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Mothers Don't Have To Be Servants


I am visiting a neighbor, sitting in the kitchen, guzzling coffee and blabbing, when her 12-year-old daughter walks in and asks, "Can I have a glass of water?"

"On Mother's Day, moms across America will lie restlessly in bed and listen while a team of bunglers, which may or may not include Dad, noisily trashes the kitchen"
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Whereupon Mom gets up and fills the young woman's order.

I was so busy keeping my mouth shut that I could barely resume our conversation. But now I'm free to remark that kids will adapt to whatever level of service you provide. And I'm sorry to say that usually if the kids have a servant, her name is Mommy.

On Mother's Day, moms across America will lie restlessly in bed and listen while a team of bunglers, which may or may not include Dad, noisily trashes the kitchen – toasting, brewing, spilling and breaking – giving such a demonstration of incompetence that Mom won't want them to do anything for themselves for at least another year. Only the iron bands of tradition will keep her from leaping up to dodge the incoming tray of ill-prepared food and finding a shovel and wheel-barrow to begin the reclamation of the kitchen.

In our house, Mom gets breakfast in bed on Mother's Day, but our cute clumsiness is to no avail. She has let us know that the larger half of the gift is the cleanup.

"My wife Betsy was one of five kids, and although first-aid was rendered promptly, her mother was spread too thin to do much for children who weren't sick or bleeding."
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The Warden and I do pretty well at limiting the service in this institution, but we can't claim much credit for it. The key is numbers – the number of kids we were raised among and the number we have now.

I was one of three kids, and my mom had a full-time job. I wasn't given any chores, but I did have to serve myself. In grade school, I was never disappointed (or surprised) at lunchtime. My lunchbox contained the sandwich I'd made for myself. (Always mayonnaise-and-jelly on white, something no parent would make anyway.)

My big brother, being a firstborn, had certain expectations inspired by subconscious memories of those sublime two years when he was an only child and sole prince of the castle. Whenever he would demand royal treatment, my dad, who loved a fine phrase, and whose native tongue was Sarcasm, would say, "Steve, you were born to the purple." And Steve would fall silent, perhaps yearning back to the short, sweet reign of Stephen the First – when his wish was their command.

My wife Betsy was one of five kids, and although first-aid was rendered promptly, her mother was spread too thin to do much for children who weren't sick or bleeding.

If we'd only had one child, our self-service upbringing might have been forgotten. When your establishment has only one customer, you tend to indulge her. But our firstborn Marie tipped her hand early on. When she was a couple of days old, I asked Betsy, "What's this on her lip?"

"It's a blister from nursing," she said. "Tough life, eh?"

I remember thinking: This is a child who will bear watching. But the arrival of the other two pushed Marie down the path of rugged independence. Of necessity, our mottoes are "In a minute," and "Get it yourself." (Some mothers like to say, "I only have two hands," but this implies that if she had four, eight or a dozen hands, she'd be willing to employ all of them in the service of her children.)

Three-year-old Wendy still gets good service, but we cut back whenever new ability catches up with a desire to do for herself. She is awfully clever, possibly gifted – her shoes go onto the proper feet almost half the time.

Sometimes the ability is there, but the can-do spirit is lacking. When Wendy needs to use the toilet, she clutches at herself and leaps around, yelling to the nearest parent, "I gotta pee! I gotta pee!" "There's the bathroom," the parent will say, pointing the way. This exchange is repeated several times with rising emotion on both sides. It's a game of "Chicken." But eventually Wendy hops into the bathroom and performs.

It's always a near thing, and a hard test of parental policy, but super-service just prepares a child for additional super-service (which is expected rather than appreciated).

Since my own mother didn't have much time to act as servant, she decided the best approach was to teach us how to do things. As it turned out, she had even less time than we knew. When she died, I was 13, but I knew how to sew on a button, cook a dinner, bake a pie and iron a shirt.

I still needed her, but not for service.

Rick has written for parenting publications across the nation and currently resides in New Jersey. He can be reached at RickEpstein@yahoo.com. © 2008
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