A scene for you:
My little girls are 2 and 4. It’s a sunny fall day, around dinnertime. I’m heading out to a writing program I’m taking at the university. It will be three hours of class followed by some much-needed beers with the other students. I can’t wait to get out. I’ve kissed the family goodbye, I have my bag slung over my shoulder, and I’m down by the street unlocking the minivan door.
Pan the camera back up to the front porch, from which a heart-piercing wail has just been emitted.
There is my family, the 2-year-old screaming “Mamaaaaa” like I’m being hauled away to an island prison by armed guards, her 4-year-old sister quickly following suit. My husband, God love him, stands there holding the toddler, trying to look sympathetic and simultaneously suppress an embarrassed smirk.
“Maaaaaaamaaaaaaa!” The howls reach an ear-popping decibel. The neighbors, arriving home from work and soccer practice, crane their necks to see what devilish harm might be coming to us — are we being assaulted, robbed, a case of domestic violence? Should they call 911?
No, but thank you. No need. Just par for the course around here any time one, or both of us, tries for an evening to escape. Leaving town for a whole vacation without them? Forget it. Our children do not approve of being left behind. It’s been this way for, oh, since they were born.
We do go out (I made it to my writing class that night, driving away shakily as the kiddie wails pierced an otherwise peaceful suburban tableau) but probably not as often as we should. (See photo for a recent “medallion” my older daughter, now 7, created and wore around her neck to bed that last time I slipped out for some adult stimulation. Like a knife to the heart, no?).
I don’t want to admit that our kids are in charge, that we have become so easily swayed by their preferences and predilections (and desperate love for us?) that my husband and I have squashed our personal lives and adult pursuits.
I’d rather frame it like this (it helps keep me out of therapy): As part of a younger generation of parents who work outside the home a lot, we have a different concept of “family time” than our own parents’ generation did.
We remember being left behind as kids with babysitters we barely knew. We remember how our own childhood family time was sometimes splintered by pre-divorce fighting, or by the social mores of the seventies and eighties that still contained sixties traces of “children shall be seen and not heard.”
I remember being a 12-year-old babysitter myself (almost unheard of in some strata today), having no clue how to take care of a child but being hired and entrusted by desperate-to-get-out parents of infants and toddler for marathon nights of care. I somehow kept the kids alive and got them to sleep, only to fall asleep on the couch myself or snoop through the parents’ poorly hidden copy of The Joy of Sex.
Can you blame me for worrying about a babysitter staying with my own kids?
My husband and I have no family here, no doting grandparents or aunts to entrust. Sometimes we swap with other parents for the night, and in recent years we have found a couple of trusted babysitters that our children like well enough.
But we certainly don’t go out every weekend like clockwork, the way that some other couples might, the way that every set of parents from a previous generation did.
Editor Linda Morgan recently explored this phenomenon. Economics factor in (a good babysitter in a metro city now starts at $12 an hour or more, and a night out can be prohibitive for some families), as do parents’ work-heavy schedules.
In her story she writes, “Today’s moms — lots of them — work outside the home. That means they see their children for just a few scrambled, dinner-jammies-story-and-bedtime hours each night.”
It’s true. If I leave them all day, entrusting someone else to supervise them, transport them, feed them, care for them, even help with homework, why would I want to leave them again in the evenings or on the weekend?
But it’s not just about mothers who now work outside the home more, as Morgan explores.
It’s fathers also. Fathers in my generation are participating more equally in parenting than ever before. There are statistics to prove this, but all I have to do is look around at my own circle of friends to see dads changing diapers, worrying about grades and tooth decay and masterfully braiding their daughters’ hair. Dads are reluctant to leave their kids behind, too.
We all have a different definition of family time. In our house, Saturday night is family movie night: We pick the movie, make homemade popcorn, and settle in together after a long and active day. Weekend days are for errands, activities and togetherness. Friday nights we swim and go out to dinner.
My husband and I get “alone time” — when the kids go to sleep.
And yes, we do take the kids along to dinner parties (where all the other parents of our ilk bring their kids). I admit to once asking (I’m now a little embarrassed about this) if I could bring my 2-year-old to an evening wedding reception because for some reason I couldn’t fathom leaving her behind. One year, we did Valentine’s Day at Wild Ginger downtown, our two fancy-dressed girls in tow. Va-va-voom.
I refuse to feel guilty about it (except maybe that wedding reception).
We haul our kids along and fail to leave them behind because of anxiety and a need to strive for perfection, some experts say.
“We worry they might miss out on a precious moment or that we’ll fail to offer them every opportunity we can,” says Seattle pediatrician Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson. “We have this compulsiveness about perfecting things and we think we have to share every journey with our kids.”
Maybe. I admit to being an anxious mother. When I fly on a plane without the kids, I worry I will crash and leave them motherless.
When someone else is driving them around, I worry that they’re buckled in correctly.
When they’re at school I worry someone will burst in and do violence to them.
Can anyone blame me?
But truthfully, I don’t think this anxiety that might indeed be encumbering my generation of parents is to blame for my lack of babysitting gumption.
Maybe I am just nursing the wounds of a divorced childhood, trying to fill the holes by rewriting the script. The shrink I don’t go to would probably tell me exactly that.
But I say this: I just love my kids. I love my family. I want to be with them most of the time.
And when I don’t, when we need a break or a romantic interlude that requires physical distance from laundry piles and howling banshees, we scrape together a plan and some cash and get that hopefully reliable babysitter over, who I pray will know what to do in the unlikely event of fire or choking.
We might indeed be addled by post-post-modern-parenting guilt, overly anxious and financially strapped, but I swear we can leave the kids screaming on the porch if we need to.
In between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and their two school-aged daughters.