Yesterday I flew home from the beach to be with my husband for his minor surgery. While I’m not generally a fan of Southwest Airlines, they had the best fare and schedule, so that trumped preference. Slightly more savvy than with my first trip on Southwest, I had paid the ten bucks for priority seating thus knew my chances of a decent seat were pretty good.
With a packed gate area, there was the inevitable call for a volunteer to give up his/her seat, as the flight was oversold. I felt sorry for the elderly lady in the wheelchair by the podium, not because she might not get a seat, but because her portly, middle-aged son was making such a scene. At the same time, there was a young mom traveling on her own with two small children, a preschool girl and an eighteen month-old. She was struggling with the screaming boy who was arching, kicking and trying to wriggle out of her arms as only a toddler can do. To make matters worse, she didn’t know there wasn’t automatic pre-boarding for people traveling with small kids. But the gate agent took pity on her and she gratefully maneuvered a double stroller down the gateway while holding on to her flailing son, shouldering her purse and diaper bag, all the while calmly talking her three year-old daughter onto the plane.
The 60ish man standing next to me, unencumbered by anything but his self-righteousness, tried to catch my eye and that of the woman in front of me, and said, “what he needs is a good spanking”. She concurred, and added cynically “but they don’t do that these days”. I should have said something, but just lowered my eyes and shook my head. When I boarded, I spotted them a few rows back; the kids were briefly perched together by the window, while mom was trying to squeeze the diaper bag under the middle seat in front of her. Content to get an aisle seat at the front of the plane, and after years of traveling with my own children, I seized the opportunity to pay it forward by helping another mom, and sat down next to her.
Chase screamed and kicked for the first hour on the flight. Undoubtedly it was hard on the other passengers (luckily the seats in front of us held a couple with a two year-old of their own), but not nearly as hard as it was on his mother who did everything she could think of to calm him. At one stage she was clearly frightened, admitting that she had never seen her son this out of control. He was in a rage. It wasn’t her fault or his; it was just one of those things that toddlers do. And being confined to a middle seat on a crowded plane didn’t leave her many options. Despite how distraught she was over the whole situation, she never lost her cool. This was remarkable; I kept thinking about another son in a rage, back in the gate area, one that was fifty years his senior but still screaming like the infuriated toddler.
Most people have forgotten what it’s like to care for small children, much less to be one. It’s so much easier to criticize, complain and pass judgment than to empathize or help. The more I reflect back on my twenty year journey as a stay-at-home mom, the more indignant I become at the way society overlooks both the contribution and sacrifices of women like me. Working moms too, still bear the majority of the burden of childcare (not to mention housework), as well as the blame for “bad behavior”.
My seatmate shared, after Chase had finally fallen into a brief exhausted sleep, that prior to children she’d had a ten-year career in ad sales. She had earned a good salary, been well respected and connected. She had loved her work. By choosing to stay home with her children, she had given up more than a paycheck. Yet, I know the job she is doing now is even more important. How curious it is that despite the multitude of societal ills that inarguably spring from AWOL parents, employed or not, there continues to be such an under-estimation and under-appreciation for parents who do the job of parenting, despite its challenges.
I am convinced that devotion to the all-mighty dollar, has caused a dangerous devaluation of parenting. I wonder what it will take for the pendulum to swing back? The headlines of this week’s issue of New York magazine speak to another piece of the puzzle. In “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life. The Misery of the American Parent”, Jennifer Senior examines the issue. She cites several studies, one of which concludes that our abundance of choices -whether to have kids, when, how many - may be one of the reasons that parents are less happy. She also infers that the longer people put off having children, the greater the expectations AND the more you’re giving up. I would agree with this notion. Having my first baby at 27, I had only worked for a few years between college and graduate school. We were young and trying hard to pay the bills. I didn’t have to give up going to the gym, getting my nails done, or extravagant Sunday brunches; they were activities I didn’t do and therefore didn’t miss.
So our choices are to stop reproducing in favor of happiness, have children but hire others to do the dirty work, or expect and share the burdens and joys of parenting and with the understanding that, just like a blue chip stock, the rewards are not immediate but are well worth waiting for.
I do know there are rewards. I am experiencing them on a regular basis now. And I sure earned them. Frankly, I believe that I should have earned a salary as well. Just think how much better things would be if parents who chose to be the primary caregiver were actually compensated for the 24/7 job they do. It is hard, often thankless work. But paid or not, the long-term payoff for parenting with commitment and consistency has been sweet.
I never did learn the name of the mom though by the end of our flight I knew her daughter’s favorite Disney princess, that her son plays a mean game of peek-a-boo, her husband plays a lot of golf, she wants desperately to move back to Colorado, and that despite her raging toddler and a hellish plane ride, she was, and continues to be, a good mother. Mom to Grace and Chase, may your reward be as sweet as mine.