Thursday, December 28, 2006

When "No" Means Something Else

It's a well-known fact that the earth, the universe and everything revolves around my nephews. And while I find it admirable that their parents are instilling them with a fine sense of self-worth (low self-esteem certainly won't be among their issues), I find it incredibly stupid that the word "no", in addition to having been completely erased from their mother's own vocabulary, has simply never sunk into the heads of these three boys.

On Christmas Eve my husband and I visited with his stepsister who was in town with her beau from Vegas while the other aunts and uncles entertained the boys. My tolerance for the boys is very low, mostly because I get tired of orbiting them with the rest of the world and once in awhile would like to focus on something else. The boys spent the evening telling people to be quiet so they could tell their stories or sing their songs (which was fine once in awhile, but everyone was expected to stop midsentence; if you didn't, you were reprimanded by Mom). Once, when the oldest landed at our table and was offended that the grown-up conversation didn't come to a complete halt, I let him know that Uncles A and D were in the middle of something, and when they finished their thoughts we could listen to him. I told him it wasn't polite to interrupt and got glared at. When the middle child walked, without knocking, into the bathroom while I was in there (thankfully on my way out), I nicely told him he should knock before opening a closed bathroom door. Another glare from Mom.

I'm going to interject with something here: I know that it is a complete faux pas to discipline someone else's child. I gave them no consequences. I didn't make them apologize. I didn't tell them to go away. I didn't yell. I simply stated the facts: It's not polite to interrupt when someone's speaking, and it's not polite to open the bathroom door (that had no lock) without knocking. The problem, if you haven't gotten it yet, is that I told these boys that something they did was unacceptable. In essence, I told them "no", and we don't do that with these boys. Nosiree...

So as the evening goes on, I see more evidence that these boys OWN their mother, their aunts & uncles, their grandparents. "Can I have some cake [even though I just had four cookies and Uncle Brett snuck me a piece of cake already?]" Suuuuuure! "Can I play with this? [read: can we open and assemble the Mouse Trap game, punching out all the little pieces and spending a half-hour building it even though we have to leave soon and it would make much more sense to open it at home and besides, there are two dozen OTHER toys already open and strewn about.]" Of course! Anything for you kids! Sometimes a good healthy "no" is all you have to say. They probably would have accepted it after a moment and moved on to something else, but we don't tell these kids "no". Nosiree.

They wouldn't have immediately accepted the "no", though. Because "no" doesn't mean "no"; "no" means a couple different things. It means "go ask someone else... maybe Uncle Brett because he's a pushover, or maybe Daddy because he can't handle even the mildest temper tantrum". It means "these people are boring and they don't love me because they won't give me everything I want". It means "how dare you defy me! I control the universe and I *always* get what I want... MOMMYYYYYYYY!"

So many parents teach their kids that they are infallable, that the world revolves around them and anyone who tells them differently couldn't possibly love them.

This isn't so much a rant about children -- they only know what they are taught -- but about parents. I can appreciate that sometimes it's just easier, especially in a very social situation, to say "yes" to everything in order to placate the children. It simply made me ill to see how the adults around let the children control the entire evening so completely, how they looked at anyone who dared tell them otherwise like we were horrible, because "it's Christmas!"

I really, really hope that their mother doesn't allow them to control their house like that at home. Somehow, I doubt that anything is different in their own home.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

What I Am is What I Am

It was asked recently of a contributor to a blog I frequent called Purple Women whether she considered "being childless" as being something that defined who she was. I found it a fascinating question, and one that I've wondered about often.

I find it intriguing that if a mother was asked to define herself, no one would question if "I'm a mom" came early on in the description, or even it was the beginning, middle and end of the description. Certainly, if you ask someone to tell you about themselves many parents will start in telling you about their family. If a mother were to omit the word "mom" from her description, she might be ridiculed or at least looked at with concern. I would reckon a fair number of mothers would say "yes, being a mother is something that defines who I am."

