Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The work which is always there

The household, as a live, dynamic thing, requires constant upkeep and endless work, from the most routine to once-in-a-while projects; there's always something to wash or clean, cook or bake, make or mend, plant or grow. And, most importantly, there are the people living in the house - each of them a unique individual with their needs, wants, hopes and dreams. 

When you live in your home full-time, there is undeniably more mess and upkeep involved than if the entire family steps out of the house in the morning and returns in time for dinner, being present only on evenings and (maybe) weekends. But a lot of work accumulates anyway. Clothes are worn, meals need to be made, dust settles down on surfaces. 

If you have a garden or pets or some livestock, it is even more so. Even while you are away, weeds keep growing, chickens keep laying and pets need to be fed and taken care of. Whenever I'm away from home for a couple of days, or we spend a couple of days on errands, I find myself rushing to catch up later: weeding, mucking out the chickens, picking up stray items blown into our yard by the wind (the winds are pretty strong here, so we get all sorts, from snack wrappers to plastic kiddie chairs).

But of course, most important of all are the children. There are simply no short-cuts here: while housework can be put on hold, children must be looked after. Someone must do it... and that someone is usually a woman. Daycare centers, preschools, kindergartens are all staffed overwhelmingly by women (I've never even heard of a man working in a daycare center or preschool, at least not in Israel). In schools, too, most of the teachers are women - the younger the kids are, the more pronounced this is. That is because young children respond best to a motherly figure... who, ideally, should be their mother. 

I do realize that in some circumstances even mothers of young children must go out to work (though in many cases, creative solutions can be found and sacrifices made in order to provide a full-time at-home caregiver for the family). However, one must remember that this isn't an ideal situation. Just a couple of generations ago, it was a matter of course that a married woman with children, whose financial circumstances are not so constrained that she absolutely must work for a living, will stay home with her children (and no one would ask her what she does all day long).

I find it especially ironic, and a little sad, that mothers get up in the morning, put their babies in daycare and go off to care for other people's children: they outsource their children to someone else, while making their living off other people who also outsource their children. Financially, economically it might make sense, but in straight thinking, emotionally, socially, it would be a lot better if everyone could simply take care of their own children (who were give to us by G-d to raise and bring up), perhaps occasionally relying on help from extended family such as grandparents and aunts. 

It's crucial to remember that at any given moment of the day, someone is taking care of the children. Their parents, or someone else. The children are well-cared for - or not. Happy - or not (though present happiness is no indicator of good upbringing). Well-nourished - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually - or not. Recently, two children in a local daycare center were found playing with a dead mouse. Apparently they had been playing with it for a while before someone paid attention. I'm not saying blunders are inexcusable, but there is a heavy price to the efficiency of a group of children herded together all day long - the inadequate, impersonal care too many children are getting; the generation of overburdened, overstretched, overworked women. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Does it all matter?

Rose Godfrey is a talented writer, a loving mother, and a very special person. I don't have very much time for reading blogs these days, but I do like to pop in once in a while and catch up with Rose. Usually, I find something to inspire, encourage, or cheer me up, such as this post:

"I wonder sometimes about making a difference. Wiping fingerprints off the walls and sweeping behind the toilet can be thankless tasks. Making dinner usually gets a few comments, though not all of those are compliments. “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings,” my daughter said one evening, “but dinner tasted a little burned.”

I commented:

"it’s incredible (or perhaps it isn’t…) to see how Moms to any number of children, all over the world, are facing the same questions/dilemmas. Since I got married, I never worked outside the home on a regular basis… and I still feel like I’m juggling. Baking cookies or taking care of the yard? A homeschooling assignment or getting everyone bathed while there’s plenty of hot water from the solar heater? Dusting or cleaning the toilet? (toilet wins). And those are just normal days, not Passover cleaning or moving house in a frenzy of packing boxes and garbage bags. I don’t know… I honestly don’t know if I’m doing enough, being the imperfect Mom who reads stories, hands out writing tasks, bakes cookies, takes walks, and sometimes breaks down and yells and then feels guilty. All I can say is that I’m hanging on to G-d, every hour of every day."

Rose replied:

" I think there is beauty in the struggle, in the waking up every day knowing that there will always be more dishes to wash and clothes to put away. Someday, if everything is clean all at once and the cookie jar is empty and the smudges are all off of the windows then it means that my home is empty. So we sweep up the crumbs and hope to reserve a few minutes each day in order to recollect our thoughts, and we get up the next day and do it all over again. Our payment? A few sticky kisses, a funny drawing to hang on the wall, sleepy “I love you”s that are whispered at bed time. Keep hanging on dear friend. We are all imperfect. Anyone who thinks she isn’t is delusional. Or very heavily medicated. Or both."

