by Nelia Odom
“Spaghetti again! I don’t want spaghetti!” whines my son. It is the end of a long day, and we are all tired. Time is short, and it is all I can do to reheat the spaghetti left over from the night before. “Well, we’re having garlic bread and salad, too,” I offer. “No, not that either,” he pouts.
My daughter flounces into the kitchen with a new complaint. She has dirtied her clothing on the playground and is demanding a fresh outfit at 6:00 p.m. I try to reason with her. It is too late in the day for clean clothes; two outfits a day make too much laundry; she will be going to bed soon anyway. But she, fastidious about her appearance, is adamant. “I don’t want to wear this anymore,” she says of the lovely dress her grandmother sent her. “I hate this old dress!”
How do these children manage to defeat me so by the end of the day? I think that I am a fairly good cook, but my son is refusing to grant me that. I look at my daughter and see a pretty child who is naturally a bit soiled at the end of a hard day’s play. But she is glaring at me as if I am a monster for declining to make unnecessary laundry for myself. By the time my husband walks in the door, I am convinced that I am wasting my time in this kitchen, that I have accomplished nothing of value during the day, and that I must be deficient as a mother anyway for raising such appallingly ungrateful children.
My husband greets me with a cheerful “Hi, there!” and a kiss.
I counter with, “You forgot to take out the garbage this morning, and all the cans are full.”
“Oh,” he looks deflated. “Sorry.”
Now I am sorry too and my self-esteem takes another plunge. Bad enough to be a lousy mother without also being a disgruntled wife. I apologize to my husband.
“Had a long day?” he asks sympathetically.
“It’s these kids,” I tell him. “They just don’t appreciate me.”
Appreciation. Everybody craves it but often we treat it as a scarce commodity, hoarding it to ourselves. It doesn’t take the mother at home long to realize how much our culture undervalues her contribution to society. There is plenty of recognition for the achievements of the career woman, but seemingly little appreciation left over for the mother raising her own children at home. If her self-esteem suffers from receiving no public affirmation of her worth, the point is only driven home at those times when even her children fail to respond with thanks.
Must this be the case? Is being taken for granted by our children simply an occupational hazard? My husband still can hear his own mother’s repeated threat, “Just wait until you have children of your own!” And while it is certainly true that finally having children of our own enhances and renews our appreciation for our parents, must we really wait until we are grandparents before we receive recognition from our children?
Although such a strategy eventually may work in the majority of cases, it is a luxury that the mother at home today simply cannot afford. I find that when my children are especially ungrateful, it is just too destructive to the climate I work so hard to create in our home. It is not only that their criticisms and complaints are hard on me. My children’s failure to appreciate the worth of my work for our family is bad for them, too. When I allow them to take me for granted, I give them a false picture of what work is.
Serious work is never without value, and mothering children IS serious work. It requires all that we have—physical stamina, mental acuity, and spiritual sensitivity. I do not mean to suggest that our children do not deserve our best efforts, that they must somehow purchase our attentions with gratitude. Like many women today, I am at home because I feel that my children are entitled to a secure home, to a stimulating environment, to nutritious meals and well-planned days, and to hours and hours of my time. But I also know that these things will mean less to them if they never come to realize that it takes work to produce these things, intangible though they sometimes are.
Of course, work takes many forms. All parents labor on behalf of their children, and all parents can begin to teach their children, while they are young, to appreciate this work. But the mother at home is in an especially advantageous position to do so for she has her children with her in her workplace. A young child can observe his mother about her tasks. He can see that many of the things she does are for him. But he cannot observe an absent working parent, nor does he readily understand the relationship between the parent’s work, the money which that work earns, and the material things which that money purchases for him. I want my children to learn to recognize the means as well as the end, to value the process as well as the product. My challenge as a mother at home is to illustrate for my children the relationship between what I do as a person and what we have as a family.
I hadn’t yet articulated these beliefs when we grumpily sat down that night to our belated meal of leftover spaghetti, but I knew that we needed to make some changes. As the meal took the edge off our hunger and fatigue, our dispositions improved and our conversation lightened. “Thanks for dinner,” my husband said casually as we finished. “Good dinner, Mom,” piped my son. “Thank you, Mommy, for cooking it for us,” added my daughter, never one to be outdone. I was amazed. Gratified, too, but primarily amazed at this utter reversal of their earlier attitudes. What had happened? Could such an offhand expression of appreciation have elicited appreciative feelings all around? Was it really such a simple thing as that?
I had to find out, so in the weeks that followed I made a conscious effort to express my appreciation to my husband in front of the children. Especially in families where the roles are more or less traditional, it is important that we not take one another’s work for granted. And so I said “Thank you,” Thank you for mowing the lawn, for fixing the faucet, for offering to go to the store. Thank you for bathing the kids, for reading to them, for helping them to pick up their toys. My husband, whose personality has always been more naturally gracious than mine, played along beautifully. I was thanked for meals, for freshly ironed shirts, for errands run to the bank and the drugstore and the cleaner’s. And of course the kids caught on! Soon they were thanking me for driving them to their swimming lesson, for inviting their playmates over, for taking them to the park. My son thanked me effusively and spontaneously for “that very good birthday party” that I gave him. I began to overhear them saying “thank you” to each other!
Why should this have been such a revelation to me? I had realized since they were infants that children naturally imitate their parents. But I never had accepted, until I saw it reflected in my children’s ungrateful behavior, how blindly I sometimes deviate from my own values, and how easy it is to expect more from my children than I demand of myself.
Hearing my children begin to express gratitude encouraged me so much that I plunged ahead with another experiment. I was happy that they could see the value of my work, but I also wanted them to experience some of the responsibility of it. Assigning and enforcing chores always has struck me as a real burden; it has always seemed easier to do things myself. Nonetheless, we are working now at developing certain responsibilities for each child. My five-year-old daughter is to make her bed and keep the porch swept. My four-year-old son is to help set and clear the table. They are both responsible for their books and toys and for knowing the locations at all times of their shoes and jackets. I wish this were as easy as teaching them to say “thank you,” but I have to admit that I often meet real resistance here. Yet even as we struggle to work things out, the children gain an understanding that running a household and keeping things nice for everyone takes effort, that things don’t just happen. When they do well, the satisfaction of a job well done is theirs, and satisfaction is both my gift to them and their well-earned due.
Yes, of course there are still times when we all forget ourselves, when in a state of fatigue or hunger, or a simple fit of pique, one of us says something unbearably rude or a task is defiantly left undone. But I know that when these things happen, we are not right back where we started. We all know that Mom’s work is real work, that sometimes it is a joy and sometimes it is a pain, but it is always worth something.
I’ve realized, as the founders of Mothers At Home point out in their book What’s A Smart Woman Like You Doing At Home?, that putting my family first does not permit me to do my children the disservice of allowing them to put me last. We’re all learning that in a family everybody has work to do, according to his or her abilities, and that the challenge lies in remembering to give credit where credit is due.
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Copyright by Nelia Odom, 1990.