By Jane Wilkins
When I wrote my previous piece ("Mad… but also disappointed") I wasn’t thinking about continuing with another one but when I read it again I thought I should expand on some things.
I mentioned that there are two groups of kids that my son Stephen has the option to play with. In the spirit of being plain-spoken, let’s call Aaron’s (Stephen's favorite) group the “bad kids” and the other group the “good kids.” I wrote that it makes me angry that we have to contend with bringing up children in an environment that does not really nurture respect, and I am disappointed that my son is more attracted to the cruel kids even when he has other options – but that’s not all. This whole thing makes me feel guilty too. I feel I am simply not doing enough.
Let me give you the situation more elaborately. At my son’s school the “bad kids” are in the afterschool program while the “good kids” are not. One reason that Stephen does not get away from Aaron’s gang is because he stays in the afterschool program while the good kids go home. The mother of one of the good kids told me back in first grade that even though she would love to have her daughter in afterschool she thinks the program does not provide adequate supervision. Sure enough, the kids who are under family supervision in the afternoons are much nicer kids. They not only don’t join gangs but are not even aware (at least not yet) of those kinds of dynamics.
But I also know that the kids who are not in afterschool have at least one parent who devotes him or herself to the kids every day after 1:10 p.m. (which is when our school lets out). Our situation is this: If I don’t work, or if I cut back on work significantly, we would be able to financially survive for now. But there are two problems with that. First, I do have to think about the future. If I don’t work now that will jeopardize our future survival. To put it simply, my husband is fast burning out as sole breadwinner and if I don’t keep my own professional life alive we could soon be in trouble. Second, I like to work. I enjoy what I do and I really dislike being financially dependent. In short, I work because I need to and I want to.
That means I cannot devote every afternoon to entertaining a lonely and bored child or arranging playdates and extracurricular schlepping. As it is, I have Stephen and David one afternoon a week and only twice a week Stephen stays at afterschool until 5. That’s the best I can do – and clearly, that is not enough. In fact, there is that nagging voice repeating inside my head at all times: “Not enough, not enough, not enough…” I am not doing enough to make my son happy. I am not doing enough for his education. Heck, I am not even doing enough to save him from bullies.
And so the anger is turned inward: “You selfish, inadequate mother… You are uncaring and irresponsible. Look at so-and-so: no wonder her son/daughter is such a sweetheart. You don’t spend enough time with your kid and the time you do spend with him is not quality. You get mad at him because you would rather be working on your own project. You even have the temerity to be disappointed in him… Be disappointed in yourself, you wretched wench. You bad, bad mother...”
But I’m also the kind who resents being made feel guilty. So I get a double whammy: I feel guilty because I get angry and I get angry because I feel guilty. I walk around a bundle of conflicted emotions and frustrated energy. And guess who is on the frontline of suffering the consequences? My poor kid, who is also a bundle of conflicted emotions and frustrated energy.
So for the past five years I have struggled with the question of whether or not I am doing the right thing by putting my kid in afterschool. Am I heartlessly exposing him to gangs and bullies? Am I indirectly teaching him how to be a bully himself? Am I neglecting him? Is he being emotionally scarred for life? Will he blame me in the future for not devoting myself to him and him alone? Suffering the anger I feel toward those who are hurting him now and myself for failing to stop it is not enough – will I in the future have to suffer his anger too?
And I just can’t stop wondering: Is this what motherhood has always been about? Or is this our new and improved version?