Monday, November 21, 2011

A TV Flashback

While I was in the shower this morning, I had a sudden flash of insight - at least as much insight as can be had at that hour of the morning.

I was thinking about my favorite '80s TV shows, namely The Cosby Show and Growing Pains.  I had never before thought of the following fact: Both of these are families with greater-than-average numbers of kids, with moms who work in fabulous jobs outside the home, and with dads who are not only - get this - doctors, BUT they are at home for the kids.  They do their doctoring at home.

Wow.  Two career families that have the best of all possible worlds - lots of kids, immaculate house, and parents with precisely the right (aka - socially acceptable jobs) AND one of them gets to do their work at home. I've never met a doctor who had their practice at their home, but hey cool idea.  It's just that while both of these dads did depict life with their patients occasionally, their work never seemed really to conflict with their family.  Dr. Cosby could say "How far apart are they, Mrs. Herman?" and rush off to the hospital while Claire conveniently came home (no late night court cases or briefs to finish at the same time Dad had to be at the hospital).  Same thing with the Seaver family, living out there in Long Island.

It's not like I ever thought the shows were "real" - but on my childhood view, they did depict "real" things.  The fights with brothers and sisters, the attempts to do creative things that mom and dad would definitely not appreciate, were all part of my life. So was the "both parents working" motif - but not in an arrangement like that.  My experience of a dual career couple in my growing up years matches up with the experiences I have now, as an adult in a dual career relationship.  It's chaotic and a constant struggle to keep things relatively sane - just as I imagine my non-dual career friends experience - and it's also filled with a lot of joy, amid the busyness.

So I am left wondering two things.  Why the need to sugarcoat a dual-career family in the ways both of these shows did?  Why make kids believe that a doctor and lawyer can make a family of five work without (apparently) any other help?  The show doesn't need to be real, but at least it could set up some realistic expectations and expose the problems, as well as the good things, about being dual career.

Which leads me to my second, kind of related thought: people often raise questions about media's effect on culture.  Here's one where I wish media had had more influence - because I think it'd be great to have "doctors at home" or "lawyers at home" or other trades and professions operating in this way.  I think it would be healthier, on the whole, for people.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What kind of parent do they want, anyway?

As a college professor, I am very aware of the critiques of helicopter parenting.  I have seen it happen with some of my own students.  One particular gem was the time I had just finished discussing FERPA (education's equivalent to HIPAA, I suppose) with some parents during New Student Orientation, discussing how educational information is not automatically available to parents when their children are 18 and older. If they wanted to know how their kids had done on an exam, for example, instead of calling the professor, they would need to talk to their children directly.

(As a disclaimer, I don't know the ins and outs of this law, I was parroting what I'd been told to say but the basic point of the talk was: develop good communication with your children now that they are adults.)

I was pregnant with #1 at the time, and a nice, well-meaning mother came up to me after the session and pointed at my belly.  "Is this your first?" she demanded to know.  I admitted that it was, to which she replied: "Well, obviously.  Because you would never, ever say the things you just said if you had children yourself."

So apparently being a parent puts you "in the know" in a way that trumps anything else, or anyone else, including whatever the legal ramifications of becoming 18 and an adult are - including me, a professional educator trained to be aware of college students' developmental needs.

So of course the interesting thing is, now that I've had a couple children, I still don't get it.  Of course there are ways in which I know my children better than their daycare provider and preschool teachers do.  But the thing is - there are also ways they know my children better than I do - or at least they can see certain things more clearly than I can.  They see my kids for 6-8 hours a day, and they particularly see them interacting with their peers.  I see them more individually, interacting with each other as siblings, and occasionally with one or two friends for a play date.  Whole different ball game.

The other interesting thing about all this is the subtle way in which even preschool seems to reinforce a kind of hyper-parenting that I see linked to helicoptering.  Hyper-parenting: my term for trying to achieve parenting perfection while simultaneously discussing "other" ways of parenting that aren't quite mean, but that aren't quite friendly either....

Before the baby ever came, I remember having dinner with old friends who themselves have three kids: "So, where are you going to send her to day care?"  "Um, I don't know yet," I replied.  "Oh - you've got to get a jump on that, or she won't get into the good schools.  First it's day care, then it's preschool, then primary and so on.  But you have to start right, or you get derailed."

Or the nurse who was taking out my IV after I'd just delivered a 6-week early preemie who was, at that precise moment, on oxygen in another room: "You'd better be breastfeeding this baby," in a rather accusatory tone.  And then I got a lecture about how breastfeeding is better.  If she'd taken a moment to ask me nicely, I would have said, yes I'm going to breastfeed.  (Of course, this whole conversation was made rather stupid when, later, the pediatrician required us to formula feed for a while.  Just as an aside: I did eventually get to breastfeed my daughter after formula, so it is possible but difficult - and my desire to do it had nothing to do with what the nurse said....)

Believe me, I know that some things are better for my kids than others.  And I'm very aware of the fact that I could be a much, much better mother than I am - and that seeking improvement is a good idea.  But I find the hype about parenting, and especially that every choice I make is an ultimate choice where if I make the wrong move, my child is DOOMED - well, exhausting.  And I'm exhausted enough.

So I also always have in mind that college student's mother and I think too: this linking of EVERY.SINGLE.ACTION a mother could possibly take with her children is part of what gets us to that point of being helicopter parents.  When we think that our children's grades, choice of occupation, study habits and so on are so entirely linked to what we did or didn't do back in day care, then of course I'm also going to care about FERPA.

So, Mrs. Mom X: I do understand better now that I have my own kids, just a little bit. And I'm going to be pushing back every chance I get.