It is wedged in my memory, the shock when I’d arrived at sleepaway camp in my teen-aged years, and noticed how neatly organized a friend’s trunk was. “My mom packed it,” she said, simply, as she began shelving a stack of color-coordinated white tees, that flowed into the yellow, and then green ones. I glanced at my own trunk, a jumble of shirts haphazardly folded by me, if you could call what I did “folding,” the stamp bearing my name, “Isseroff,” practically showing through the backs of my shirts, and half obscured on my socks as the fibers were too woven to actually hold the stamp. What I felt was not jealousy, though. I felt bad for her, that her mother had to do these things for her, and was proud of my own capabilities, no matter how inferior they were—that I knew how to manage the packing on my own. I would therefore be able to repack at the end of the summer, while she’d likely struggle.
It wasn’t just packing and labeling that I did. Throughout middle and high school, I made my own lunches, did my own laundry, purchased my own clothing with a budget my parents gave me, took the public bus or train, rode my bike to the public pool and helped bake or cook for Shabbat. I was also adept at washing dishes, setting the table and changing diapers. While I sometimes resented doing most of these things, as I knew how much nicer it would be to have my parents drop me off at a mall instead of sitting on a bus with strangers, or to have a maid do the laundry for me, I also developed a sense of autonomy, of not having to always rely on others to get by, and this sticks with me today.
But it hit me hard last week that as close to home as these values are to me, I wasn’t actually imparting them. Because of my autonomy, I have adopted an aura of “it’s easier to just do it myself than to ask/nag someone else to do it for me.” My wake-up time slowly creeps earlier and earlier, and my bedtime becomes later, as I absorb more tasks around the house that need to be taken care of, because I’d rather not bother anyone else to help out.
And then I was sick with a violent cough and cold, and it wiped me out, left me lethargic and cranky. My husband was conveniently away for work while my virus brewed, and I had no choice but to manage everyone and everything as I would on a regular day, while functioning to a lesser degree. The most rushed, tense time in our home is in the morning, when everyone descends to the kitchen and there are exactly 10 minutes until they have to leave for the bus. During that crunch period, there are so many requests shouted my way, so many dissatisfied children, that I did not make the correct blend of cereals (first Life and then Chex and not the opposite way), that my French-braid skills stink, that the antibiotics taste horrible, that the chocolate milk seems more like milk than like chocolate. While I am fielding these criticisms, I am also finishing to assemble the kids’ lunches, fill up their water bottles, microwave some pancakes, take the current foster dog for a walk and give him food and fresh water. On that day, there were too many things that needed to get done in the same short time span. There was too much pressure, too many demands, and because I was feeling so weakened and vulnerable, I just looked around and said, “Why aren’t you doing all of this yourselves? Why am I doing everything?”
I recently heard a comparison of a mother and a candle, able to give of its light endlessly without being diminished. But this felt incorrect to me. I was more like a bag of movie theater popcorn, passed around from one hand to the next, until there is nothing left but unwanted kernels. And then a child sticks his finger in the bag and licks out the last bit of butter, before crumpling the remnants onto the floor. I was a torn, spent bag, to be trampled on.
As I ushered them out the door a few seconds later, I warned my children that when they’d arrive home that afternoon, there would be a gigantic chart outlining the thousands of tasks they’d be responsible for. It would be so big, it would cover all of the walls in the family room. I was utterly and completely done with over-mommying them, and it was time to step back. I was becoming that parent who packed for her daughter. I was babying my kids who could really stand to be more independent. By trying to avoid confrontations with my children, I was simultaneously robbing them of the opportunity to be self-sufficient and to meaningfully contribute to our family life. Rushing to pour their cereal into a bowl would prevent a spill and ease the process of breakfast, but I was also creating an expectation of being served, of being incapable, of having things done for them all the time.
I didn’t get to make the gigantic poster boards right away. I didn’t actually ever make them, much to my kids’ delight. But I did sit down and type up individual charts of tasks I would require each child to perform on a daily basis, things I had demanded in the past and had enforced, but over time eased up on. And mixed with some new things. Making beds, turning off lights, picking up laundry. Preparing snacks and drinks for school, cleaning up after meals, sweeping the floor. Feeding the dog, walking him, putting away their shoes and book bags. It wasn’t crazy. It was just daily expectations that I hoped after seeing it as a checklist for several days, and being self-aware, they would absorb as part of their existences. To make this whole thing more palpable, on a whim, I threw in that at the end of the week, if the children missed no more than three responsibilities, I’d give them each a dollar. They were motivated.
The first night was a success. I only needed to dole out a few reminders to the kids to check if they completed every task on their charts. There was no “Clean up your plate!” demands every five minutes after dinner, and so that was really nice. The lunch boxes were lined up on the counter with the snacks put in. The next morning, nobody needed to be told to get breakfast because they all did it. And I felt a greater sense of relaxation. I could breathe easier as my load lightened up, and my own list got shorter. I could sleep five minutes later in the morning. I could teach my kids the importance of helping out and doing things for themselves.
The end of the story is that after a few days, the complex chart faded into oblivion as it was indeed, too complex. There were too many behaviors to work on, and in my zeal, the whole thing failed. Nobody earned a dollar, and I was back to doing most tasks, with the exception of my one child who internalizes rules and follows them, and probably memorized the entirety of the chart and committed it to routine. My other three settled back into their lazy selves.
And so going forth, I’m breaking it down, and slowly trying to reinforce one behavior at a time. I set out the bowls and cereal in the morning so that the kids will be cued to serve themselves. I pick up a wet towel and gently place it in the arms of the child who consistently drops it on the floor after a shower, nudging her to put it away. And the child in sleepaway camp is absolved from all of these duties, but hopefully is learning others ways of being self-sufficient; after all, she did pack her duffel bags all on her own.
By Sarah Abenaim
Sarah Abenaim is a writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected]