Optimistic complaints

Of course, mothers think -- and every once in a while they even complain.

Published July 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I have from time to time been called a curmudgeonly writer. It hurt my feelings, as it seemed to mean someone full of sour complaint. I like to complain, true enough, but I rarely feel sour for long. I am blessed with many things, few of my own making, and one is a kind of native optimism. I feel a grand passion for the world -- for its beauty and complications and mystery. When I grumble, I grumble as a cheerful observer, a sotto voce mumbling about our textured, wild world. Literature has had many great complainers: critics of the human condition, like Mark Twain, and sharp wits like Dorothy Parker, and sad watchers like E.B. White. I am not their equal, but I am their glad companion.

Here's one grumble: I've never liked the name of this site. It's one of those back-handed compliments like, "She's a great woman writer." In private, I call it Mothers Who Think Because Somebody Has To and Mothers Who Think Because Nobody Else Does and Mothers Who (Duh!) Think. I am, like many women, a mother who thinks, about motherhood and a lot of other things, and nobody needs to tell me that. There's nothing quite like being the continual source of safety, education and civility to a helpless human being to make you think -- twice. Nothing like being that all the time, no matter what else you are and no matter what else you do, being that even (and especially) when you don't want to be it. As they say about the guillotine, it concentrates the mind beautifully.

Sometimes I think you should have to get a license to have children. But in most systems, I wouldn't have qualified. I was 20 years old, poor, unmarried until the fifth month, when I began to show and my father was too embarrassed to be seen with me and so my live-in partner and I decided to do the mature thing. I learned on the job, and made a lot of mistakes, but I planned to be a mother and have largely been glad I was. When my second husband and I decided to adopt, we were turned down by a couple of agencies because I'd been divorced and we weren't Christians. (A few years later, the worker from the agency that accepted us said we'd shown them that you "didn't have to be a Christian to be good adoptive parents." She meant it as a compliment.) Some of the worst parents I've seen are middle-aged, prosperous professionals. One of the best parents I know right now is a 30-year-old single father living in a tiny house. Perhaps the best marker of who should be a parent is how much one is willing to pay: not in money, but in all the other ways. How much time, leisure, sleep and just plain stuff are you willing to do without in order to give children what they really need? Are you willing to give up a lot more than you imagine you must? Give up, as it were, a whole lot of players to be named later?

What do children need? I don't think they need video games, cars, Tommy Hilfiger, CD decks, computers, the mall, trampolines, competitive soccer leagues, gold chains, weight machines, high-definition television or rec rooms very much. They need long walks with a parent on a mild spring afternoon. Kids need to lie in the grass and watch bugs. They need to learn how to bake bread. They need to knock around the house and the park and the woods and wonder who they would be if their mother had never met their father and what happens to dead bodies after they're buried and whether it would be more cool to be invisible or able to fly. Kids need to do service for others, give of themselves, help create their own communities. They need a lot of attention and they need it a lot more than stuff.

Another of my complaints is that I work at home in a nice residential neighborhood, and I am surrounded by empty houses. It is me, lonely dogs and old people all day long.

A few days ago, a man complained to me (see, it goes both ways) that feminism had made a mistake in trying to make women exactly like men. He meant to say, I think, that there are fundamental differences between the genders and these are significant things. Leaving aside the fact that feminism was never about making women and men the same, I agree. Many times while rearing children I wanted to believe that boys and girls were exactly alike, predictably alike, but it isn't true. I think we're all marked by a lot of things by the time we're born -- physical, psychic and elusively mystical things -- and gender is one. It makes for certain predictions. Boys like to carry around long, stiff objects and poke, stab and pretend to shoot projectiles at people with them. Girls hide things in dark places, like drawers and boxes and mother's purse.

For the most part, though, boys and girls are a lot alike, especially to parents. Given time and space, they will all run wildly without purpose and suddenly fall down in a heap. They will climb, trip over and crawl under things before they go around. Kids all eat large quantities of food, sleep vast lengths of time in filthy bedrooms while surrounded by stuffed animals, avoid brushing their teeth, stink and refuse to bathe, then stand under a shower and use up all the hot water. They will run across the street without looking. They keep some secrets and spill others, kiss you when you least expect it, are afraid of the dark and ghosts, listen to music you don't like, wonder about God. Kids break bones, windows and good china plates, steal something at least once, and fight with their siblings sometimes.

One of the great secrets of rearing children is that the long years that sometimes seem to be composed solely of nights without sleep and that seem to go on forever and ever are over very quickly. Rearing children is a time-limited commitment, while childlessness does last forever. After more than 21 years, I am coming around that last bend in the twisting tunnel and getting a glimpse of light -- lots of light, space, time. Lots of opportunity for travel, recreation, anything I want. I find I don't want it any more than I did before; my years with children have marked me as much as I've marked them. I've learned to appreciate stuffed animals, ghosts, plastic plates and hot water more than I thought I could.

Plain, ordinary child-rearing has been a gift to me. It is a day-to-day struggle with uncivilized beauty, filled with dirty floors and uncouth noise. Why would anyone choose to do this? There are no words.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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