Investments that Pay Off

27 April 2008

I categorized this entry under "Ethics," but it has to do with ethics in the Aristotelean sense of living an ethical life.  More of finding the "good life" in our mundane, ordinary existence.  Not every one of us gets the chance to live in an exotic place, nor even to travel, but every one of us has the opportunity for finding happiness in an ordinary life, in finding ways to bloom where we are planted.  We do this through living lives that are true to our values and which enable us, at the end, to look back and to think that we perhaps made good decisions.  This particular time of looking back, for me, is occasioned by my second daughter’s impending graduation from high school. 

One of the big decisions in my own life has been to place caring for my family at a higher level of priority than earning income or professional status.  I quit my job for the second time in 1989, when my second daughter was born.  I could launch into many socioeconomic, psychological, or philosophical thoughts about that decision.  The fact that I had to choose between family and career does not say anything good about American society.  Nothing at all, truly.  Anyone who claims that the current situation in America is good for children or families is delusional. 

In my ideal world, mothers would not have to choose between adequate care for children and professional life, but that’s the choice I had.  I’m grateful that I had a choice at all (unlike many mothers in the world), but choose I did. 

In 1990, I was a stay at home mom and we were living on one income. 

Though we lived very frugally, it was hard to make ends meet.  One day, an old man came to the house to repair something.  I think I recall that he was a plumber.  But it wasn’t what he did but rather what he said that left such a deep impression on me.  The old man said to me, "Be sure to enjoy this time with your children.  You’ll look back on it as the fondest years of your life." 

Hearing this, my mind flashed to an image of the huge pile of dirty diapers waiting to be laundered.  I thought about how I was going to have to make lunch soon and how I hadn’t even yet had time to make the beds.  Life was full of mundane tasks that didn’t seem very enjoyable. 

Perhaps he noted the look of incredulity on my face, for he continued, "Things were very hard for me and my wife when our three daughters were all little.  The housework seemed overwhelming, and we never had any money to do anything, but we wouldn’t trade those years for anything."  Then, he got a faraway look in his eye as he peered away as into the distance and added, "Especially now that our daughters are all grown up and have families of their own." 

He really made me think twice.  I knew that I really ought to believe what he said, but it was so hard to imagine the truth of it.  

What he said about feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life was certainly true.  I think, in fact, that the time when our children are very young is a difficult time during the marriages of many young adults.  Sometimes when I see a person with young children who appears to be overwhelmed by their care, I too want to reassure them that the "heavy duty" days of diapers and chores do ease up after a few years.  I’m not sure that many people are fully prepared for how overwhelming it can seem to care for small children. 

Young people have a lot of fun with each other while they are in school or working at their first jobs.  They have relatively few responsibilities in life, and they tend to have a good bit of personal freedom in the use of their free moments.  It’s in this atmosphere that people fall in love and get married.  Add a child into the picture, and things change. 

This needy little person needs a clean, safe environment, and lots of time consuming care.  Leisure time devoted to one’s self, spouse, and friends disappears.  Financial commitments increase.  In our case, there was no money to go shopping, to buy clothes, to eat out.  We
couldn’t even go in the car because there was no money in the budget
for extra gasoline.  My husband’s career was in high gear, requiring him to work long hours at work. 

It takes a good bit of maturity to be able to put one’s personal needs on the back burner and tend almost exclusively to the needs of others.  I think most people who are successful at finding a balance also find a way to carve out a bit of time for their personal life, hopefully in a way that isn’t neglectful of others in the family.  Some people find outlets elsewhere, rather than staying committed to their family.  One woman I know recently told me that her husband, now divorcing her, told her that he finds her "disgusting".  Reading between the lines, he’s surely found someone new whom he doesn’t find so disgusting, and also I’m sure who doesn’t burden him with thoughts about his responsibilities to his existing wife and child. This, in my view, is exactly like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  He fell in love with her and became committed to her for some reason, and that reason still exists!  If he were in his right mind, he’d be  trying to address the problems while preserving that which is good in their relationship! 

But I also know that it’s not always easy.  Whenever I see someone who is having this type of doubt, I reassure them that it’s normal and encourage them to step back and try to sort out the many issues in a way that remains positive for them.  I know that my spouse and I struck a balance of trying to give each other a half an hour of personal time each day.  For instance, he would watch the baby for half an hour while I did something just for myself, or vice versa.  We also learned to carve out time to spend just with each other.  After all, if a marriage fails, that is to the detriment of the children.  Our children learned to respect this time we excluded them and spent just with each other. 

But back to the point:  I took a drastic pay cut.  I undertook a radical change of lifestyle in order to devote time to being a mom.  It wasn’t easy.  The feeling of poverty wasn’t easy to cope with, the feeling of being overwhelmed by mundane chores wasn’t easy, either.  Life simply wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  It didn’t seem like a "happily ever after" type of ending.  We could joke, "housewife swallowed by diaper monster," or something like that. 

One of my Chinese friends recently told me that she "hates" Disney.  Incredulous, I asked her why.  "Because," she replied, "they always set it up so that girl meets boy, girl marries boy, and all her problems in life disappear."

"That’s not how life is at all!" my friend continued.  "That is a very bad thing to teach little girls!" 

Wow. The value of another world view!  Thinking about her perspective, I totally agree!  But there I was, married to a prince and living what was supposed to be a good life, but it didn’t feel so "happily ever after" as Disney made it appear.  

