Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock: Motherhood, Part 1, at School

This is a post from February 2012. I've bumped it up because I've had a few friends ask about it, I seem to have new readers, and because I will revisit and build on these themes at PJLifestyle soon.

In case anyone wondered if I was just a Brit basher who thought everything in America was bigger and better, allow me to put that notion to bed.  Sit back with a soothing cup of tea.  This will take a while.     
By far the most extreme reverse culture shock has been the nature of American motherhood.   
I thought I was prepared.  I started fighting American motherhood (thanks, Maverick) when Christopher Robin was born.  I braced for the return to the States.  Still, the awesomeness of the beast has shocked me.  Not only have I been gone for five years, but I’ve been living in a culture with motherhood issues on the opposite end of the spectrum.   When British motherhood goes of the rails it tends to too little motherhood, but when American motherhood goes off the rails--far more often than its British counterpart by the way--it tends to all consuming motherhood.  An interesting post for another time: Brits have different attitudes about nannies and schooling, often farming childcare wholly out to the nanny or sending kids to boarding school as early as 8.  A sentiment I have often heard that will make Americans' jaws drop to the floor: by 12 or 13, many British parents think their active parenting work is done; the rest of their formation is a job for schools, peers, and society.
Obviously the goal is a balance between the two extremes.  After spending most of early motherhood in London, I am more in tune with British mothers and think that we should take more lessons from our British counterparts.  Not only are British motherhood problems less frequent, but also they don’t necessarily destroy that which they seek build, happy and functional adults.  
Mothering over here reminds me of studying for the Bar exam.  There is so much information to understand that, during the weeks of review, every time you go to the loo, go to sleep, or stretch your legs you worry about wasting those precious study minutes.  The difference with the Bar exam is that the study period only lasts about six weeks.  American motherhood has the same sense of squeezing every moment for purpose and significance, only with no end in sight.  
The relentless nature of American motherhood  tries to do, give, and be everything our children need, and thereby exempts children from responsibility for just about everything and actively promotes their continued dependency on parents.  (I've written about why we do this previously.)  Not content with such irony, American motherhood has few advantages for women as well.  It can rob mothers of a sense of self and chip away at the foundations of marriages leaving mothers fractured and alone. (Fathers can fall to this child-centered life as well, but I will focus on mothers, because the issues a more acute for mothers, and I am one so know more about it.) To round out the horribleness, I seldom noticed the Mommy Wars in London, but I can't fail to notice them here.  They are hotter here.
I have two final notes before I start ranting.  One, isolate any one of the issues mentioned below, and the problem is not apparent.  The damage wrought by American motherhood results from these issues working together.  Think of a death spiral.  Two, this American motherhood is a battleground chosen by the affluent.  The plights I will describe are less dire than, for instance, inability to feed a family, and as such are often dismissed as not real problems.   But smaller problems are still problems, which is why they are only diminished by comparison to extreme hardship.  Worse, middle and lower class mothers get caught in the crossfire of our battle.  They are often left mired in guilt or stranded without options, or both.  To use an expression mothers will understand, we made this mess, we have to tidy it up.  And as the self help books tell us, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one...

