Latter-Day Parenting

By Beth Wolfer

Another kind of mother: Does being real warp your child?
by Beth Wolfer
I hope my daughters aren’t warped for life. I mean, I think they are decent human beings who know the difference between right and wrong, have a sense of fairness and a relatively healthy lifestyle. But I can’t say I’ve been the June Cleaver of the 2000s. Case in point, the other parents I knew who were giving up things for Lent last year eschewed caffeine and carbs. I tried to give up swearing. I did pretty well until I was transferring a load of laundry from washer to dryer and realized I’d washed a dead mouse that a cat had dropped into the hamper. It was about four days past Ash Wednesday when I let loose a tirade of the four-letter variety. 

Lent, for those whose canonical familiarity is a little rusty (or nonexistent), is the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not counting Sundays) that represents Jesus’ 40-day period of prayer and fasting in the desert before he was put to death on Good Friday. While I am an infrequent churchgoer these days, I’m still aware of the rhythms and rituals of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and the other religious traditions that I grew up with. In Lenten practice, what started as almost complete fasting, with only perhaps a piece of fusty bread and a few sips of water a day, morphed over the centuries into giving up only certain food groups (like meat), then into giving up entire categories of things, especially fun or pleasurable things, like video games or vodka. For Episcopalians (aka “lazy Catholics”) like me, often we went more with the symbolism of Lent by giving up something we might not actually even miss all that much, like catsup or badminton. The point through the ages has been to give up something that would serve as a frequent reminder, during this time of reflection, of Jesus’ struggle and sacrifice. Also, in modern society, Lent is sort of a do-over for people whose New Year’s resolutions have already lapsed.

For me, whose once crisp, articulate locution had grown flabby and profane over the years, giving up certain expressive yet succinct words was going to take real discipline.  Replacing f*** with “fudge” and s*** with “shoot” or “sugar” represented a conscious effort for me. So I, in the spirit of self-improvement and setting a better example for my daughters, made an attempt to clean up my language. After all, I reasoned, I couldn’t very well berate my children for the seemingly mild (though, in my mind deplorable) “it sucks!” when I was letting fly four-letter exclamations every time I stubbed my toe. When my attempt failed after only a few days, I contemplated the other oddities of my parenting style that might be affecting my girls.

Last week I attended “Maturation” with my fifth grader. When I was her age, it was quaintly called the Birds and the Bees – all I knew was that the boys got an extra recess and we girls felt gypped. The nurse at “Maturation” covered the expected bases – appropriate body part titles and how “cycles” work. Most of the girls stared intently at their knees, fidgeting, while the moms did the “aww, isn’t this special” head-tilt the whole time. The school nurse described the required material, hitting rather hard on the recurring theme (to my approval) of the girls not engaging in anything except getting a college education and establishing themselves professionally between now and age 25. The way she set it up, grad school preceded foreplay. I loved it.

As the session went on, the moms loosened up a bit. The nurse was drawing a comparison between girls’ and boys’ growth rates. Reviewing, the nurse said, “At what age do boys mature?” and several moms muttered, “never.” When, going through what each of a woman’s internal workings was for she pointed to the uterus, one lady said, “It’s for finding your husband’s car keys,” referencing a Roseanne Barr routine where she called it the “uterine homing device – it can find anything.” Afterward, I stopped to thank the nurse as she gathered up her overheads and pamphlets. “So I guess we’re on our own when it comes to the birth control talk, huh?” I asked. She laughed and nodded – emphatically. After all, this is Utah.

I took my daughter out to lunch – a continuation of the mother-daughter bonding experience we’d just enjoyed – and broached the subject. “You know, honey, the nurse described what happens when an egg gets fertilized. If you were wondering how that actually happens…” I trailed off lamely. “Oh,” she said wisely, “you mean The Talk?” I sucked a lemon seed through the straw in my Diet Coke and choked for a second. “Who calls it that?” I asked. “Gees, Mom, only everyone. Yeah, we’ll have The Talk. But not today. Can I call a friend?” It was a far cry from how things were when I was her age. My mother was so prim and proper, when I came home from school one day and told her I’d had the Birds/Bees lecture, she said, “Well, if you have any questions, I’d be happy to take you to get a book at the library…” Yet here I was, 30-plus years later, practically volunteering to my little girl all the juicy bits I’d had to learn from books and my big sister.