For entertainment, I would put a little plastic swimming pool on the
patio in the back garden, turn on the hose, and let the children play in it.  They would run
water  into the baby pool and then splash in it.  It was so hot that I would
put on my own bathing suit and get into the kiddie pool and splash in
it with them. Our two extravagances were memberships to the state history museum, which had lots of hands on exhibits my children enjoyed, and to the local zoo.  Our membership to both places enabled us to go as often as we liked for free.  (The museum, being air conditioned, was a particularly inviting sanctuary on days when our house would swelter at close to 90 degrees because of the heat.)  My sanity was saved by the mommies I met and made friends with at Library Story Time and at meetings of La Leche League.  Generally well educated and intellectual — most of us had quit careers as a matter of "choice" — we would visit at each other’s houses and let our children play while we discussed topics that kept us slightly in touch with adult life. 

During these days when my two oldest daughters were small, I also went to a tire store and persuaded the employees to give me a discarded, large automobile tire.  I drilled four holes in the side of the tire, then I used washers to anchor ropes so that it would sit horizontally.  The ropes were of course thrown over the branch of a large tree, making the tire into a large, horizontal swing that would seat four children at one time.  I had a few other large toys in the back yard.  My grandmother had
given me a large merry go round that would seat four children.  Now that the
grandchildren had outgrown it, she said, she wanted to give it to me for the great
grandchildren.  Margie had sent a huge teeter totter that would seat
three children at once, and I had purchased a few other large "Little Tyke" brand toys that could be used in the back garden.

Because of these toys and the tire swing, my house became the place where children wanted to play.  They would invariably end up on the tire swing.  We mommies would take turns pushing them very high, so high that our arms would extend fully over our heads as we pushed the swing overhead and ran underneath it, hearing their squeals of delight as they swung as "high as the sky".  The children were very secure because in addition to hanging on with two hands, they could also brace their feet against the inside of the tire.  No one ever fell even though I sometimes couldn’t believe we would push two year olds that high!

Our back patio also had a big wooden picnic table.  One year, I invited a group of mommies and children over to my house to dye Easter eggs.  When we finished, we went inside to eat lunch and to let the eggs dry.  When we came back outside, we found that our dog, a Golden Retriever, had eaten every one of the eggs!  Another time when one of these friends came over and sat on my sofa, our yard-sale quality furniture was so old and rickety that the sofa broke.

At the time when we were in the midst of living this life, I wasn’t so amused by the dog eating the eggs or the sofa breaking.  I thought of ourselves as just "making do".  But then, one night as we were preparing for our move to China, I was packing and I found myself looking through an old photo album of those days. 

Looking back at those photos, the old man came back to my mind, for I had gained a radically different perspective.  Just as the old man had predicted — as I looked at a photo of myself sitting in my bathing suit in the three inches of baby pool water in the back yard, with a small child dumping water over me — I realized that those days were among the happiest of my memories.  He was right!  There truly can be joy in the mundane, in the ordinary.  I’m really glad I took time for it. 

And suddenly it is over.  My two oldest children are "up and gone".  They’ve turned into their very own selves, no longer toddlers, no longer so needy for a mom, launched and well on their way in the world. 

When I first quit my job to become a stay home mom, I noticed one thing that was really different than anything I had ever experienced, in a psychological sense:  I wasn’t getting so much feedback about how I was doing in this endeavor of raising a child.  This was a huge contrast with my former life as a student, as a worker, as a lawyer.  When I was in school, I’d study for a test and then receive immediate feedback in the form of a good grade.  In law, I’d work on a case and win it.  I’d work hard at my job and get a good review and more money.  In the world of work and school, there had always some feedback system to say whether I was doing a good job or not.  I got a lot of rewarding feedback that way.  I was used to hearing someone say, "Good job!"  But there is no such feedback system for parents.  

Raising a child is, I decided, a lot like watching how the shore of the ocean changes over time.  The sun comes up, the sun goes down, there are storms and tides, but pretty much the ocean is so vast that it doesn’t change much, and the shoreline doesn’t vary so much from day to day either.  In this same sense, it can be hard to say whether what we do is making much difference, good or bad, from day to day.  Does it matter if I enforce a strict "schedule" or not?  What about an exception this one time, does that matter?  Will it break the world if my child skips brushing his teeth tonight?  But how will I feel if he gets a cavity? 

If some expert is telling me what to do, well where does his expertise come from?  Has he studied the effects of his advice over the course of 20 or 30 years?  For it’s not until we see a pattern of over a period of years that we realize how the beach is shaping up.  Indeed,  the effects of those parenting decisions may not even be apparent until the next generation!  (This is most well documented in the case where patterns of spouse and child abuse are passed down from one generation to the next, with little boys and little girls learning basic patterns of relationships from their own parents and then living out patterns that are incredibly difficult to break.) 

To see my children appear so well launched is a nice thing.  It’s a good affirmation that perhaps I did something right twenty years ago, when I was so overwhelmed by diapers and dirty dishes and little ones needing naps.  I certainly enjoyed my children then.  There is nothing quite like the trust and love of a small child.  But I enjoy them now, too, as they become very different people all grown up. 

They’ve become nice friends
to have around.  The tables are flipping.  I find myself asking them
for their advice and guidance and insight.  Today one of them gave me a
link to a blog she enjoys.  Here it is:  
I enjoy the writing, but even more I enjoy her choice of what she
chooses to read, what she thinks is important in life.  Having
daughters as great as these makes the thought of getting old a bit more
palatable.  My eyes gaze toward the horizon, to a time when my daughters are all launched with their own families, securely placing me as merely one person woven into the web of life rather than the center of my own existence. 

In hindsight, more or less twenty years after the first hard decisions about where to place my priorities, I feel like my investment has been put in the right place.  I feel really good about my children, even if my treasure is of a kind that’s not so easy to measure.


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