Conversely, if I say that being childless (or childfree, as I prefer) is something that defines who I am, I get a very different reaction. It has been implied more than once that my identification with "the childfree community" (as opposed to the parenting community?) was a symptom of a greater "problem". Why couldn't I just be childfree; why did I feel the need to belong to some elitist society? Clearly I must be overcompensating for something.

To even ask such a question is to imply that there's something wrong with it. Do I define myself by my childlessness?

No. Of course not.

However, it is a huge part of who I am, in part because so many people my age and older define themselves by their parenting status. "Jenny, mother of two" you'll see as a caption in a magazine. "Carrie, a single mom..." "Bryan, a single dad..." Look at the descriptions people write about themselves in journals, on MySpace. Parenting status has become a sort of status symbol, perhaps not in that parents are revered more than childless folk (though they often are), but my point is that if one finds out I have no children, the question of "why" always lingers, either as the elephant in the room or with a direct question. I'm not sure I've ever had this fact simply accepted and dropped.

But unlike parents, I don't announce my status immediately. If I get to know someone, a coworker for instance, and they seem like they'll be open to the idea, I will enter a dialogue about it -- because it's never as simple as saying "I'm childfree by choice." If it comes up naturally, that's great. When I'm asked directly, I will answer truthfully, but it inevitably opens a can of worms.

My childfree-ness is a fact of life. Just as a mother might look at a toddler in a store and have a reaction, I do as well. Either I look at a cute kid and say to myself "I'm not going to have one of those and that's okay", or I look at something the child is doing -- sometimes simply the omnipresence of a child, other times a particular action -- and think "my god, that would drive me nuts." While many women flock to a pregnant belly and beg to touch it, I get squeamish. Same with tiny little babies. Like mothers and wannabe mothers, I react when I see children; I just react differently. It's normal. I am reminded of my choice constantly, and that's okay.

There's nothing wrong with our childfree-ness being part of what defines who we are. There is one thing I think we all have in common though: while it is a part of who we are, we will always remain our own person. When you ask me who I am, I will never have a one-word answer. I will never ever be, as I've seen so many women refer to themselves, "just a mom."

I am creative.
I am a graphic artist.
I am a wife.
I am a spiritual being.
I am childfree.
I am many things.
...being childfree is merely one of them.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Inequity: The root of our discontent

I was reading an advice column in Pink, a magazine for businesswomen, and it's made me very upset. There was a time when I had the opportunity to be interviewed for an article on childfree women in the workplace, but because I and the writer were never able to connect, it never happened. This turned out to be a good thing, because after reading the article she wrote, I got the impression that I'd have been painted as petty and mean and completely lacking understanding of the plight of the working mother; the focus of the article was changed to yet another rehashing of the whole "opt-out revolution". Whatever.

So in this advice column, a writer says, "I am offering flex-time to female employees, but I'm afraid that the men are being adversely affected." The woman giving advice states that she assumes that she's giving the flex-time to working mothers, in which case the writer should also give the same to fathers who are primary caregivers. If the employees without small children have an issue with it, the writer is advised to meet with them to "find out the root cause of their discontent." This really, really bothered me. The insinuation is that the discontent couldn't possibly be because parents are given a flexibility they're not. No no no no no, there must be some other underlying problem. Because I already had a letter to the editor printed in the magazine this month, I have chosen not to write to the editor again, but I'm hoping someone else will.

One reason I'm so frustrated with this is that I've seen this happen recently with my mother. She has worked with her firm for nearly a decade, managing a number of clients who have flat-out refused to work with anyone other than her and have pledged to take their business elsewhere when she leaves. She is an invaluable "cog in the machine", as it were, for the company. For the last three years, she has been pleading to go to a four-day workweek. She's there at least 10 hours a day anyway and spends entirely too much time working from home as well; she feels that she has earned this. Time and again they have said no. Recently, a new employee has made the same request, and her bosses have honored it. Why? Because she adopted a new baby and "needs extra time to bond".

