(And Why There’s Really Not Much You Can Do About It)
I have spent days writing and re-writing this post. I know I shouldn’t admit that as inevitably there will be a professional writer among my readers who will still be able to point to indelible flaws in its structure or word choice. Oh well. My hesitancy isn’t from a fear of perfection. It actually has been one that surprised me as I began writing on this topic and discovered how very personal it is. My dear friend pointed out to me last night that if it’s too hard to be honest, I either leave my own family and past out of my writing, or stop blogging altogether. I think he’s right on so many levels. The topic of how the youngest grows up too fast is one that hits very close to home. There is just no way I can write about it without my own filter—without touching on my own unique childhood. I am the youngest of four from parents very distracted by their important careers and failing marriage. Because of that, I raised myself to a large degree. I am a product of those times and I grew up very quickly. Instead of rebelling with my independence and lack of attention, as others may have done, I became a little adult. I had watched my older siblings and some of their friends struggle and I became a very serious child. By 17, I had managed college entrance exams and visited colleges solo and even drove myself three states away on the first day of college. A few weeks into college, I had a job at an NPR radio station with a spot after “All Things Considered,” interviewing visiting judges and attorneys and had a legal beat at the newspaper by end of that year. That winter, I landed an internship at a TV station. Sophmore year I left for a summer study-abroad in London with British media. Senior year, I had a writing internship in Maine. As you can see, I was working professionally before my junior year and could barely focus on studies from all my “work” demands. It’s just the way things were for me as I had little understanding of how to relax, let alone party, like most co-eds—as I had to take care of business. My childhood shaped who I am today and why, surprising to some, after working so hard, I was able to throw my career into first gear, freelance, and focus on my children. It was a knee-jerk reaction. It had deep-seated psychological roots stemming from a lonely childhood. And it is why I may sometimes get labeled as a ‘too involved’ mom. I had a strong desire to always be near my children. To always be there for them. To not let them grow up on their own. A fabulous career with a national magazine could wait if that required latchkey kids at home. Sadly, that’s the gut fear raised out of my past. And I wrestle, even today, with my strong belief that all women should follow their dreams and their careers. It’s a conundrum that I own up to. (Trust me, critics.) So, with all of that out of the way, here is my original essay:
As the youngest of four, I remember sitting in my big brother’s room, looking at his rock posters of The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix, and covering my ears as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” blasted at full volume. “We DON’T Need No Ed-U-CA-tion!” … “We Don’t Need No Thought Control!”
The bass reverberated from the L-shaped walls of my big brother’s room. My hip, big brother would smile a sheepish smile at me. I was maybe nine or 10 years old. My brother, who is six years older than me, was always playing music. I thought he was incredibly cool. He could do anything with a camera too (before Photoshop and digital cameras, mind you.). He’d go into dark rooms and super-impose a picture of himself dressed in character, between Mick Jagger and the rest of The Stones, or walking across Abbey Lane with The Beatles. He introduced me to Led Zepplin, Santana, Ozzie Osborne, and a whole host of bands—not that he always wanted to. Like the time I listened to “The Wall” at full-tilt. I recall that I couldn’t open his door to leave, so I was forced to “listen” at such excruciatingly high volume that even my screams couldn’t be heard. But I’m sure this was probably done after I had begged repeatedly to be included when all the big kids from the neighborhood would go into his cool room and leave me alone in the den with my art and books.
After school hours are always tricky for younger siblings of parents who work. There’s a lot to do between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day. And life for the youngest in a household involves politics and daily maneuvering. Big brothers and big sisters ignore, pick on, and then periodically threaten or bribe their youngest sibling on a weekly basis. (The threatening and bribing are the big guns that only come out when the little one knows too much about rules being broken or any mischief your parents “can’t know” about.) You get the idea.
I usually hated knowing about boyfriends or friends coming over or parties when the parents were away—as I would be wrought with guilt and fear: guilt for lying to my parents, and fear from what my older siblings might do if I told. Again, that’s just life as a much younger sibling. And when the age gap is very big, the youngest grows up much faster and is then left alone. By the time I entered high school, I was an only child as my two sisters and brother (who are all one year apart from each other in age) were in college.
So, I’m looking back at those times and thinking about the future for my two sons. My oldest is 10 years and my youngest is three. It’s a big age gap. And for the past year, my youngest has been exposed to video games, movies and music I’d rather he wasn’t. It’s excruciatingly hard to monitor. On occasion, a new babysitter will let the older one pick out a movie to watch that I don’t want the younger one to see. Or, my oldest plays LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” on his ipad and suddenly, the three-year-old is running around the house singing it. Or, the older one will start playing a video game in front of the baby when I’m in the shower, etc. etc. For two years I’ve been lecturing my oldest tonotwatch certain movies and TV shows, or play certain games, or say certain words around his little brother. I lecture him and remind him that there were no big brothers forcing him to watch inappropriate things when he was little. I even dock TV time, or take away games when he disobeys. I think I’m getting a handle on those type of things.
