I went back to teaching this semester, and the conversations I had with my students were so rich and enlightening I wish I recorded and posted them all here. Instead I barely wrote at all because I was swimming so deeply in all of their wonderful ideas I had little time to write down any of my own. So I’m taking this lazy post-holiday-break Monday morning filled with the profound silence of a childless home to write down one moment of clarity I remember from the fall.
It started in September when Boo lost her eyeglasses. You know how, when you lose important things, you can usually say when you last had them, or where you last saw them, or where you remember being when you had them last? Wouldn’t this be kind of something you’d remember if the item you lost actually helped you to see? Wouldn’t you be able to say, “Um, well, things have been kind of blurry since Monday, so I guess that was the last time I had them”? Sure you would. Unless you’re Boo. Because Boo had absolutely no recollection of the last time or place she had her glasses. I mean, at all. And because her glasses are not on my face and because I have other things to deal with, I had no idea the last time I saw them, either. Complete blank.
So she comes out of her room one Wednesday morning (and of course it was a Wednesday, because that’s one of my work days where I have absolutely NO TIME for anything but get up, get dressed, eat, get out the door) and she says “I can’t find my glasses.” Now, Critter and I are ready to go, and we have five minutes, so I tell Boo to put on her shoes and Critter and I will start looking. Seeing how Critter finds EVERYTHING, I had no doubt she would locate Boo’s glasses in record time.
We had no luck. We searched under beds, on nightstands, in drawers, but nothing. And then I started looking for Boo. Where was she? On the couch, shoes on, reading her kindle.
I’m sorry, what? She was doing what?
She was reading her kindle.
Had she found her glasses? No. Nope. Not at all. She was just sitting there, chillin’, reading her kindle while Critter and I searched through the rooms for the glasses.
It was at that point that I felt my blood turn to ice and my heart grow hard as stone.
Okay, not really, but I was pretty angry. And I LOST IT. Now, I’m sure you think that when I say I lost it I started screaming, or yelling, or getting all Italian on that kid. But no. Not at all. I just felt something crack, and that inner voice said, “If she doesn’t care, I don’t care. I’m done.”
I gave the customary order to get their stuff together and get in the car. Boo looked up from her kindle and said, “Did you find my glasses?”
“But I can’t see the board without my glasses,” she said.
“Well, that’s not really my problem, is it?”
“But you said you’d look for them,” she whined.
“I did look for them,” I said. “Critter helped me. We did not find them. Maybe if you had tried to look for them too, instead of sitting there reading your kindle, you would have found them.”
“But how am I supposed to get through the day?” she asked.
“Without your glasses, I guess.”
She started to cry. And for the first time in ten years with this child, I. Didn’t. Care. At all. Not even a little bit. “Boo,” I started as we backed out of the driveway, “This is clearly upsetting you, and that’s a good thing. You need to take a lesson from this. As your teachers say, 4th grade is the year of personal responsibility. It is your job to keep your things in order. It is your job to know what you have to keep track of. It is no longer my job. You are almost ten years old. You are growing up. In less than eight years you will be legally eligible to drive a car. If you cannot remember the last place you saw the eyeglasses that you keep ON YOUR FACE, how are you ever going to find your car in a parking lot? How can I trust you with a machine that can kill people? So yes. Be upset now. Be distraught about the fact that you have to walk into your classroom and tell your teacher that you lost your glasses, you can’t find them, and now you can’t see. And when you get home you will do your homework and then you will do NOTHING but look for those eyeglasses. They are YOUR responsibility. No one else’s. And you’re going to step up and take care of this.”
“What if I can’t find them?” she sniffled.
“Then you will get new ones, and you will pay us back for them,” I said.
“Why are you being so MEAN?” she asked.
I paused. I thought. I remembered all the fairy tales I’d been reading with my students containing an evil stepmother. And an idea started to form, one that I thought about the entire way to the university that day. It started with my response to my daughter, though, when I said, “I’m sorry that you feel that asking you to take care of yourself, to take responsibility for your actions and your things, seems like me being mean. I don’t want to be mean. I want you to know I love you. But part of that love is, and always has been, giving you limits. And right now I’m establishing a new limit–I am not your maid any more. I am not going to clean up your messes. I am not going to find all the things you lose. This is now your job. And the sooner you learn how to do it, the happier everyone will be.”
She cried the whole way in to school that day, and thankfully I found a friend to walk in with her and help calm her down. I also sent her in with a hastily scribbled note of apology to her teachers for contributing to her weepy mood. But that was it. That’s all I did. And then I went to work.