Nevermind that my mother may as well be singlehandedly raising my niece and has been doing so for nearly 8 years; that doesn't matter. Because this new woman has a baby, she gets the right to the flex-time. It's completely unfair.

Rules like this should be universal; either you have them for everyone, or no one gets the rights. Too many times I've been the one who picks up the slack for the mothers and fathers who leave early for the events of parenthood; school functions, parents' day, and I'm often the only one who's productive on "bring your child to work day". Yet when I have an event that requires leaving early it's either a request that's granted reluctantly or not at all, which means I end up being forced to lie (embellish the situation -- it's not just a day off, I'm in a friend's wedding! -- or call in sick when I'm not) or face missing an event I consider every bit as important as little Jaime's parent-teacher conference.

I'm tired of the inequity, of parents getting preferrential treatment. So often I see the parents being allowed to work from home when staying with a sick child, when I know that I couldn't work from home instead of calling in sick myself on a day when I'm too ill to be braving the train and the walk to work but could probably make it through my design work and my phone meetings just fine. They leave work early, they come in late because of children's illnesses, late schoolbuses, school injuries, or snow days. But if the childless and childfree are late, it's unacceptable.

"The root of our discontent" should be obvious, and to imply that it must be something other than being treated differently that our parenting counterparts is insulting.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis the Season

I’ve noticed throughout my years of journaling that I tend to fall into the same rut; when I’m stressed, need to vent or some other outlet for pain, aggression, frustration, I journal. When I’m content or – gods forbid – happy, I don’t find the need to journal as much. That is the rut I’m afraid to fall into with Childfree Me. I’ve decided to invest some time to talk about the good times, why I love my childfree marriage. While I’m touched that Childfree Me has touched a cord with people (for that I’m endlessly flattered; it keeps me going) because I deal with the more emotional side of this decision, I feel the need to should it out how proud and happy I am for the life I am living.

$75. $25 for each nephew. In most situations, I would have no problem spending this money, and in the past I never have. This year, like any other, I was sent a Christmas list for our nephews, but this year it had a twist: assigned gifts. That’s right, folks, Mom picked out what each aunt/uncle combo should buy for her boys. Way to take the creativity – the thing I find fun about gift giving – and dump it down the drain. What did my husband and I get? Bathrobes (not fleece) – seriously, where do they make non-fleece robes for kids, and what fun is that? Way to give us the gift that they toss aside saying “Auntie T & Uncle A are BO-RING”. Oh, and slippers. WHATEVER.

So instead, I got each kid a $25 Toys ‘R’ Us gift card, with which they can buy whatever they want. But I know what’s going to happen: Mom’s going to keep the cards, maybe buy a small gift for each kid, then keep the rest around for friends’ birthday gifts, etc. As someone who takes great pride in the gifts I choose, this regimented approach sickens me and takes the joy out of the whole situation. Mom’s a control freak for sure – always has been – but this was over the top and I can’t decide if I should confront her about it in addition to my civil disobedience.

Enter my niece, who had the most adorable list ever. She is nearly eight years old and thought very hard about her list. New pencils (cool ones), pink erasers (they work the best), construction paper, crafty things, dangly earrings and – the big gift – moon sand, some sort of crafty clay. This was her list, and she was so proud of her list, and then my 12-year-old cousin got hold of her. “Don’t you want this Bratz DVD? What about a new Barbie house? The Hanna Montana CD? New games for your Nintendo DS (that Daddy plays with more than she does)” She listed all these things (peer pressure!), but nothing makes my niece happier than sitting at a table with some paper, glue, markers and scissors; well, except maybe a pencil to write and her imagination. It kills me to see everyone (her daddy included – he likes buying her things he can play with when she gets bored) pressuring her to ask for bigger and more expensive things when all she really wants to do is craft and draw and write. Oh, and she wants to learn to knit.

