Memo to My 19 Year-Old, Babysitting Self

I know you’ve really been enjoying babysitting this summer, and not only for the $20 an hour you earn as a college student babysitter in a resort town. (For the record, 20 years later, $20 an hour is STILL a lot of money for babysitting.) You actually enjoy children, maybe even want to have a few some day. You will, and when you do, you may find yourself looking for a trustworthy babysitter.  But back to you, my 19 year-old self: I have a few words of advice about those babysitting jobs.

First, all parents want their child to have “a really fun time,” but they also don’t want to come back to find their house (rental or not) looks like its been ransacked by a band a marauding pre-schoolers.  Cajole the kids into helping you pack up the 20 puzzles you've done together, put the dishes in the dishwasher, put the markers away, legos in the lego box. Parents are not expecting you clean up after them – only that you leave the house habitable and its not that hard. In the distant future, you will find yourself doing these things on a regular basis.

Second, if the mother mentions that her 3 year-old seems “a bit crabby today,” nod politely and hope he hasn’t tuned into evil-child incarnate.  Don’t chime in with commentary about how he screamed for 2 hours and tried to head-butt his baby sister the last time you were there. Chances are, she’s merely trying to acknowledge that her child is not uniformly delightful; she is not inviting critiques. 

Finally, if the parents seem a bit tipsy when they come home, they are. Just take your payment and get out of there. Don’t let them embarrass themselves. They’re like 40 or something, after all.  And you will be too, before you know it.  

Back To School Jitters

No doubt many a well mannered modern mother has faced the back to school jitters.  A new kindergartner, a nervous third grader, a tween starting middle school, prehaps even someone going off to college.  Yet, in one way these are the easy jitters.  The ones the well mannered mother herself remembers; the ones to which she can relate and respond in comforting and credible ways.  And if she can't there is always the internet.  A quick google of the words 'back to school jitters' yields numerous strategies for helping your progeny to cope with the stress of it all. 

But what about the mannerly mother herself?  What about her own personal jitters?  Is she smiling beneath the tears - secretly rejoycing to 'have her house back' or just glad that her work-life juggle will be a bit easier with everyone back in school?  Or is this next chapter calling into question her own place in the world?  Now that her children are is school all day - what should she do?  Get a "real" job?  Ramp up the volunteering?  Train for a marathon?  Take up tennis? Put the last 8 years of photos into albums?  Sort the toys in the basement?  Quit her job, fire the nanny and learn how to become a lady who lunches?  To some, no doubt, the possibilities are endless.  To others it's just another lap around the gilded cage.

So good luck getting your little ones off on their first day and good luck figuring it all out yourself.  Once you do, please drop us an email - we'd love to know how you did it.

There's No Place Like Home

Any modern mother able to take her children to visit grandparents in her own childhood home, can count herself lucky. In our transient country, it is indeed special to be able to return to the scene of one’s own upbringing.

Oh, the nostalgia and wonder it can evoke: the gravel still crunches under car tires in the driveway; the front door stands unchanged; the house smells the same; the floorboards creak just as before. Yes, the house may be very much the same, yet the modern mother may find herself so very, very different. Have the rooms gotten smaller? How is it, that the lavatory looks so dated? How is it, that the time when she lived here was so long ago?

College, first job, second job, graduate school, a wedding, another job, homeownership, and finally, children have filled the gulf between the shimmering, bottomless hours of childhood and the considered, practical planning of today.  Now, many a modern mother knows what she will be doing each week of the summer by approximately June 15th.  Gone is much spontaneity and the sense of endless possibility.

So, the modern mother, may revel in watching her children run about, catching lightning bugs in the yard, seeing a child rush through the screen door, letting it slam behind him, or watching him glide his fingers along the same banister as he heads upstairs, dirty and exhausted. It can make her own childhood seem so close, yet untouchable, unattainable, like a mirage. And she can’t take her eyes off the children as they infuse her old home with their spontaneous joy. 

Sexy Mamas

"Yesterday, in the kitchen, he couldn't keep his hands off me!"
"He woke me up twice last night -- just tearing my clothes off!"
"Now that  both kids are in school all day ..."

Our sources in the field (playgrounds, carpool lines, sports sidelines, that is) tell us that talking about one's steamy marital sex life is not limited to writer Ayelet Waldman and her revealing 2005 essay. We've heard tales of mothers disclosing all manner of hot, hot marital trysts to any number of peers and contemporaries.

What could be behind such racy talk? Emulation of celebrities? Talk show culture? Could it be the desire to  advertise oneself as fun, spontaneous and sexy? To show oneself to be still desirable, though entering middle age?

If a man is driven to distraction by the vision of his wife wiping down kitchen counters in her khaki capri pants, good for him. Just please don't make us think about it! No one wants to imagine the erotic secrets of the modern mother's bedroom (or kitchen, or basement, etc.) Those secrets are her husband's and hers alone -- their very own crazy sexy secret. Trust us, it will be much better that way for everyone.

Reading is Fundamental - now can everyone please relax?