...So the bottom line is, yes, I believe we are all making a difference, as mothers - even if there's a lot of mess, grumpiness, frustrations and hair-tearing along the way. Every time we get up at night to nurse or comfort a child, every time we cook something that makes our loved ones smile. In all the seemingly modest ways, we are making a difference. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Why I love to make soup

Whenever I'm in doubt as to what to make for dinner, the answer is usually soup. Do you wonder why?

Image: oil painting of soup pot and vegetables, by Pat Meier-Johnson. 

It's easy. All you have to do is chop up some vegetables and throw them into a pot - carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini, whatever you have. I usually add a cup of red lentils for thick soup, or quinoa, or some pearl barley and the bony parts of a chicken (wings, back, neck).

It's economical. You get to use up all sorts of odds and ends you wouldn't know what to do with otherwise - a squishy tomato, the stem of a cauliflower, a slightly wilted sprig of celery, or, as I already mentioned, the bony parts of a chicken - and make a whole meal out of it. And usually you also get plenty of leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. 

It's efficient. Once you throw everything into the pot, you put it on the stove and let it simmer, stirring occasionally - and that's it. Minimal work, great outcome.

It's versatile. You don't need to follow any recipe. For me, soup is always some veggies, hardly matters which, and something to make it thicker - lentils, oats, barley, quinoa, rice, noodles or couscous. 

It makes for a cozy home. Soup cooking on the stove in winter makes the kitchen warmer and sends a delicious smell all over the house. 

It's healthful. Homemade soup is one of the most digestible foods there is. It's great at a time of the flu (especially chicken soup), upset stomachs, upset spirits or upset minds. 

So pull out a nice big pot and cook some healthy, delicious soup for all the family. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The eldest daughter

I see her in almost every large family that happens to have a daughter as their first-born child. She is mature and well-spoken for her age. She is kind and responsible, efficient and organized. She takes on the task of being her mother's helper, folding laundry, washing dishes and watching over younger siblings. 

She feels the importance of her position in the family, and enjoys the near-adult status this gives her, very early on. At the age of 12, she knows perfectly well how to clean a house, iron a shirt, diaper a baby and bake an excellent challah. 

This girl is a blessing to her parents, and doubtless she is acquiring many important skills that will help her in her future home. However, there is also a risk - a risk that the mother, especially the mother of an extra-large family with all its burdens and chores, will come to rely on the eldest daughter too much and too early. 

Now, I think it's excellent training for adulthood to give children age-appropriate responsibilities. My daughters know they are in charge of tidying up their room. They know they are responsible for keeping important art work stashed in appropriate files. They realize that if they take a book to read or look at, they have to return it to its proper place later. 

So what do I mean, exactly, when I talk of relying on the eldest daughter too much? How early is too early? Often the answer isn't clear-cut. But I believe it is undesirable when:

- an eldest daughter has very limited time for age-appropriate activities, such as playing, reading for pleasure, pursuing hobbies, or even simply quiet time for reflection and dreaming, because household chores and childcare are being heaped upon her. 

- household chores and taking care of younger siblings are hampering a girl's academic success (as in, an important math assignment goes undone because the young girl has to cook dinner for the family).

- a pattern is created when the eldest girl is expected to always act more mature and responsible than her siblings, even taking age difference into account. As in, when she was 10 she was expected to do the dishes every night, but when her younger sister reaches 10 years, no such responsibility is given her. 

- the eldest daughter is expected to take up the slack when her siblings shift away from responsibility  - as in, she picks up after her siblings, sorts their laundry, etc, even when they are developmentally capable of doing these things for themselves. 

A child is a child, and needs time to be a child, even if she is the eldest of numerous children. This is so very, very important to remember, even though it's incredibly tempting to allow a girl who is kind, obedient, and responsible to take up the lion's share of household chores. 

Note: I am specifically talking about girls, because it happens more often that a daughter becomes a mother's helper. However, I'm not saying it can't happen that an older boy is given a disproportionate number of chores compared to his older siblings. 

Naturally, the older children will pitch in and help more often and more efficiently than younger children. But in a well-functioning family, everyone does their share. Otherwise it's an unfair and unhealthy pattern. It is unfair to the child who gets heaped up with too many chores, and it's unfair to the other children, who grow up thinking it's OK to let others work for them. 

I have decided to write about it after observing several families who have (without even noticing it, I am sure) fallen into such a pattern, of heaping up too much responsibility on the eldest daughter (or daughters), as well as talking to several women who were elder daughters in large families, and report feeling overwhelmed, burdened, even taken advantage of, as they were growing up. This, later on, made them delay marriage and limit their number of children - that is, after growing up in a large family, they didn't want a large family for themselves.

In my own home, I feel I have the budding personality of just such a girl - mature, eager to help, responsible. That's fantastic, but when Shira (age 7) offers to pick up after her younger sister, or mop up somebody else's spills, I say no. No, because it isn't fair or just to have her do it, when everyone should do what they reasonably can to pitch in and keep the home running smoothly.