I knew I had underestimated the transition right from the start.  In London I was above average for mother involvement.  Actually, I was slightly above average for the nursery school, whereas for Hill House, I annoyed some mothers because they thought I was a busybody, that American with the clipboard.  Since the move home, I have not changed my level of kid involvement, but here, within 6 weeks I realized that I am just a notch above complete slacker.  By the end of last term, I started receiving personal emails from teachers and homeroom mothers reminding me of things I could volunteer to do. (More on that below.)  Two mothers were shocked to learn that I didn’t work.  They just assumed that I was a working mom.  One even mentioned how I dress! (The idea that I am well dressed is shocking to me.  I strive not to be a slummy mummy, but the London merely-not-slummy apparently equals Houston yummy mummy.  In truth it is probably that I didn’t wear my gym kit to dropoff, which is standard uniform for stay at home moms.)
So what exactly was I expected to do?
I have 4 children in two different schools and was, therefore, invited to the before-school-starts coffee for each school, the school start coffee, the grade level coffees for the older children, and class coffee for the Things.  That was seven coffees in half as many weeks.  
Another example, I started this post last Fall, in the parlor of the Things school.  I dropped them at 9, but that day was the Fall Festival, to which parents have to accompany their children.  My Things slot was 10:30 to 11:30, so I had a little over an hour, which any experienced mom will tell you, is not enough time to be getting on with anything.  The festival is in the soccer field across the small--in American scale--school's parking lot.  The Things’ class has eight children and two teachers.  That is, the 4:1 ratio class has to walk perhaps 25 yards across a dormant parking lot to an enclosed football pitch, yet the mothers must attend.  Someone might get hurt, lost, need to go to the loo, I guess. A mere six weeks into school, and that was the second mother participation event.   The girls missed a trip to a farm two weeks prior that mothers didn't have to attend, but had to drive their own children.  The farm was a little over an hour out of town.  I didn't think I could make it back in time for the school bus for the older children. Plus, even if I didn’t need to go into the farm, productive activity for a housewife is limited in the country from 9:30-1:30.

But American mothers are far more likely to have a sense of wanting to experience the joy of such events with their child.  In fact, I would bet that most American mothers reading this wonder what I am going on about.  On the other hand, I fully expect any British mother reading to have to stop to shake her head and sputter.  And here lies the heart of the problem: it hasn't occurred to American mothers to mind any of this.  British mothers would have protested by the third coffee.      
Not that British mothers aren't involved at schools. At my rather-intense-for-Britain nursery school, sections rotated weekly excursions to the park.  Most of the time two teachers had to prep 15+ children for weather (no small job in London), walk further on London sidewalks to the bus than these kids have to walk to the football pitch, drive 10 minutes to the multi acre park (usually Battersea), and haul bags of games equipment for a mere 45 minute romp.  It was all part of a Health and Safety initiative to get London school children outdoors more.  The school always had a mom or nanny go along for extra hands.  Sometimes they got lucky and two moms or nannies came along.  The upshot was, a mom like me, with twins (we are expected to do double duties both here and in London, though that was merely implied in London, while I was informed in writing here), went on about two outings a year.  

