Something happened this morning that has had me in a state all day. My 10 year old son was invited over to a friends’ house to help his family tap maple trees to make their annual batch of syrup. Upon learning this, I saw my husband’s eyes light up, and I knew he was thinking what a cool family activity it was. He looked a little starry eyed, even. I was so pissed off I could hardly see straight. 30 years may have passed, but I am very familiar with tapping maple trees and making homemade syrup. I grew up in a family that did this. And a lot of other similarly interesting, cool activities that I hated every fucking minute of. And now the kid who didn’t appreciate all this stuff is now the sucky mother.
I think I would have made a good suburban housewife in the 1970s. If I had someone to take care of my actual house. Popping pills, spending hours just hanging out with friends while our kids were left to entertain themselves, and having it be perfectly acceptable to focus on “finding yourself” through whatever means necessary. Frankly, sounds pretty divine. And pretty familiar for a relatively short, but shameful time about seven years ago. That definitely didn’t go so well. Appears there wasn’t a lot of that pesky guilt, judgment, or clear consequence 35 years ago. Naïveté had it’s advantages.
Trust me. Bring this subject up at any playgroup within 100 miles, and you’ve got yourself two solid hours of conversation. Inevitably this always ends with at least three people saying “they just didn’t know back then” in a certain tone. Get someone stupid / irritating enough, and it might be followed by an wistful sigh.
I’ve played this one a million times. Mostly with people in their thirties and forties; each outdoing one another with the stories of various outrageous and ill informed misdeeds our parents were guilty of. Sending 11 year olds out to get cigarettes, the “child-friendly” parties where the adults got completely wasted and acted inappropriately. Really inappropriately. OK. But there is a steady, endless stream of stories that include consuming only canned food, parents’ suppressing children’s spirits in too many ways to begin describing. Sending them to their rooms and demanding they stop crying immediately. It goes on and on. They just didn’t know.
But the thing is, I do know. I “know better”. And I do all that shit anyway. I just know enough not to out myself. And maybe that’s why the maple syrup killed me just a little.
An occasional wake & bake before my eight year old’s football game? Yeah. The snow days I let my kids watch TV all day, without providing them a single modicum of culture. OK. Macaroni and cheese two nights in a row? If they don’t complain.
My own childhood didn’t have a single element of these parental misdeeds, as far I recall. My parents aren’t perfect (I only just discovered this — my psychotherapist told me), but they did everything my generation’s contestants in the good mommy contest work so hard at. And it wasn’t for show. They were the real deal Holyfield. My mother baked her own bread. My father took us to the theater and movies like “Double Indemnity” and Marx Brothers double. features. They never smoked or drank more than an occasional glass of wine. Their friends were children’s book illustrators, and philosophy professors at Columbia, and teachers who would only accept a salary of $1 per year because they came from well off families and felt the money should go towards the curriculum.
During the school year I wasn’t allowed to watch television more than a half hour a day. We spent every summer on our farm, where there wasn’t even a television. My mother took us to the library every week. She planted a vegetable garden that probably provided more than 75% of our food. She raised chickens and we collected their eggs every day. Their child friendly parties consisted of intricate mazes made out of cardboard boxes that they spent hours decorating so that each tunnel led to some of coolest shit I’ve seen to this day. We would write plays and perform the end of every summer for their friends, the guy from the corn stand, and the woman who worked at the dairy down the road who had 11 fingers (six on one hand)
Around the time I turned eight, well…that was all she wrote. All my friends with their twinkies, barbie dolls. The upper east side apartments (mostly between 66th and 86th streets. But east of Lexington) with entire walls mirrored. I was entranced. Their “Brady Bunch” re-run afternoons. Watching their glamorous parents get ready to go to studio 54 on a Saturday night.
I hated the farm away from the city. At the library I would check out only Archie comics, and save my change for the latest TV Guide so I could keep current even if I couldn’t actually watch. I threw a fit every time we had to go the museum of natural history. In New York I slept at my friend Julie’s house as many Saturday nights as I could. We could eat Doritos and watch Solid Gold, Dance Fever, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. Julie is still my oldest, dearest friend. Swear to God. Not for nothing, but she excelled laps around me academically and is now incredibly successful in her career. And yes; and a really terrific, present mother. Oh, and thin too. (though maybe best of all, excellently fun and reckless, should the situation call for it). I can only go by what I see.
I spent half my life wishing I could just have normal parents who didn’t care what I thought, and didn’t look like they’d been punched in the stomach every time I openly lamented about my misfortune. Enter Mark Twain. And although I grew to develop a true appreciation for even the tiniest detail my childhood, it didn’t change my inherent taste or sensibilities. At thirty three, I counted the days to when my daughter would be old enough to watch “That’s so Raven” marathons together. I have never missed a season of “The Real World”.
So, how the fuck did I end up in this town where it’s terribly chic to have your own chickens, and where parents whisper to one another about how sad it is that their neighbors allow their children to watch inappropriate movies? Entire afternoons discussing food co-ops and book fairs. And with all my past disdain for the esoteric, earnest adults that surrounded my youth; I know there is something inherently different about the people I am surrounded by now. Something inauthentic. Something vaguely mean spirited. Or, it’s entirely possible I’m holding a grudge.
Regardless, I do have the advantage of knowing how to respond to any dinner party conversation that comes up. I simply mimic the words I heard at age five. Rote. It works. But it’s still as painfully fucking boring as it was in 1976.
So here I am in suburban New England forsaking a career to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband is the one with the job in television. The career he had zero interest in, and wound up being uncannily good at. I’ve landed myself square in the middle of the worst of both worlds. Neat trick. Just how did I manage to pull it off?
I’ll be goddamned if I know.