“Mom, I don’t even know what a hamper is.”

I haven’t followed all the mom-controversies lately. I think I’ve been too busy just being a mom. Why are American moms less than perfectly happy? They’re too easy-going! No, they’re not easy-going enough! Attachment parent! Cry it out! Be French! Be Chinese! Be something different! All these exhortations are starting to seem a little ridiculous to me. There aren’t a plethora of cover-stories asking, “Why aren’t American dentists perfectly happy?” or “What’s wrong with American redheads, that they can’t all consistently agree on one hair-care regimen, and their hair is not as perfectly perfect as it can be…” No one can have it all, perfectly. Why are moms expected to?

Sure, we need better parental leave policies, health-care for all children, and access to quality education for all from ages 2 through 20. I could get behind those articles, but that’s not news. Instead, there’s a lot of articles about what moms are supposedly doing wrong.

There’s all these false dichotomies in the mom-hysteria: attachment parenting versus sleep training, helicopter versus free-range… when everyone I know falls somewhere in the middle, and most of what parenting seems to call for is tolerance, moderation, and forgiveness.

So I haven’t followed all the latest controversies, but, still, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent article in The New Yorker struck a chord. Kolbert describes an anthropologist who observed a respectful, independently helpful 6-year-old in a Peruvian tribe of subsistence farmers, and couldn’t help comparing this girl to the petulant, entitled, and overly-dependent 6-year-olds in Los Angeles who couldn’t even tie their own shoes without throwing a fit of rudeness. This resonated with me, because lately Sophie is at an age when I’m trying to teach her to pick up her own trash, ask politely, put your shoes on the shoe-rack, take some responsibility for your own self.

Teaching this is hard work. I think it always has been. Sometimes, truth be told, I’m still trying to teach it to my husband, too.

It would be handy to live in a Peruvian tribe, but without that, here’s what it looks like in our house:

“Why can’t you put your laundry in the laundry hamper?” I asked Sophie the other day, when she was trying to relax in her pre-bedtime bath. “I spend every evening picking up dirty clothes you have strewn about the house.” I shook some of her dirty clothes at her, I’m embarrassed to admit. Petulantly, I repeated, “Put it in the hamper! Put it in the hamper! Can you please try to remember to put your clothes in the laundry hamper?”

Calmly, Sophie looked at me, and said, “Mom, I don’t even know what a hamper is.”

And I had to laugh, breaking out of my hectoring mood.

Of course she doesn’t know what a hamper is. When does anyone ever say that word in regular conversation? I should know better than to give my kid a lecture in vocabulary that’s over her head.

After I finished laughing, I told her — more calmly — that I meant “laundry basket.” I reviewed where they are in the house. And I resolved to try to be better aware, the moment she drops her clothes on the ground, so that I can intervene and attempt to instill better habits. She’s now using the hamper about half the time. It’s a battle I have chosen to fight. But it isn’t simple. I don’t think it’s simple in that Peruvian tribe, either.

All we can do is try to set our own family traditions, try to teach our kids good habits — and also make sure our kids have the confidence to tell us when we’re not making any sense. “Mom, I don’t even know what a hamper is” may sound like rudeness to some. It wouldn’t have been allowed in a different generation here, or in many other countries where families are more strict. But if Sophie weren’t allowed to say it, she would still be wondering what it was that I was going on and on about while she was in her bath.

Moderation: that might not sell as many magazines as some alarmist article about the latest supposed mom-war. But it’s what we need. Moderation, and the structural, political changes necessary to give us all a lot more support. That’s all.

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One response to ““Mom, I don’t even know what a hamper is.”

  1. Marla

    Great post, Elaine.

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