Here, the first weeks of school also saw elementary school orientations (three, in fact, one for the school and one each for Christopher Robin and Cupcake), Parent’s Nights, various open PTA meetings, or, get this, beautification projects.  On a certain Saturday in November we could spend 8:30 to finish planting trees and shrubs on the elementary school playground.  As mentioned, there is little objectionable about any of those things individually.  In fact, I was sad to miss the beautification Saturday.  It is the volume that overwhelmed.
One might counter that I am discounting the activity level required for British school, which have fancy fundraiser nights in December that require tons of man hours to plan and collect donations for auction making the autumn term at least very busy.  I'm not discounting it.  I can just trump it.  The elementary school had our huge auction at the end of October.  The nursery school auction was the following week.  That was just the Fall fundraisers.  Rodeo is coming up now.      
An interesting aside, there is a major difference between American and British school fundraisers: we fund raise for the schools, not charities.  The idea that tuition is sufficient to pay for a school's needs is completely foreign to the American school system.  Private schools rely on fundraising, as do public schools.  A short version of the Texas tale, similar to tales across the country: state schools are funded by property taxes.  School districts with valuable property had more money than others.  The courts shut that “unfair” system down a while back leading to the "Robin Hood" regime whereby property taxes go into a pool and are divided equally throughout Texas.  Wealthier areas, therefore, supplement their school budgets with fundraising.   The charitable function performed by British school fundraising is served by a host of other organizations such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, National Charity League, the Junior League, and by our well attended churches.  I covered this a bit here, but for now, I digress. 
The upshot is that the elaborate school functions not only create more work for the actual parties, but also create more need for fundraising.  More and better fundraisers mean fancier functions and facilities.  The trends feed each other.   
Witness the school fairs. The Fall Festival I mentioned, it reminded me of the London nursery school field day merged with the Christmas Fair if it also had a bubble machine, zip line, class pictures, and--I am not making this up--a DJ. I did a stint on the nursery PTA in London.  Planning for our much smaller Christmas Fair took some man hours.  I can only imagine how much work this Fall fest took.  In addition were the typical holiday parties (though don’t call them Christmas parties in a public school). There are also teacher appreciation luncheons.  The moms bring food and cover the class so the teachers can have a morning off.  (For the British moms who have to keep reading that last because it can't possibly say that—I assure you, this happens.  We took brownies.)
At least in America we have semesters, not three terms each with a week long half term, right?  I looked forward to that, only to be mildly disappointed.  Yes, we have fewer long breaks, but we have loads of short ones.  In the first six weeks we had Labor Day (September bank holiday), a teacher in-service, and time off for parent teacher conferences.  The kindergarten teacher at least did her conferences on a Saturday.  By comparison, the London nursery had parent teacher conferences before school over a few days or one evening so both parents could attend.  Hill House?  They had one parent night a year.  If you wanted more conference than that, you called to make an appointment.  
I’ve yet to mention those volunteer opportunities alluded to in the introduction. In addition to the standard fare, accompany a field trip, read a story to your child’s class, etc. I can do everything from shelve books in the library to play teacher assistant for my child’s class to answer phones in the office.  (That might just be PTA moms--I’m not up there enough to know.)  How have I avoided it so far?  This is classic: I haven't yet taken the volunteer training at either school. Yes, we must be trained to do such things.  
I've not done so for a host of reasons, the least important of which is that I am afraid that the volunteer training might have something to do with don't touch the children/assume everyone a potential pedophile/precautionary principle/bring a bottle of hand sanitizer affluent American mentality, and I just can't fight those battles yet. 
More substantively, I don’t think parental classroom involvement is a great idea. Kids often act up or cling when their mother is in the room.  Furthermore, kids need to have authorities beyond their parents.  If I am up there all the time, I undercut the teacher’s ability to establish her own authority with my child.  (By the way, “her” is not just PC.  Between my 4 children, there is one male teacher, for gym.)
The common counter argument I hear for volunteering in the classroom is that it is a good way to know what is going on in your child’s life, academics, teacher dynamics, and kid interaction.  Yes, it is a good way to keep tabs on such things, but it is a horrible way to teach children to negotiate small battles on their own.  Letting go happens in small steps.  It should happen in small steps.  If we don’t allow them a little independence and smaller consequences in grade school, neither child nor mother will be prepared for the break at adulthood.  Therefore, absent evidence of a significant problem, I am not inclined to hang around my children’s classrooms.  But I have learned that this is not so simple, which brings us to the next topic, academics, which I will post soon because with academics, sports and social life, and health still to go, I might bump up against some previously unknown blogger post size limit.

18 comments:

Megs said...

I was pregnant with baby #1 when I said at a dinner party, "But I don't think my job as a parent is to make my child happy." How dare I? When the other parents looked at me like I was naive, I continued, "I think my job as a parent is to prepare my child to be a self-sufficient adult who will have the awareness and skills to do the things that makes oneself happy."
Now that I'm five years down the road, I cling to this. I may occasionally fall into the "just make this child happy" moment, but overall my philosophy is still the same - my existence does not revolve around making my child happy. My child's existence is able allowing them to participate in my life not the other way around. And while I sometimes hear mothers agree with me heartily, I can also still detect some inner cringing at the idea of their child being denied something they might give.
I heard a young man (last of 6 children) justify that his parents had bought him a new truck (no payments and no insurance cost to him). He said, "The way that I see it, your parents try to do the best by you that they can. When the older kids needed cars, my folks did the best they could and right now they are doing the best they could for me." BTW, the other kids got loans co-signed for well-used vehicles and got to pay their own insurance. Let me just say that my own parents would not have handled it this way and my upbringing by them made me recoil with the missed chance to teach character to the youngest that the older children had the benefit of having.