What stinks about this is that I’m going to get her some earrings I bought in a lot on Ebay, some cool pencils and pink erasers, and my brother, her Daddy, will treat me like I skimped on her gift, when in reality I got her what she really wanted.

I can’t imagine managing this for my own kids, nevermind the worry over the potential appearance of favoring one child over another. Too much stress.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying buying little things for all our friends, for my husband, and for honorary nephews (with parents who don’t get crazy)… The holidays are about family. It’s ironic that I find my “second family” – the large group of friends with which I’m blessed – much more enjoyable this time of year.

Monday, December 11, 2006

For the Kids

Relationships fail. What seemed a good idea at one time can later feel like a huge mistake; it’s a fact of life.

In recent months I’ve seen several long-term relationships break up; one an engagement that, in hindsight we say “thank god the wedding never happened” to a match that wasn’t as wonderful as we all thought; the other a 10-year marriage stressed by years of law school and living a state away from each other. In the case of the engagement, I was devastated for them, but after she was blindsided with the break-up, I learned things about the relationship that made me glad it never got to that point. In the case of the marriage, I never really understood their relationship. Even before our friend’s wife went away to law school, they never seemed very close, very in love, and my husband, who stood up in the wedding, said the same. They didn’t seem to have what he and I have. And while it’s a hurtful thing to watch friends go through, in both cases I feel it’s for the better. Like my own first marriage, neither relationship bore any children, so the break-ups, while of course painful, were largely uncomplicated.

Enter another relationship in crisis: married for 7 years, two children, both people wholly unhappy. Husband owns and runs a videogame studio startup that’s gaining success. A textbook workaholic, he’s spent the last 7 years building his reputation in the industry through long, long hours, finishing his master’s degree, and being married to his job.

The thought was this: when our son is born, he’ll be home more. No? Okay, maybe we’ll transfer to the other side of the country to another game studio where they’ll promise him shorter hours. “But how can I leave when everyone else is staying?” Okay, let’s try this: let’s move back to Wisconsin where he can get a high-level professorship teaching videogame programming; the hours are better and besides, we have another child on the way. But he found he hated teaching; blame the marriage trouble on this. He then found, quite by accident, a technology grant that helped him start his dream business. And now, after all this juggling, we’re back where we started: husband/dad is checked out when he’s home, which is almost never, obsessed with work work work; Wife/mom stays at home with the boys and is lonely. Things are not getting better. She doesn’t want to be with him anymore.

“But the kids will be destroyed if we divorce.” Forget the arguments about whether or not divorce is a good idea when kids are involved. My point is this: when we are unhappy, we take steps to make ourselves happy. Sometimes that involves ending relationships, ending marriages. The only reason my friends have stayed together so long is “for the kids”. He wants to live his rockstar lifestyle, traveling and speaking at schools around the country, schmoozing with Stephen Spielberg at game launches in Hollywood, and not have to worry about the wife and kids at home missing him (in which case, having kids was not the best idea, but another story). She wants a husband who comes home at 6:00 and plays with the kids; right now she’s essentially a single mom, the kids seeing Daddy on weekends only, and getting no romance, no love, no appreciation, and this is how it’s been for years. She just keeps getting more and more unhappy, far past the point where any non-parent would have stayed where they’re at.

An anonymous commenter on this blog made the argument that childfree marriages are less happy than ones with children because the divorce rate is slightly higher for childless couples. But I have to wonder, especially seeing what my friends are going through: how many of those marriages with kids are horrifically unhappy, but the parents are staying together “for the kids”? I know that was the case with my parents; my mom would never have even married my father if she didn’t get knocked up with me. And it's absolutely the case for several family members. Of course many are happy, but I think the assumption that marriages that don’t break up are happy marriages is wishful thinking.

I’m sad to see it come to this for all these couples, because I don’t want the people I care about to hurt. But when my friend says things like “I think marrying him was a mistake”, which, by extension means having children with him was a mistake (quite a different thought than wishing your children weren’t born)… that makes me so unbelievably sad.