Like learning to use the toilet successfully, learning to read is something most children born to literate, educated parents learn to do.* Yet in today's affluent urban and suburban areas parents are distraught when their brilliant, advantaged children are not reading by age four.  OK, five.  But really, it seems like nowadays every six-year-old is expected to be able to read chapter books (and we are not talking about Frog and Toad).  If for some reason a child is not reading at a third-grade level in first grade, clearly the specialists need to get involved.  A tutor should be hired and the problem needs to be fixed.

Now what can a well mannered modern mother do?  Well, if it is her child who is not reading Dante in Pre-K she can wander around aimlessly in a sea of blame and self doubt wondering what is wrong with her as a mother.  Or she can remember that everyone learns at his own pace. In fact there is a body of literature arguing that we are pushing children to read at far too early an age and that many children aren't physiologically ready for formal reading until age 8 or so.  Mostly she should try and remember all those hours she spent worrying about breast feeding, nap schedule and potty training and remember that those things worked out and chances are this will too.  Or she can look ahead to middle school where her child may encounter drugs, booze and members of the opposite sex and that may put this current crisis in perspective as well.

The well mannered mother with a worried friend must never say anything like "Oh that must be so disappointing for you" or "Sorry,  I don't know how to help, my son has been reading since he could hold a book" or "They say the best way to have early readers is to read to them when they are young - didn't you read to her?"  Not only are such comments unkind and unhelpful but the well mannered mother knows that life is long and, to paraphrase, the race is not always to the swiftest.  In the meantime, while waiting for the life-race swiftness results, the well mannered modern mother might want to try to sit back and enjoy the ride.  They tell us it will be over before we know it.

*Children in less rarefied environments are not always as fortunate and may truly be in need of help.  That is why Reach Out and Read has launched the Summer of a Million Books to give a brand-new, age-appropriate book to one million at-risk children before Labor Day. Click here to help.

Just Say No (Politely, Of Course!)

In the recent article, “Yes, I’m Home. No, I Can’t Pick up your Child” the Wall Street Journal reported a growing number of stay-at-home mothers feeling put out by too many requests from other parents to help out with childcare, rides, errands and favors. Feeling like doormats, or easy targets because they are at home, these mothers have taken to internet chat rooms to complain and start a “doormat rebellion.”

Of course, our well mannered readers already know how to stem such rebellion. Reciprocity can make play dates, carpools, errands, and favors more appealing for all involved. Not a tit-for-tat, strict exchange, but a few simple gestures: picking up a needed grocery item, an occasional weekend playdate, or offer of a ride to a birthday party can help. As can a recognition of the complicated lives of all families, regardless of the parents' work situations. A mother who "doesn't even have a job" has commitments and obligations too. Whatever her opinions of these commitments (you can't, because of a cookie swap??), a wise mother will accept them and not expect her friend to change her plans, except in the case of a true emergency.

More importantly, we would add that an overloaded mother can say no, and politely.  Or, as Tucker, author of the first related comment on the WSJ Juggle blog said:

“I’m terribly sorry but I won’t be able to.”
Seems much easier than starting a website campaign.

The Big Cost of Little Girls

It is no secret among well mannered modern mothers that once a nicely brought-up girl reaches size 6x it costs approximately 10x as much to dress her as it does to dress a boy the same age.  That is unless the modern mother wants her daughter sauntering around town looking like a hoochie mama.  Which apparently quite a few do.  While the well mannered mother can find her son polo shirts, cargo shorts and khaki pants at many moderately priced retailers (think Target) it is very difficult to find what many mothers consider age-appropriate girls clothing there.   The tops are tight, the skirts short and the pants low on the waist.  These 'sexy' looks at moderate stores are no doubt one reason the classic yet edgy retailers Mini Boden, Olive Juice and Crew Cuts have done so well selling girls clothing in recent years.  These retailers have created lines that are not too young or too old but tasteful and fun.  Sadly, they are not inexpensive. 

 This is a dress!!!!

Now, we do not want to sound prudish or unduly fixated on appearances but one might ask, after perusing the racks of Old Navy or Justice, what makes such young girls (or worse - their mothers) think this is how they should dress at age seven?  You answer, of course, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan (that's working well), and the media.  So, does dressing in a sexier (one could hardly call this apparel more sophisticated) way make a girl more confident or comfortable with her body image?  In her recent NYTimes Magazine piece  "Playing At Sexy" Peggy Orenstein tells us that "Stephen Hinshaw, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that sexualizing little girls — whether through images, music or play — actually undermines healthy sexuality rather than promoting it."  No kidding.   Yet in these modern times, when parents have such a hard time saying no to their children, we need research at top universities to tell us what mannerly mothers have know all along: if you wish to be respected by others and respect yourself you need to look respectable.

Well, at least the well mannered modern mother now has empirical evidence and an excellent explanation should the well mannered father ask about all those Mini Boden charges on the AmEx bill.

Which "Bad Mom" Are You?

We might not be taking our parenting cues from Betty Draper, but we all have our shortcomings. Maybe that's why we laughed out loud at this Roz Chast cartoon from The New Yorker. Can you think of a few other "Bad Mom"cards?

We could add: Swears when caught in heavy traffic, even though the kids are in the car. Forgets to ask how the weekly spelling test went, every week. Says, "Fine, you can skip your bath, again. Its only been a few days... I think."
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