Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Neglected Caboose

The other day at soccer practice as I was talking to another soccer mom, she sat her 18-month-old on the sidewalk and poured a snack directly onto the sidewalk for her daughter to eat. The mom looked at me and must’ve seen some kind of surprise on my face, and she said, “What? She’s the third…you know how it is.”

Indeed, I do. A parent’s standards of safety, cleanliness and general supervision decreases exponentially with each child they have. The surprise that my face likely revealed was not that a parent was using a sidewalk as a plate, but surprise that she so brazenly did it, with no attempt to pretend-look for a snack cup that wasn’t there, and that she offered no apologies and, embracing the Nike spirit, just did it.

I mention this not as a passing-of-judgment on this parent because, as she so accurately pointed out, I do know how it is. I remember, shortly after Declan was born, stumbling on a parenting “cartoon” on Facebook. It showed a sweet baby and had the caption, “First child eats dirt. Parent calls doctor. Second child eats dirt. Parent cleans out mouth. Third child eats dirt. Parent wonders if she really needs to feed him lunch.” I shared it and added something like, “Fourth child eats dirt. Parent is not even aware child ate dirt because she gave up a couple years ago.” And that was shortly after Declan was born. In the two intervening years, supervision and general parenting standards have only gone from bad to worse.

Later children (which I will identify in our family as the caboose on the Crazy Train) are cursed – and alternately blessed – by the “neglect” that results from being born into a family with many children and exhausted parents. As my mother’s sixth child, I often joke that, by the time I was born (and after having raised my often-in-trouble siblings), my mother had pretty much given up. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had no curfew and would occasionally come home at 3 AM on a school night. My brothers and sisters were often up-in-arms about what they claimed I “got away with” and “how easy” I had it in comparison to them. In a lot of ways, I felt micromanaged because I was almost an only child, having come so many years after all the others, yet in many other ways I take some credit in raising myself, as a result of a mother who had, after the antics of a pack of siblings who grew up wild in the free-wheeling 1970s, gotten tired and given up.

I’ve had several chuckles to myself over the sidewalk-as-plate incident. While I largely view the ingestion of dirt, germs and expired food as an exercise in immunity-building, I know that’s not always a popular stance to take, especially among parents with fewer children who are still motivated by high standards. Still, it’s always encouraging to know that I am not alone in my laissez-faire ideas, and that there just might be other parents out there who don’t bother to pick the cat hair off the lollipop that falls on the long-unvacuumed rug.

I frequently feel bad for my boys, thinking they are getting the short end of the parenting stick somehow. Grace’s hair was always combed, she always had proper outerwear, and her clothes were new and clean. Nadia’s hair was almost always combed, she usually had proper outwear and her clothes, though hand-me-downs from Grace, were still in pretty good shape from all of Grace’s intellectual, gentle-on-clothes, supervised activities. Liam’s hair is frequently uncombed, he sometimes has outerwear (today, as we were fighting for him to wear a coat, I may have actually said, “Go ahead and freeze! I don’t give a rat’s patootey!”) and he has whatever clothes Grandma sends him. As for Declan, I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever combed his hair in the morning, and he frequently brings the coat to me to remind me he needs one. His clothes sometimes match but often have holes. At least he’s dressed, right?

Ah Declan…my poor, neglected caboose. Since he doesn’t know any differently, maybe he’s not even aware of his neglect. Maybe, just maybe, he will grow up easy-going and carefree after his childhood in our madhouse. Maybe he will be self-sufficient and capable. Maybe he will be a peacemaker and negotiator. Maybe there’s good to come out of the craziness and “neglect” he’s growing up with. It’s the conundrum of the caboose – the blessings and the curses.

I’ve decided my fellow soccer mom is my new hero and muse, and I keep thinking of her as a radical pioneer. Back in the day when I only had three kids, I am pretty sure I was still at least minimally concerned with “keeping up appearances.” What she did was akin to burning a bra outside a Miss America Pageant a half a century ago. I wouldn’t have dared to do what she did! What a free spirit she must be, comfortable in her own parenting skin.

Either that, or she’s just too tired to care. Her poor, neglected caboose...