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No, Hillary, It Takes a Grandmother

Forget that silly village.

By Lee Tydings  |  February 4, 2008

I was deeply saddened by Ayelet Waldman's article "The Bad Mommy Brigade" which appeared on p 28 of the Jan 21, 2008 issue of New York magazine.  Mrs. Waldman spoke of the pressures which afflict modern motherhood:

When I became pregnant with my second child, I packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas in the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom. Within a week, I was bored and miserable.  But a Good Mother wasn't supposed to be bored and miserable. ... If I didn't enjoy myself, then I was a Bad Mother.

It's the fact of being unfulfilled that triggers our most intense guilt and shame.  Because a Good Mother not only sacrifices herself for her children but also enjoys doing it.  A mother who isn't satisfied, who wants to do more, who can imagine more, is selfish.

Mrs. Waldman is correct in saying that motherhood, as defined by the popular view of today, is not possible.  Indeed, increased rates of juvenile delinquency and suicide among teens and college students are evidence that modern motherhood is failing, but it's a historical fact that mothers did raise kids successfully for millennia.

Kids haven't changed.  Mothers haven't changed.  What's changed is that mothers have lost touch with grandmothers.

Mrs. Waldman had to learn how to mother her kids all by herself.  She had no experienced help.  She had friends her own age, but they didn't know anything about being mothers either.

Motherhood can't be learned from books.  It comes only from experience, but mothers learn a lot faster and suffer a lot less stress when there's an experienced older mother around to share the burdens and the joy.

It Takes a Grandmother

I grew up in Japan where 3-generation households were the norm.  Grandma had raised either the husband or the wife so she had insight into the children's personalities.  Whatever the kids did, grandma had seen it all before!  She'd encourage the mother and tell the kids stories about how their parents were years ago.  She tied the family together and to past generations.

I was riding a train in Japan years ago and I saw this in action.  The family across the aisle was a grandma, two parents about my age, and two kids.  The kids had had a long day and were bouncing off the ceiling.  The grandma was chewing them out using exactly the same tones of voice, facial expressions, and gestures that my mother-in-law uses on my children and grandchildren.

I suddenly realized that there's some sort of international standard in grandmas, so I talked to the family.  I told the grandma that she was entirely right in saying that kids were quieter when she was raising them, but that was because it was right after World War II and there was relatively little food in Japan.

My parents had connections to the foreign supply chain so my siblings and I had more to eat than the Japanese kids.  We had more energy, so we always embarrassed my parents whenever we rode a train.  All the Japanese kids would be sitting politely; we Americans would be bouncing off the ceiling.

The grandma thought it over and said, "You're right, there wasn't a lot of food on those days.  Is that why kids were quieter then?"

I turned to the kids and told them, "Your grandma is a very wise person.  She survived a war.  She took care of her children in a very hard time.  Listen to her."

My wife and I were able to find a big enough house that my wife's parents were able to live with us.  When my son hit a rough patch and came to live with us, we became a 4 generation household.

My grandchildren had immediate access to parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who all loved them.  They learned quickly that they might be able to pull stunts on mom or dad, but anything grandma hadn't seen, great-grandma had seen and they didn't get away with much.

They complained, but it really made them happy.  Kids are smart enough to know that they don't know how to run things.  Having big people around gives them security, and it's even better when the big people are on the ball enough to call them when they get out of line.

Kids commit suicide or turn to crime when they think nobody cares.  My kids and my grand-kids know that lots of people care a lot about them.

My wife and daughter had a lot of help from the great-grandparents.  My father-in-law figured out my son's allergies, for example, and saved us huge amounts of money and grief.  He shared his mistakes so we didn't have to make them all ourselves.

I mourn for Mrs. Waldman.  Any grandma could show her a) what's to interest her in raising children, kids minds unfold in fascinating ways but you have to know where to look; b) she's doing a good job; c) what's normal and what's to worry about; and d) how to keep the kids in line so it isn't so hard for her.

It Doesn't take a Village

Hillary is right in pointing out that most parents could use some help, but it doesn't take a village.  It especially doesn't take a village of government-funded social workers, most of whom are either not yet married or divorced.  My mother had a degree in social work, but I didn't understand the utter futility of Hillary's approach to "helping" families until I'd had two seminal experiences.

First, my wife was the first of her family to marry.  When our son was a year old, her siblings criticized our parenting up one side and down the other.  "I'll never let my child do that," we were told over and over.  Knowing that reality usually wins out over theory, we kept quiet and waited.  Sure enough, their kids did pretty much what ours had done and they handled it pretty much the way we'd handled ours.

Second, one of my friends got into an argument with his mother-in-law who got revenge by telling her doctor a wild tale about her grandchildren being abused.  The doctor told the social workers who aroused the cops who swooped down and removed the children in the middle of the night.

I'd known the family maybe 15 years, but my testimony wasn't welcome in court.  The court hearings were secret "to protect the child's privacy."  Having grown up in Japan just after WW II, I'd heard how the government's enemies simply disappeared silently; secrecy is the main tool of tyranny.  By mandating secret courts, our child protection laws are fundamentally wrong-headed.

As matters wore on, I realized that although the social workers had the right certifications from the right schools, most of the social workers were either unmarried, divorced, hated men - or all of the above.  As my wife's siblings had no idea how to deal with children until they had their own, there's no way an unmarried, childless social worker can have anything worthwhile to say about motherhood.  My wife and I ignored her siblings; social workers go to the judge and get court orders which give their unworkable ideas the force of law.

What's worse, divorced social workers were jealous that my friend loved his wife.  Being envious of her successful marriage, they enjoyed telling her how her youngest daughter broke her arm on two different occasions and became infested with worms while in state custody.  When questioned about this, they told the judge that their budget didn't give them enough money to do any better.

Having been up close and personal with how Hillary's village "helps" children, it was no surprise when an MIT study showed that children are usually better off left at home, even when most people would think the homes are pretty bad.  Our government can't even teach kids how to read, why would anyone think they're able to substitute for parents?  The federal government pays state agencies money when they remove kids, however, so that's what they do.

No, Hillary, it doesn't take a village, particularly not your village where women who haven't started families or have failed to build families can command other women how to take care of their children.  That's not what it takes.

What it takes is a readily-available grandmother who's intimately involved in the lives of the grandchildren and is trusted by the mother.  When we gave up grandmothers - whether it be through divorce, distance, or societal pressure for "independence" - we lost a lot.