These days I spend a lot of time bending over, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. I bend over to lift my baby from the crib, I bend over to scrape my screaming toddler off the kitchen floor, I bend over to admire the bleeding hole in my 6-year-old’s gap-toothed smile. Each waking moment someone below me demands my attention; every time I need somethinga pair of tiny shoes, a dropped pacifier, a stuffed animal some child can’t sleep withoutI have to stoop to reach it. Most days I spend more time bending over than standing upright.
My children are still young, and I tell myself that this level of absolute servitude is merely to be expected when a person has three pre-literate children. I pick up toys, fold laundry, wipe snotty noses, peel and slice grapes so nobody chokes, and I tell myself that this is what responsible parents do. After all, little kids can’t operate a washing machine or be trusted with a knife.
But I have to admit that there are times when I wonder if I’m truly being a responsible parent. Yes, children have to be fed, but do they have to be fed peeled grapes? Do they have the right to soil four pairs of socks in one afternoon or to reach into their dresser drawers and find all their clothes folded with military precision? In the end, I ask myself, am I rearing good children or tyrannical brats who see the entire adult world as if it were their corps of personal servants? My friend Wanda, who is single, claims that all parents of small children have joined what she calls the Cult of the Child. According to Wanda, anything the Child wants, the Child gets, no matter the cost or inconvenience. The Child is hungry at dawn? The parents stumble from their beds and pour cereal. The Child doesn’t want cereal? The parents fry bacon. The Child doesn’t like bacon after all? The parents stir up homemade pancake batter, tossing in a handful of fresh blueberries, air-expressed from Chile.
Even when the parents are invited out for the night, Wanda says, they bring along the Child and start redecorating the hostess’s living room: “Just a little baby-proofing,” they explain, sticking an appetizer tray on top of the bookcase where only Michael Jordan could reach it.
“Whatever happened to babysitters?” Wanda wonders. “Whatever happened to playpens? Whatever happened to rules?”
These are questions I ask myself too, for like Wanda I grew up among people who had so many children they didn’t have time to slice the crusts off all their peanut-butter sandwiches. My own parents tended to view their children not as peremptory godlings but as miniature helpers in the business of life. As a child I suspected them of having produced us kids just to slave away at household chores that they themselves found least agreeable.
“It’s your turn to set the table, honey,” my mother would say, or “Would you please get the clothes in from the line?” or “I need the pincushion next to my bed.” I felt put upon, exploited, tyrannized. I vowed things would be different when I was a mother myself. No child of mine would scrape cold macaroni and cheese into the trash and wash the greasy bowl. No child of mine would ever hear the words “That book isn’t going anywhere. Put it down and come here this minute.”
Back when I was pledging the liberation of my unborn children, however, I didn’t know I was setting myself up to be brainwashed into the Cult. I’m not too dim to understand that regular household chores can play a role in developing a sense of both community and responsibility in young people. But, like most contemporary parents, I can’t help myself. Modern demographic forces have programmed me for membership.
In general, Cult members consider themselves intellectuals. They’re pretty oldat least 30when they first procreate, and they’re primed to see their own child, when it finally appears, as a hard-won treasure, perfect and unutterably precious. Godlike, in fact.
My friend Lucy, whose newborn slept in 12-minute increments for the first month of his life, completely rejected all suggestions for infant reform. “Have you tried keeping him awake longer during the day?” I asked her. “Have you tried tickling his feet when he nurses so he’ll take more at each feeding?”
Lucy looked at me in horror. “But he’s perfect just the way he is,” she explained, entirely without irony. “If he needs to eat every 12 minutes, wouldn’t it be wrong to try to change him?”
Initially, the perfect Child is helpless, and its very helplessness converts many parents to the Cult. Possessed of no weapon other than a wail, any newborn can demand, and receive, complete parental obeisance. Researchers have demonstrated that both the heart rate and blood pressure of any adultparent or notinstantly rise in response to the sound of an infant’s cry. Faced with a red-faced, screaming newborn, every adult in the world is seized by the compulsion to do whatever it takes to make the crying stop. Babies can go from silence to full-throttle howl in an instant. I once threw a full cup of coffee to the floor in my haste to get to my suddenly shrieking offspring.
Babies aren’t capable of manipulation, of course, but little kids absolutely are, and it can be difficult to tell when innocent babyhood ends and tyrannical toddlerhood commences. Thus, weary parents, habituated by months of instant response to a baby’s every demand, don’t notice that the infant who couldn’t find her own fingers to suck has become a competent little tyrant who draws up the daily menu, tries on and then rejects a number of outfits before selecting her attire, and summons the court Fools (Mom and Dad) when desiring any manner of entertainment. All this, plus a dozen storybooks, all 12 verses of “Amazing Grace,” and a languorous back-scratching every night at bedtime.
My first son was 4 years old before it occurred to me that any child with the dexterity to place a one-centimeter-long sword into the tiny hand of a two-inch-tall Playmobil pirate was also fully capable of gathering up his thousands of infinitesimal Playmobil accouterments and putting them back into the bin where they belong. When I suddenly stopped picking up his toys, however, and rose from the floor to point out this reality to my little boy, he just looked at me in disbelief: “I can’t do all this work,” he said. “What am I anyway, your servant?”
Without knowing it, my own son had rescued me from the Cult, deprogramming me in a single instant. These days he has his own responsibilities: He feeds the dog, clears the table after dinner, and picks up his own toys. As he’s carrying his plate to the kitchen every night, he grumbles, vowing all the time that when he has children they won’t have such a hard life. My husband and I sit at the table and try not to smile.
Even while we’re sitting there, though, basking in our freedom from the tyranny of the Cult, our middle boy, just turned 2, starts demanding an olive from his father’s salad bowl, just as the baby wakes up howling in the bassinet. My husband and I leap to our feet, turning over a chair and both water glasses in our hurry to silence this cacophony. My husband spears an olive slice and puts it on his second son’s plate, and I screech into the bedroom, picking up the baby and murmuring, “It’s OK, honey, I’m right here. Whatever you need, I’m right here. I’m right here.”
I stop myself just before I genuflect.