As the long days of summer draw to a close, I can see the gleam of hope glimmering in the eyes of the other mothers at the park. It is the longing for September, for moments of solitude, and for an end to the perennial banalities of parenthood.
I am a sort of rare bird in the pack: I have no September burning on the horizon — so long as it’s not too hot and muggy, I’ll take August. September just means that we pack in four lessons a day instead of the one or two that fill out the lazy summer home-school schedule. The other mothers look at me as though I am a kind of madwoman or saint. How do I do it? With four children? They’ve only got two, and they’re chomping at the bit to get them out of their hair.
It’s very tempting to bask in the glow of awe and disbelief, but the truth is: I cheat.
The large (by modern standards) family, the stay-at-home-mom thing, the decision to home school — they are really a kind of pay-up-front and then live-debt-free variety of family planning. I talked to a lot of moms, read a lot of articles, looked at my parents’ eight-child family, and then I did some mental calculations.
I came to a fairly simple conclusion: More time with more kids is a good idea — not a cross, not a burden, not an act of heroic virtue, but a proactive solution to a thousand problems more insoluble and heartrending than dirty diapers and math problems.
It seems impossible to a lot of people. You need two parents working, and it is hideously expensive to have a child. I once read an article where it claimed that the cost of having a single baby was greater than the annual income of my four-child household. I was astonished — where was all that money going?
Most of it was going to services. The small have become their own marketing bracket, and parents have been sold the idea that the best way to raise a happy child is to let the experts get their fingers into the kid as often as possible. You need day-care workers, pediatricians, music teachers, certified babysitters, schoolteachers, social workers, nutrition experts, child psychologists, soccer coaches, and so on and so on. All of this is exceedingly expensive, and it is draining.
Half the parents I know are in the car driving their child to one thing or another more often than they are actually together with the family. They’re constantly fighting with their son to force him to attend the expensive martial arts lessons that he briefly wanted before Christmas. They spend at least a half hour a night arguing about homework. They’re so busy that their children can’t have friends without organizing “playdates.”
This is insanity — and I have little doubt that it will drive a parent mad to act as chauffeur to one pint-size jet-setter, let alone two.
Yet, people really believe that this is necessary: You have to send them to Kindergym. They need to be in three different organized sports. They require the best equipment and a $300 sequined jumpsuit for the big performance. If we had another kid, we would have to cut back — and then all of the children would be shortchanged.
At the heart of this is a lack of parental confidence. We have been led to believe that we are not competent to look after, teach and raise our own children. This is simply untrue. Every parent has skills that can be passed on, and children, particularly when they are small, love learning to do the things that mommy and daddy do.
Ditch the art lessons, and buy a family membership at the local museum. Pick up a pad of paper and some decent pencils. Spend the afternoon sketching suits of armor or stuffed parrots. There are several perks to this plan: The family membership costs the same amount regardless of whether you have two kids or seven; you can sit for a minute and practice your cross-hatching while they’re trying to figure out how many eyes to put on an Egyptian mummy; and the kids learn history and art at the same time.
Teaching is a more rewarding occupation than taxi driving, and children who spend more time doing real things with their parents are more respectful, better behaved, more articulate (they’re learning their vocabulary from you, not from other 4-year-olds), have a clearer sense of right and wrong, and have stronger loyalties to their family. Up front, you pay by putting aside the other things that you would like to be doing instead. In the long run, you have less stress because you are raising small human beings, not barely domesticated monkeys.
The key to joyful parenting is to draw on the strengths and benefits of having children. Women from Africa line up in front of the U.N. to protest birth control and sterilization programs. Why? They see children as a valuable addition to the family, not as a burden on its resources.
Parents tend to think that we are overburdened and can’t handle more. How often do I make of myself a sort of upside-down Atlas, with shoulders hunched, head bent down, struggling to hold the weight of my own feet off the ground so that I can imagine that the world rests on my shoulders? If I simply right myself, and let the ground support me instead of trying to support it, I find that Christ’s words are true: His yoke is easy, and his burden light.
Children are useful. They can plant seeds in gardens, they can wash floors with “scrubber skates,” they can make peanut butter sandwiches and read stories to younger siblings. You just have to teach them how. One half hour of instruction today, and you never have to scrub another floor again. If you have a continual supply of kids, you’ll always have one who is the right age to really want to play “Cinderella.”
This is not cruelty. The myth of the carefree child, eternally happy frolicking in Never-Never Land, is ridiculous.
Children need responsibilities. When they are constantly treated and entertained, they don’t learn self-control or self-motivation or critical thinking. When responsibility suddenly crashes down on their shoulders at the age of 18, they crumble and despair. Why shouldn’t they? If you’ve been carried in a litter all your life, a mile-long hike will feel like a marathon.
Lack of discipline does not make children happy. Spoiled children don’t constantly laugh and smile. They always covet more treats and snivel at every minor slight of their wills.
It’s not because they’re bad, but because they can feel that there is something wrong — that “Dora the Explorer” and ice pops don’t add up to real fulfillment. The heart, even of a child, is hungry for greater things than this.
It is hungry to love, to give, to be valuable. Give these gifts to your children, and you will find that they are no longer a burden — but a help in the great project of being human.
Next Week: The Truth About Parenthood.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer