I have a career, as does my husband. And recently, I’ve noticed this isn’t what most institutions my children have to attend expect from a family. Schools, doctors, dentists, camps, colleges – they all schedule essential appointments during the conventional workday. The underlying, and I think under-examined, assumption, is that a good family looks like this: a parent, often a father, who works enough to support a family of at least three; a parent, often a mother, who works part-time or flex-time or whose primary job is managing the household; one to three children who don’t work. I might add that the household must earn enough not just for basic necessities, but also for all the many camps, activities, and college prep that has somehow shifted from “extra” to “necessity”. It’s tough to afford “good” family status.
“Good” families provide all kinds of “necessities”. Homemade cookies or cakes at school, brought from home, used to be a treat: now classrooms frequently arrange for parents to bring such treats every week. As children grow into teens, this level of parental involvement remains the ideal. Instead of teens increasingly taking over their own lives, adolescence is currently a co-creation of parents and teens: parents choose their teens’ activities; they drive to and from multiple outside-of-school lessons and trainings each day; they attend all sports games and performances, no matter how far away these activities occur. To participate to the full extent that a “good” parent must, an adult must dedicate him or herself to a complicated schedule for at least 18 years, if not more. And if a ”good” family is required to have such a parent, one parent must put aside many other professional desires.
I’m thinking of these underlying assumptions, because I’m the parent, primarily, who takes my kids to various performances, rehearsals, and appointments. A year ago, when we went to one appointment-that-will-remain-nameless, I had to drop the girls off and work with a student. I told the administrative assistant the kids were there for their appointments, and then I told the girls to meet me at the library across town. I feel I should mention here that my oldest was about to earn her driver’s license. She was less than two years away from being able to vote, to marry without permission, and to sign contracts. (But not to drink a beer.) The youngest is only 2 years younger than her sister. The appointment was routine. Yet the administrative assistant shot me a sharp look.
“What if something’s unusual?” she asked.
“You can speak with them about it. If you really need to speak with me, you have my number.”
Remembering this, when I made the next appointment at the same office, I scheduled it so I could attend it, which meant I scheduled it during my writing hours. An entire morning lost, at a time during the year when I lose a lot of writing hours to various teaching commitments. I sat in on the appointments, which were long and boring. My presence was completely unnecessary, and as my oldest is now one year away from living on her own and my youngest will soon be driving a car, I felt silly for allowing the administrative assistant to guilt me into treating my girls as if they were elementary school students rather than students on the verge of graduating high school.
As the appointment was about to end, I caught sight of one of my daughter’s charts. After last year’s date, in big black letters, it read: Mother Didn’t Stay.
Mother Didn’t Stay.
You’re right, I didn’t. I wrote instead, and I’ll likely choose to write next time, if my girls don’t need me to stand beside them. They’re about to become women, women who write or paint or manage investments or whatever they choose to do, and I want them to know that a good mother not only knows when to stay, she knows when to take the space for her own work and when to allow her kids the space to become adults.