On the drive I will admit that I cried. I called my husband and just wept tears of frustration, annoyance, and anger at myself and at my bubble headed Boo. He supported me, of course, as he does in everything, and told me that we’d figure it out, that it would be fine, and that he’d email her teacher from work to see if she’d left her glasses in her desk or something. Confident that I had done the right thing and that I had another brain supporting the effort toward personal responsibility, I went into class. By now my students were used to cheery Diane, so when they saw mascara-slightly-smudged distraught Diane, they kind of gave me those looks. Those “You’re my professor and you seem approachable and you’re kind of upset but I do not want to break boundaries and pry but I am paying attention to you if there’s anything you need to tell us.”
So I just launched. The class was all about fairy tales, and there was still at this point a little bit of resistance to what my students had come in thinking were “children’s tales.” Granted, reading the Brother Grimm’s version of Cinderella called “Donkeyskin,” (in which Cindrella’s dad decides the only woman as wonderful as Cinderella’s dead mom is Cinderella herself, and seeks to marry her, which drives her to dress herself in the skin of a donkey to escape the palace before her scheduled wedding to her FATHER) kind of disabused them of that notion already. But I think my outburst that day kind of sealed the deal in convincing them that fairy tales might have more of an impact on adults than kids.
I started by briefly describing my frustration with my daughter’s lost glasses, and then continued, “You know, the evil stepmother gets a bad rap. As a matter of fact, in the original stories she wasn’t even a stepmother. She was the actual mom. But the Grimms changed that because they didn’t want to suggest that a MOTHER could do these things to her own biological child. Because, really–what mother would cast out her children into the wild? What mother would make her own child fend for herself? What mother would ask her child to do household chores?”
But you know what?” I continued. “This morning I realized, what mother DOESN’T? What mother NEVER sends her child out into the world by herself? What mother makes NO demands on her child to do some work around the house? What mother, at some point, doesn’t say, “Get off your butt and take some responsibility for your own life”? What mother, at some point, does NOT become the evil stepmother? Because that is exactly what happened to me this morning. I turned from the loving, doting, caring, serving, selfless mother to the demanding, unfeeling, heartless, angry stepmother. I drew a line, and that line was that my daughter was going to have to take some personal responsibility. And in so doing I became mean.”
“My mom is mean all the time,” one of my students said. “Especially when I raid the refrigerator before dinner.”
“HANSEL AND GRETEL!” I exclaimed. “That’s gotta be Hansel and Gretel, right? Two children, living in their parents’ house at a time of famine. The stepmother tells the father that there is just not enough to eat, and that they’re going to go out the next day and leave the kids in the forest to fend for themselves. The heartless parents take them out into the woods and leave them there. That seems completely cruel, and so we cheer for the kids as Hansel follows a trail of stones back to the house, thwarting the parents’ plans. So the parents take them out again, and this time Hansel chooses to use bread to leave a trail. Bread. At a time of famine? Dude is wasting bread? Really? Did he do dumbass things like that at home? Because if so, no wonder mom decided he was a liability to the survival of the family.”
“That’s true!” another student said. “That was wasting food. I get in trouble for that all the time!”
“And then what do they do when they get lost in the forest?” I asked.
“They cry,” one student replied.
“And then they set out to try to find their way home,” another said.
“But the birds ate all the crumbs,” said another, “so they end up at the witch’s house.”
“And they do what?” I asked.
“They start eating,” replied another
“Yes,” I said. “They’re lost, hungry, tired, and sad. But hey! As luck would have it, they come upon a house. The house is made of gingerbread and candy. Do they knock on the door? Do they ask the person inside for help? No. THEY START EATING THE HOUSE. At this point I’m thinking, “Hmm. Maybe the parents had a point. The kids waste bread during a famine, and then they move on to eat a person out of house and home without even asking. Maybe they needed to be taught some personal responsibility.” And sure enough, the witch notices the kids gnawing on her walls and decides to bring them in and show them what real cruelty is. You think it’s bad your parents left you in the woods? Well I’M going to eat YOU!”
A student raised her hand, “And then they had to fight off the witch. And didn’t we read an article that talked about how Hansel and Gretel is about learning to fend for yourself and take responsibility for taking care of your own life?”
I love students who do the reading, by the way.
“Yes, exactly,” I replied. “In fighting for the witch they show some real ingenuity. In the Brother Grimms’ version of the story, Hansel spends a fair amount of time tricking the witch into believing he is not yet fat enough to eat by poking a stick out of his prison instead of his arm. But when she gets too hungry to care, Gretel is the one who tricks her into going head first into the oven which she then slams on her, killing her. The kids work together, cooperatively, to save themselves. Later in the tale they have to cross a river on the back of a swan, and they have to do so one at a time, individually, further showing their maturity. When they arrive home they do so with riches they acquired on their journey. Their stepmother has died, and they end up providing for their father for the rest of their lives.”
