I thought I’d finally arrived into the mom I was meant to be. I had three kids, all with wild curly hair like Dad and fearless fiery personalities to match. We lived in a home we built ourselves, ate food we grew outside our door, and ventured for whole weekends into the forest surrounding us. After years of striving and saving, I’d finally allowed myself to step away from my career to focus more on my children’s budding lives, nourishing them, inspiring them, and just enjoying them. For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself, my choices, and my path.
“Mom,” my eight year old daughter mused recently, “when I get older, do you think I’ll have a real job, or do you think I’ll be like you and just kind of, you know, hang around?”
Did she really not remember me leaving for work at 5 AM before anyone was awake, the fourteen hour long days, all those papers I waded through over weekends?
Drew, too, is suddenly relishing our time together…well, not so much. The boy who needed my nurturing presence has disappeared. Sometimes when we sit at the table chatting (I mean, when I ask him questions which he reluctantly answers), he jiggles his legs, clearly waiting for the cage door to open so he can leap into his more natural habitat. At eleven, Drew craves friends, adrenaline-soaked adventures, and games, games, games – board games, role play games, card games, sports games, and video games. Is he happy that I’m available to check homework, watch soccer practice, and help find snow boots in the morning? Sure. But he’d much rather have me drop him off at the game store in town than hanging around asking if he’d like a snack.
Mikah, my two year old, is still thrilled to see me enter the room, holds onto my legs with both arms if I stand to leave, and will gleefully skip along with me to the grocery store, the woods, the library. Yet soon enough, he also will ask: “What do you do anyway, Mom?” He, like my two other kids, is going to challenge me to explain what value I have in this world beyond the home.
The most challenging and excruciating aspect of motherhood is that everything you learn to meet your child’s needs – you have to unlearn it, just as you get it together. Master nursing? Now you have to wean! Grow used to wearing your baby? Now get him walking on his own. Finally shed autonomy and learn to adapt to others’ desires over your own aspirations? Now get some gumption, a job and extra cash.
So I’m dealing with this last switcharoo, striving to rebuild the career I adamantly dismantled, this time with three kids in tow – but not by simply returning to what I left. Transformation is never about falling backwards. My children may think they need me only for transportation, a little homework review, and my Visa, but they are wrong. The world they are so keen on entering independently is far more detrimental to their well-being that they can imagine. They may not want me physically by their side overseeing their every encounter, but I need to be far more vigilant than I want them to know. These years at home have been the best of my life. Sadly, they have also revealed to me that our social world is increasingly and insidiously destroying the exact qualities of human experience I stayed home to enjoy.
Every generation believes its own to face the most intense adversities to raising children, but we are at an especially dangerous time. Three areas are simply out of control with their violence, their vehement vitriol, their sickening ways of warping compassion into narcissism. The first, of course, is screen-technology.
Screen media now saturates every aspect of life. Couples can’t even have sex without videotaping each other, then publically posting those tapes as revenge when the relationship sours. Nothing is sacred in the world of the screen. You can run over elderly pedestrians, behead your own pet, and ruin your best friend’s social life – all while sitting in a chair texting, typing, or vocalizing into a microchip. It’s easy, horrific and addictive.
Even Star Wars has gone to the dark side. My partner Eric has taken all our children to every Star Wars movie. We own the entire collection on DVD so the kids can rewatch them, analyze them and do whatever it is people do when they see movies multiple times. Yet, the most recent film Rogue was beyond anything Eric cared for our children to witness. No matter how skilled its plot and special effects, Eric maintained it was not appropriate for children. Drew sobbed many nights, begging his dad to change his mind. Everyone in his class had seen it. Not only was Drew missing out on his favorite movie series, but he also had to suffer feeling left out at school. Of course, I wanted to appease my son’s pain, but Eric was adamant that the film was far too violent and dark for kids. My despair for Drew ignited into rage at the media: Who the fuck makes a Star Wars movie unfit for children?
Paralleling the violence of screen technology are the escalating outbursts in my children’s classrooms. The number of children in state custody in VT has soared in the last three years. Kids are taken out of the arms of heroine addicted moms every week. More and more students require medication just to be functional in the classroom. Districts are breaking budgets trying to afford the necessary paraprofessionals and special education support for students whose behaviors challenge new and veteran teachers alike.
Drew is a rather quiet, intellectual kid, and living seven hours a day in a school rattling with the fallout of our community’s ills hurts. Far too often, he cries at home while relating yet another disturbing episode. His eczema has grown from a tiny rash here or there to red soars all over his body, especially around his neck. I looked up metaphysical causes for eczema in a book by Louise Hay, and it reads: “Violent eruptions, uncontrolled angry outbursts.”
Yep, that about sums up his daily life at school.
It also points to the third destructive force in our lives, our current politics.
On the local, state and federal levels, the name calling, lying, and verbal assaults of our own elected representatives against each other is disgusting the most jaded of our teens. The violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other ravaged areas can be escaped by no one. I turned the news off one day because my tears were flowing too fast for safe driving: “It is not the war, we are used to the war,” a Syrian woman said over the radio in heavily accented English. “It is the hunger in the eyes of my children and the roof that fell on our heads, that is what broke me.”
My point in writing with such negativity about our media, schools, and global politics is to explain why I need to be as vigilant in parenting my older kids as my toddler. With little kids, a parent hovers, making sure these small beings don’t slip downstairs or race from the car across the parking lot. Yet older kids can be wounded just as instantly. The screens in our homes and violence in our communities are as dangerous to them as any open wall socket or gas burner is for a toddler. Our older kids may not appreciate our presence as much as the toddlers, but the rising statistics on teen depression, anxiety and self-destruction prove a parent’s protection is still vital to their well-being and even to their survival.
I am still struggling with how to parent under these circumstances. I want to be with my kids as much as possible. I also want them to be proud of how I contribute to the world we share. In this way, my past call to be a soldier for social causes is resurrecting: my kids need me to get back out into the world championing compassion, generosity and bravery. They need to see me strive for these goals, and they need me to include them in my efforts whenever possible, so they can experience firsthand how to effect beneficial social change. Our time together doesn’t have to lessen so much as evolve.
The one truth that has never changed is my kids’ continued demand that I transform. My job – the one that is constant in this dynamic experience of motherhood – is to heed them.