But this Spring Break, my oldest son’s best friend from London visited and I watched little Jamesy stare up at them both with awe. He trailed them wherever they went. He idolizes his big brother and all of his friends. He wants to be bigger. He wants to do whatever they do. As the youngest, I completely understand. Before you know it, my oldest will be in high school and my youngest will be in elementary school, listening to rock, watching inappropriate YouTube videos, and possibly keeping secrets about his big brother’s friends who are all hanging out at some point after school while I’m at work.
I’ve read some expert commentary and articles about how to help kids from growing up too fast. Almost all of them focus on the youngest ages and on whether we push children to learn too much, too quickly, in kindergarten. Some, like Lisa Belkin, wonder how some parents also manage to simultaneously “helicopter parent” by hovering too closely. That may all be true in today’s society. I’m also sure that I had far too much independence as a child and a teenager. But even today, with our “helicopter” and “tiger mom” parenting styles, aren’t they usually on a timer? Or are these styles relegated to non-working parents only? How many parents still hover over multiple children during high school years, for instance? How many working parents—or single working parents—can afford to do so? I mean, who wants to pay for a part-time nanny for a teenager and an elementary-aged child? At a certain point, the high school kid is usually allowed to be home alone after school and expected to “babysit” the youngest.
I think it’s absolutely okay. This article is in no way an endorsement for all women to stay home, by the way. (And why is it that in 2012, almost everyone still expects the mom, not the dad, to stay home?) I’m very intrigued by The Conflict by Elizabeth Badinter, to be released soon in the U.S. The New York Time’s Motherlode post equating modern day motherhood to today’s version of sexism, is quite compelling. Perhaps the pressure to be the perfect parent isolates and represses women? Perhaps that pressure also leads to more divorce or more mid-life crisis down the road? It’s hard to leave careers and focus solely on the kids to the exclusion of one’s ambitions, one’s passions, one’s interests and sometimes one’s own health. It’s also hard not to leave careers and stay home with the kiddos in today’s world that seems to scream that staying home is necessary (at least in elementary years) for your children’s proper development.
I know I’ll have to go back to work full-time fairly soon. My divorce settlement, and California law, means that I’ll have much less to live on by the time my three-year-old is six. (California law says spousal support is only mandatory for half the number of years you were actually married, and begins the day of your legal separation. Part-time work won’t be enough, I’m afraid, to make ends meet.) I’m actually not frightened by all of this. I’ve worked full-time before and will work full-time again. Being a single mom with no family nearby and an Ex in Europe, means my little guys may find themselves home alone after school in the very near future.
I expect that many of you face this scenario already. And while you may desperately want to shield your youngest from growing up too quickly, there is really little you can do. I’ve decided that the best course of action is to decide right here and now not to ‘check out.’ Just because I may not be able to be with my boys each day after school—does not mean that my only option is to just hope it all goes well. I hope to enroll them in sports and after-school programs. I will try to find them male mentors. Because without all that, they’ll be left to their own devices, a lot, in L.A.—and there’s plenty of temptation here. To a certain extent, kids have to have enough room to find their own way in this world. But I know from experience that it’s critical not to turn a blind eye as a parent during the teen years. I am so thankful that I’ve put my divorce—and the madness that occurs when one parent is desperately trying to keep a marriage together—behind me. That chapter is closed. As someone who is now in her 40s, I see couples all around me who are beginning the middle-age malaise. You know what I mean. It’s that time in life when people start thinking critically about their choices, their life, their disappointments, their relationships, their dreams. It’s a time when many couples fall apart. It’s a time when many parents “check out” and focus on their own needs.
I lived through that. As I mentioned, my parents literally checked out as they focused on work and saving their marriage. I was completely on my own after school and had no curfews and no over-sight. Luckily, instead of rebelling in high school, I grew up. Little girls sometimes do that. I took on responsibility. I didn’t screw up or skip school or do drugs. I rose to the occasion by becoming a little adult. I had little fun, as you can see from my work ethic in college, but at least I didn’t do drugs or get pregnant. But I had neighbors, mentors and lovely teachers who helped me. Not all youngest children in my scenario would fare so well. And I imagine boys may be different. Thinking about my little boys in L.A., I wonder how I can help. There isn’t much we can do to slow down how fast our youngest children grow up—but perhaps we can help them make better choices? We can choose to keep lines of communication open. We can choose not to ignore them when we come home from work. We can choose to check in during the day by phone or have neighbors check in. Yes, even single moms who may work long hours away from home can find mentors, coaches, other moms and family to help us stay connected to our kids.
So I fully expect my youngest to idolize his big brother for years to come. My oldest is a sweet and thoughtful boy, but as a teen, he may get hit with teenitisis. Aren’t most teens obsessed with their friends and their own needs? I expect that there will be moments when he is supposed to be babysitting and friends are over. I expect that my Jamesy will experience many of the same things that I did as the smallest with much older kids at home alone. These moments will help shape and define him. There will be many lessons to be learned away from mommy’s eyes, and I have to be ready for that.
Thanks for reading! Phew, this was a long one! Please chime in if you have any advice or similar fears. X
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