I knew early on that I wasn’t like the other mothers. When my oldest was in second grade, and all the other “crafty” mothers were sewing elaborate Halloween costumes – cute Wizard of Oz Dorothys, complete with matching hair ribbons and rickrack; fabulous, elaborate princesses; and adorable, real-looking teddy bears – I was smearing fake blood on a white sweatshirt and drawing whiskers on my kid’s face with eyeliner, recreating the killer rabbit from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Always an advocate of the arts, I have taken the girls to many musicals, and have always played the soundtracks: “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “Annie,” when they were little gave way to “Mamma Mia,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” in more recent years. It didn’t dawn on me that this might be seen as less-than-savory until one day when I had a contractor in the house and my then-10-year-old was singing “they say that I have the best ass below 14th Street” from “Rent.” Hmm… now that I think of it, it occurred to me belatedly, “Rent” features some pretty adult themes… drug abuse, AIDS, homosexuality. And here we were, humming the catchy tunes in our kitchen.

Once when I picked up my middle daughter, then 14 years old, and her friend from school, I had tears streaming down my face after a particularly bad day. Sure, I could have driven around the block, trying first to pull myself together — I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen my own mother cry in her lifetime – but I just smiled weakly through my tears as my daughter patted my knee. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Oh, just grown up stuff,” I demurred, stopping short of pouring my heart out and weighing hers down. “Want me to drive?” she joked, eliciting a laugh – no, a snort – from me. “Nice try,” I said, and pulled away from the curb.

On the up side, I am teaching my daughters (whether they like it or not) all of the home improvement skills that it took me until age 40 to learn. Being a single mom forces some perhaps unconventional but handy lessons. Once they get past the initial “eewww” factor of a clogged bathroom drain, they truly learn something useful. “I’m pretty sure Dana’s mom isn’t teaching her how to fix a lawnmower,” my oldest daughter mentioned in passing recently. No, I would venture to guess that Dana’s mom is teaching her (as mine taught me) how to call a repairman and to write a check. Useful? Absolutely. Practical? Of course. Real-life? Depends on one’s financial status. I’d rather my girls knew how to fix things but were afforded the option of calling a repairman when they’re on their own.

I guess it can be unusual these days for families to sit down for a meal together in the evenings. We try to do it at least a couple of times a week. We shocked a couple of the girls’ friends when they stayed for dinner, with our standard-operating-procedure of candlelight, background music and a quirky version of grace. Usually among the regular gratitude statements, someone throws in a request to do well on a test or kick butt (sorry, God) at a soccer game. Inevitably, if we have a grown-up friend join us, the conversation and humor deteriorates to involve my middle daughter’s wild boar imitation and my youngest daughter’s impressive belching repertoire. That’s usually a sign of true acceptance. Sure, I tsk tsk at them, but on the parenting scale of choosing your battles, I let them get away with some raucousness now and then. If the worst they can come up with is to burp at a man I’m trying to impress, I count myself lucky.

We all have mental pictures of how we think we should – or shouldn’t – be as parents, preconceived notions from our childhood and our upbringing, our environment and from the media. I pored over Dr. Spock with the best of them, and grilled my pediatrician, my siblings, sage friends with older children, my pediatrician father and, when she was alive (and, come to think of it, since her death), my wonderful mother. Where I’ve strayed from the generally positive (yet sterile) examples my parents set for me is in being myself, for better or worse. When I’m having a bad day, I have a bad day. When I’m upset, I sometimes cry. When I’m reaching for socks and towels and my hand closes around a dead rodent, I curse. If being real means I’m a bad mom, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of opportunity to forge their own brand of parenting with their own kids…after graduate school. Hell yes. u

Beth Wolfer writes, works at Hogle Zoo, mothers, gardens, walks her dogs, breathes a lot, means to recycle more and appreciates the little things. She lives in Salt Lake with her daughters and pets.

This article was originally published on March 7, 2008.