think parents -- hell, not just parents, everyone -- would be better off physically, financially and emotionally were they to chuck out the present rules of engagement and focus mightily on three key principles.

The first principle is that people ought not get uptight about what others in their social set think of them.

This is not, of course, to suggest that people ought act in an uncharitable and selfish manner injurious to their fellow citizens. That would be anti-social and rude, and could result in substantial civil and criminal penalties if the injuries were severe enough. However, we do think it's a bit silly to worry about what the frickin' neighbors -- who are probably spendthrift and indolent anyway -- think about how a couple raises their children, or anything else. Life is too short to worry -- actually worry -- about Mr and Mrs Jones. Therefore, people ought use their finite worry reserves carefully.

The second principle is that people ought not spoil their children. If there is one lesson which children ought learn early and frequently, it's that they're going to have to get over it. They can't have the sugary cereal and they can't have the new doll and they can't go to the beer bash and they can't spend the summer idling about.

Obviously, they have to have some reward or incentive structure in their lives, but that just makes them appreciate hard work or the special treat all the more.

Consider: when we were very young and growing up, Mr and Mrs Kepple decreed that we would receive one (1) serving of carbonated beverage per week -- the "Sunday Coke," which was awarded after we attended church services and settled down for quality football.

If we recall rightly, this generations-long tradition was handed down from Mr Kepple's father, who also decreed that his children would receive one (1) Coke per week. And it was a very good idea, because we wanted that Sunday Coke like nothing else -- even when Mrs Kepple decided that she would buy the decaffeinated diet version of the stuff. (If we recall rightly, we complained mightily about this, but lost the argument).

Later, of course, we bought lots of carbonated drinks -- but it was largely on our own dime, with the money we earned from unpleasant and frustrating physical labor during high school. But you can see how the principle was established -- and much later in life, we've come to realize just what a virtue it is to believe in delayed gratification. We have every intention of repeating this scheme with our own eventual children.

The third principle, though, is perhaps most important -- realizing one can't have it all, and accepting it. It seems to us that lots of folks these days have bought into the idea they can have everything they want without sacrificing for it. But life requires sacrifice. The lawyer or bond trader who wants to make a mint has to work seventy-plus hours a week; the family who wants to save for college costs has to settle for a lesser vacation, etc. These tradeoffs have always existed and will always exist -- to believe that they do not exist, just because one wants it to be that way, doesn't make any sense.

Of course, we do realize that it's hard -- damnably hard -- to suddenly switch tracks after charging hard in one direction for so very long. But we do think that for some folks out there, trying might pay dividends.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 17, 2005 10:31 PM | TrackBack

If mothers think they have it bad because "society doesn't help them," they ought to try being a single father in the late '70s, the way my dad was forced to be when my mom decided she wasn't up to the whole parenting thing. No one did a damn thing to help him. He managed. My sister and I turned out okay (well, I did, anyway--jury may still be out on my sister).

Now, though, things are quite different. Parents get all kinds of breaks at work -- time off for school-related issues, sick time for caring for sick kids, etc. Nobody thinks anything of a parent taking off early for a soccer game, or to pick a kid up from school, or whatever. After all, there's all kinds of childless, single people upon which to heap the work that the parents choose not to do. Parents get extra tax credits, deductions for all kinds of things, and so on. I think that part of the problem is that a lot of the shallow, whiny people of our generation are becoming whiny, shallow parents for whom children are accessories or status symbols. They have a few seconds of unprotected sex, and then expect the universe to revolve around them and the products of their union.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at February 18, 2005 11:07 AM

Hi Geoff --

Well, for those parents' sakes, I hope the act lasted longer than a few seconds!

But you make a lot of good points and that's why this article is so downright odd. I don't mind giving parents a break, because it IS a good thing to encourage reproduction of the species, etc. But when you're single and childless and don't itemize, and as such pay taxes up the wazoo so Middle-Class Working Families can get an extra grand per kid each year, it's rather aggravating to hear this whining about lack of support -- especially because the charge is so ludicrous.

But I don't think this article is representative of our generation (who grew up in the Eighties) either. We are, after all, angry and cynical and embittered young people; and as such, we do a pretty good job of shouldering our own burdens. And given the general reaction from folks who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, it doesn't seem representative of them either.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at February 18, 2005 11:33 AM

Well, with six billion people in the world, I don't think the human race is in any danger if some of us decided to lay off on the reproduction for a while. But that's far off my point, anyway, and you and I seem to be on the same page with the "stop the damn whining you ungrateful bastards!" thing.

I also disagree with you on your characterization of our generation. Certainly, you and I, and several people we know, are angry, cynical, embittered people who work hard and shoulder our own burdens, but I have a very hard time accepting that that is typical of our generation.

Posted by: Geoff Brown at February 18, 2005 01:48 PM