We went on to continue talking a little about Hansel and Gretel before we got down to the work of the day, but this idea dogged me as I drove home that afternoon. In Hansel and Gretel these kids leave home, have to overcome obstacles, and return home with riches. Isn’t that what most parents want for their kids? Go to school, go to college, get a job, and put me in a nice old folks home? The only thing that seems awful about Hansel and Gretel’s family is that they threw them out rather than waiting for them to leave on their own. Yet at a certain point don’t some parents have to encourage their kids to leave the comfort zone of their homes either going off to summer camp, or college, or to find a place of their own? Don’t some children resist, preferring to have their meals provided and laundry done for as long as possible? And don’t at some point some parents have to say, “Enough. Out. Now.” Those, I think, have to channel their inner evil stepparent. They have to put their own needs above the wants of their children–because their children are not children any more. They are adults, and need to be treated as such. Even if that means seeming mean for a little while.
Let’s look at Cinderella. Once again we have a stepmother, and now we have stepsisters, and they expect Cinderella to do all the cooking and cleaning in the house. What child, asked to clean a living room, has NOT said, “BUT I DIDN’T MAKE THAT MESS! MY SIBLING DID!” I was an only child, and I did it, trying to blame the dog. This sense that Cinderella had to do EVERYTHING for EVERYONE could have just been serious teen melodrama. I’ve seen a preview of this many times in my preteens. I’ve started to expect them to sometimes make their own breakfasts and clean their rooms. When these expectations started, you would have thought I asked them to clean a palace. But with a little encouragement and self-starting, now they quite enjoy making their own cereal, or oatmeal. Boo can even make some awesome scrambled eggs with adult supervision. I don’t think they’ll ever enjoy cleaning their rooms, but I hate cleaning my house, so maybe that’s kind of genetic.
So the stepmother tells Cinderella that she has to do some chores before she goes to the ball. Yup. Sounds evil all right. And all of my fellow moms who have ever said to their child “You cannot go to so-and-so’s birthday party unless your room is clean” are all part of that evil stepmother club.
“But moooom! I want to go to the paaarrrrtttyyyy. And I don’t want to do any wooorrrrkkkkk.”
“Get your butt in your room and get it cleaned up or no party.”
And then comes the day when it happens–they call our bluff. They just don’t do it. And we have to make that phone call of shame, which now might be the email/text of shame: telling the parent of the child to whose party we have already RSVP’d yes that our child cannot attend the party because they did not fulfill their obligations. If we’re lucky, we get a “Good on ya, mom! That’ll teach ’em!” If not we get the, “Oh, but can’t they just come to this party just once? My child will be so sad if they’re not there!” Then we have to do the deep breath, ten seconds of thought, angel on the shoulder saying “stay strong” and devil on the shoulder saying, “You don’t want to disappoint the birthday child, now do you?” and we have to make that split second decision of whether the damage to the birthday child’s psyche will be worse than the damage to our own child’s sense of who we are as enforcers of personal responsibility. Hopefully the angel wins out and we say “I’m so sorry. If you need to, just tell your child my little one is sick or something. But I really have to stand firm on this.”
After that’s settled and we’ve stuck to our guns, we have to deal with the other end of the issue–our own child, who has somehow transformed into a tazmanian devil of id, doing anything from mild sulking to wild screaming about THE INJUSTICE. THE HORROR. THE SADNESS. THE UNBELIEVABLE UNFAIRNESS OF IT ALL. This makes us sad. We question ourselves. We worry. We maybe cry a little, too. And then, lo and behold, we look–and the ROOM IS CLEAN. The Augean Stables smell of lilacs and roses. The many headed hydra of the messy floor is defeated. And we realize we did the right thing. Our child learned something, and maybe one day her prince–or his princess–will come into her or his house and NOT say, “What is that smell? And is that a tumbleweed or a dust bunny? Is that a cat or a rat? And why is that wall MOVING??” before running out the door.
Snow White has to learn to tend house for seven little guys before she can finally get her prince. Cinderella has to go through a lot of chores. Hansel and Gretel need to prove themselves in the world. And none of it would have been done if the evil stepmother hadn’t taken some action. Was she too harsh? Sure. Could she have been nicer about it? Absolutely. If she had acted with love instead of hate, would that have been better? Of course. But should we all, at some time, be proud to release the inner stepmother? You’re damn right we should. And so as we head into this new year, sifting through the Christmas detritus and trying to fit yet another year’s presents into rooms that are seeming ever smaller as our kids grow bigger, remember–it’s not all on us, moms. The kids can take some responsibility too. As a matter of fact, they should. And if you have to mobilize your inner evil stepmother to get them to do it, so be it. It will serve them well in the end. Just don’t tell them you want their hearts on a plate for dinner. That’s a bit over the top.
Happy new year!