Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parenting, Part I

I'm going to admit this right out of the gate: I'm not a great parent. In fact, I'm not even particularly fond of children. I mean, sure, I love my own kids, but I also blame them, to put it bluntly, for ruining my life. And not for the usual reasons (ruined body, no sleep, no money, no time to yourself). No, it's because when you have kids, you're forced to hang out with other people who have kids, and that's when things really start to suck.

It's all well and good when your brothers and sisters and your high school and college friends start reproducing, because these are people you  grew up with and drank with and you all kind of come from the same place. You know you don't know what you're doing, and that's cool, since you're in the same boat with a bunch of other people who don't know what they're doing, either, so you're learning together. And generally, there's beer.

But these cute little non-communicative infants don't stay infants. They grow up. They talk, they walk, and then you're forced--by law!--to send them to school.

That's when the fun starts.

I could not have been more excited to send my kids off to preschool. As a matter of fact, I almost wept with joy when our pediatrician told me at Catharine's 30-month check-up (after a long discussion where the two of them talked about little brothers, colors, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski's recent defeat at the polls), "This is a child who needs school. Have you checked into preschools in the area?" And I did. And initially I was scared.  But that's a story for a whole other blog post. (I mean, have you ever visited a Waldorf school? Really? What's with the wood?)

Joy of joys, I discovered that our parish in Chicago had a Montessori preschool. Now, when I was in college and learning about all those different education philosophies, I have to admit I thought the whole Montessori thing was a little off. I came from a pretty rigid Catholic school background, and the idea of basically doing what interested you, at your own pace, made me more than a little skeptical. (This was reinforced when I student taught in an inner city high school in Milwaukee. If I had let those little darlings do what interested them, I would've witnessed more felonies in one semester than you see in an entire season of Law and Order--regular, Criminal Intent, and SVU. Combined.) But I figured, she's young! What can a little free choice education hurt? Especially when the education was taking place somewhere other than in my home.

And the actual school part of it was great. Catharine totally thrived, had great teachers, made a lot of friends, and I had the added bonus of a few kid-less hours to myself every day. But then I realized that once your kid ends up at school, you are, by default, a member of the worst group of mammals imaginable:

School Parents.

You can't get away from them. Because by the very virtue of you having a student, you're sort of forced to hang out with other students' parents. You want your kid to have a social life, right? But then these kids come to your house and you start to realize that not everyone has the same exacting standards of child raising that you do.

Not that I ever had any standards, exactly. Mainly my child rearing revolves around trying to get the least annoying kid possible. You know, use the inside voice, put your stuff away, don't touch my stuff, here's how you open the refrigerator and get Mommy a beer. Basic community living, don't-be-an irritant skills. But these other people? Ohdeargod, it's awful.

I realize that not everyone parents according to the Darwinian School of Child Rearing like I do (kids either figure it out or don't survive). That's fine. But then there are the mothers who, early on, basically give it all up and let the kid take over. "Johnny doesn't like to sit in his car seat." "Johnny won't eat at the table." "Johnny doesn't want me to wash his hair." "Johnny only drinks juice."

So let me get this straight. Johnny is a smelly little bugger with bad teeth who's going to trash my house when he comes for dinner but I won't have to worry about any of it because he's going to end up in the ICU with a head injury after you get into a fender bender on the way over. Oh, okay.

My eyes were permanently opened to this phenomenon after Catharine started school and I started trying to be a Good Mom by volunteering in the classroom and offering to have kids over to play. I could go on and on about the wacky moms I was forced to hang with, but all the craziness I encountered during those first years can be summed up into one person: The man hating, obviously frustrated fundamental Christian repressed lesbian teacher who was more than happy to lecture me about how my husband was neglecting his family (the fact he traveled on business meant he didn't care about us), how I needed to raise my son to be a feminist (I should encourage him to try on Catharine's dresses now and again), and how raising my children Catholic was going to cause them to kill me in my sleep one day (which they may still do, but it's going to be for bigger reasons than me simply taking them to church).

Oh, and her kids? She had three daughters who were all budding sociopaths. The oldest was one of those kids who smiles sweetly at the grownups while stealing and hiding another child's favorite toy. Or, better yet, taking away another kid's floaty thingy in the pool and watching passively while the kid slowly sinks to the bottom. ("I wanted the green one and she had it," she squeaked matter-of-factly after the other child was fished out of the pool and eventually revived.) The middle one was just a brute--I watched her toss a boy down a flight of stairs at preschool because he got in front of her in line. (The poor boy's sprained wrist and black eye were shrugged off by the MHOFFCRLT: "Buffy gets aggressive when she's hungry.")

The littlest one seemed fine, until it came time to toilet train her. One morning the mom brought her over to my house, stripped her naked, and explained to me that she thought the only way for a child to learn about her bodily functions was to let things happen "organically." That right there was the last straw. I told her to bundle her kid up before anything organic ended up on my newly cleaned carpet, then I started talking about how I thought the only way to heaven was through the Catholic Church, women shouldn't be allowed to drive, and Republicans were generally awesome. She left shortly thereafter and didn't come back.

And don't even get me started on the whole competition thing. "Oh, Catharine's reading?" the MHOFFCRLT said to me one day when Catharine was struggling through Hop On Pop. "My kids showed signs of early reading comprehension at 18 months." Pause in the conversation while I pried her daughter's teeth off my dining room table leg. "Of course, it's been proven if they read too early it affects their reading appreciation and spatial skills as they grow. And they tend to be less social. But, you know, good for her!"

And this has continued through the grade school, high school, and even college years. Different people, but the same basic conversation, now dealing with test scores, athletic ability, grade point average, shoe size--everything is some sort of competition. It's exhausting.

Trying to raise children while being a School Parent is the hardest thing I've ever done. But it's also made me more realistic. After listening to these nimrods, I came to the realization that being a student is my kids' experience, not mine. We aren't in high school--Joe is. And I'm probably doing the worst job of parenting in the history of the world, but we've had our share of laughs and I think we've raised these kids not to be complete jerks. I guess that's just going to have to be good enough.

I did feel a small flicker of hope recently. The other night, at a Mother-Son Dance, I got a little bottle that contained a questionnaire Joe filled out about our relationship. Question 3: "What is the one piece of advice your mom has given you that will always stay with you?"

Joe's response: "Don't be an idiot."

Phew. My work here is done.