BTW, I'm frightened enough about my children entering school. Ugh. I would very much prefer to avoid exposing them to what I've heard called "Affluenza."

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the jungle. Definitely watch out for Affluenza. That affliction causes one to lose perspective on your own blessings which leads to envy and discontentment, perhaps even to anger which leads to hate which leads to suffering, much will you have. Little kinder child, along with the rest of the grades, performed in a school choir concert. The family watched. Then, when we met up with kinder and were just about to start our oohing and aahing over how great the kids were, she demanded a flower. Turns out many parents were presenting their child a single red rose in honor of the event, and not just cut from a rose bush. Well, sorry lovey, not having you peak in kindergarten. I'll get you flowers when you walk down the isle, become a mom, complete whatever preparation required to launch grown-up life, etc. Yes, cold hearted and she pouted. Then, had to inform her that we were all there. Olders still had homework to do, some family members had delayed dinner in the rush to make the start time, and we all had endured the difficulties of a much too small venue and lack of organization. Further, the gracious thing to do when someone attends your performance is to say, "Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoyed the show." That disease strikes young and old. Can't even remark about the demands for involvement and money from the schools, too agitating. Mental blockers failing...must go breath...inhale 2,3,4...exhale 2,3,4...inhale 2,3,4... Maverick
p.s. since I am a late adopter for technology, don't yet know how to "select profile"

AHLondon said...

Megs, Mav is right, welcome to the jungle. It is bad. Really bad. This post was mere warmup. "I think my job as a parent is to prepare my child to be a self-sufficient adult who will have the awareness and skills to do the things that makes oneself happy." You keep clinging to that. It is the antidote. It will save you, time and time again. And your instincts about other mothers are spot on. Staying this course is hard. Just ask Maverick and I. I don't write the blog because I'm bored. I want company.

Maverick, I'll make you a profile if you'd like. And sorry I haven't called yet. In an hour or so.

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Anonymous said...

Blimey o' riley. M&M is exhausted just by reading your note. I am utterly amazed at the differences between us.....I shall never again moan about feeling as if I live at school. I am merely a casual drop-in!

Come home...you are clearly one of us now.....I mean it. I miss you, so pack 'em all up again partner and ride the pond eastwards back to good old Blighty. It's months before the next Christmas onslaught....

AHLondon said...

My dear M&M, yes, in this regard I am clearly British, and if it weren't for some family issues then I might have already returned to London. I mean this in the kindest way, but British mothers are but novices in the intensive mothering game. And I'm a novice who doesn't even want to play. This in Houston, for goodness sake! My London to Houston comparison isn't on par. I'm not in the American Major League of New York, a mothering game I can't imagine simply because I don't want to.
And I'm just getting warmed up on this subject, though I've been distracted for a few weeks. I'll fill you in later.

nooneofanyimport said...

"And here lies the heart of the problem: it hasn't occurred to American mothers to mind any of this."

Boy were you right about our topic merging. I covered only the child's take-home work, but you sure reminded me of all the "mommy work," too. Beautification project, LOL we had those. I drew the line at that one.

Since I was stay-at-home with a minivan, I always helped with field trip ferrying and chaperoning, at least until the very end when I basically went into full rebellion. (No bus service because this was a private Catholic school. That's right--I paid good money to get worked to death. ARgh!!)

The auctions, the mandatory work at the bingo hall, the classroom themed lunches, book sales, memos memos MEMOS (did you get the TPS report?). And many of the Moms seemed to relish it all--almost a status thing.

Can I just say an amen to Megs and Maverick, too? Spot on comments.

Anonymous said...

What a relief...I'm not the only recently-returned American observing the phenomenon I like to think of as parents on a hamster wheel. I just keep telling myself...I will not be sucked in! But not all of my 4 children have multiple sport, artistic and intellectual extra-curricular activities lined up yet and it's already February...I'm clearly falling behind! I'm supposed to be preparing the young ones for middle school sports teams...and what will become of the 12 year-old girl who doesn't play soccer? (as no proper English girl would!) We're crossing our fingers for the Lacrosse team (but woe is me, I'm not in the know on the after school coaching that should be happening to ensure her place on the team.) A delight is watching my 10 year old daughter get physical and feisty on the basketball court - it took only few weeks to shrug off the gentile netball training. ChelseaMuminDC

Susan said...

I find this fascinating... and utterly frightening. With a daughter entering a top private school in Atlanta this Fall, I have already been subjected to strong "hints" of "volunteer" expectations. And this? "And many of the Moms seemed to relish it all--almost a status thing." That, too. A LOT of that.

AHLondon said...

NoOne, yep we are topic merging, again. Kid work is up next and I'm going to basically say what you said, only longer (I'm not very concise) and more. I thought I would just keep my hands off, just be different, but I didn't anticipate the common occurrence of receiving instructions on how I must complete my kindergartener's homework. I mistakenly assumed that if homework came, it would be something that she could do on her own, practicing what she learned during the day. But it is the reverse that rules: school is often for practice while homework is for learning. (I might be a bit harsh there, but only a bit.)
ChelseaMum, do you miss it as much as I do? Based on your description, I know a few people who you might be, only your "voice" doesn't sound like them. Do I know you? Where were your kids at school? Drop me an email. Anyway, I've taken evasive action on the sports stuff. I host a pickup playdate here and yesterday enlisted a local sporty teen to come one afternoon a week for British style lessons. Blogger Iota (see right) alerted me to this sports problem last Spring. Short summary for everyone else, which I will explain later, US kid sports are teams with weekly practice and weekend games. UK kid sports are often once a week group lessons. Think of an old style park pickup game, only with a little teacher guidance. I'm trying to import the British style. Limited success so far, but the basics are established. My kids have sport exposure and I'm not a kid taxi.
Sue (I assume this is my Sue though you could be some other Susan in Atlanta) "hints" huh? Welcome to the jungle for you too. Be strong. Keep the faith. And rig for impact.

Iota said...

Great post. Great comments. I wonder, too, if for some women, being a mother has become the career. So when the child goes to school, the lack of activity is too scary. The volunteering opportunities fill a void.

Have you read "Parenting by Love and Logic"? It's very much what Megs' comment is about. Our job is to raise kids who can take responsibility for themselves, not kids who think that someone else is always going to make them happy. It's really important, I think. Who wants to see their child, once an adult, over-dependent on others to make their decisions, and keep them happy?

AHLondon said...

Iota, I think much of this is about motherhood being a career, so much so that I can't believe I didn't say that above. I see, I only linked to save space. The Proper Job, Martha Stewart offensive spiral is at first link "previously". I"ve not read Love and Logic. I'm a John Rosemond gal. He has cheesy titles "Making the Terrible Twos Terrific" and "Six Points for Raising Happy and Healthy Children" but the content is excellent. Same point: care more what your children will be like at 30 than any short term achievement. Proper goal tends to sort most things out.

AHLondon said...

Ladies, as if on cue, Lara has a post for us: http://thesecretlifeofadivorcee.blogspot.com/2012/03/growing-pains.html

Crinkled said...

Come to Australia. We seem to be somewhere in between.

AHLondon said...

You know, I've heard that. I'm jealous. Care to guess why and how y'all found the middle ground? Help some gals out. We need it.

Crinkled said...

I've been thinking it over, really I have. I wanted to write some great theory here of why Australia seems to be the middle ground on this topic, but I've got nothing. Sorry. I suppose it's because it seems to work and the extremes don't. Don't get me wrong, we have both extremes in this country, it's just that the middle ground seems to be the goal for most people.

AHLondon said...

@Crinkled, if it comes to you, then you have to click over here and report.

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