Monday, August 1, 2011

The "oblivion principle" - perks of a privileged childhood

It’s such an obvious reality that I don’t know how it can still surprise me, but I'm sometimes amazed by how hard I can work and how much I can accomplish without my family having any inkling of what I’ve done.

And it’s easy to become resentful of that. I think often of the recurrent image from the “Rose Is Rose” comic strip by Pat Brady, in which every once in a while Rose descends into her Dungeon of Resentment. How is it that I spent all morning cleaning all four bathrooms and no one noticed? Do they have any idea of how much pollen would be piled on the windowsills right now if I hadn’t dusted this week? Where do they suppose the clean and folded laundry they regularly find in their bureau drawers comes from, anyway? Yesterday we were out of milk and today we have plenty of milk: did anyone notice that I spent two hours at the supermarket and then carried in five bags of groceries myself?

I know there are various ways to address this issue, and I know there are plenty of parents who think I should be more proactive as far as expecting contributions of help from my children. But they do tasks that I consider age-appropriate – they’re almost always responsible for unloading the dishwasher after it runs; they bring their clothes hampers to the laundry room when I ask them to; they clear the table after dinner; they would have helped carry in the grocery bags if they’d been home at the time – and it’s not really a matter of my wanting less work on my hands. It’s just the frustration of how invisible it all is to them, how they never seem to actually see me do any of this or notice what I’ve done.

But when I start to descend into the Dungeon of Resentment, I have to remind myself that this life I’m living in my own choice. I’ve chosen to raise a family, to live in a house, to do the kind of work that generates the kind of salary for which buying groceries is not a problem but having abundant paid household help would be.

What helps more than that, though, is to reiterate to myself my belief that being oblivious to the work your mother does is actually one of the privileges of a comfortable childhood: a privilege that will ideally be passed down from generation to generation. Like my children are with me, I was equally oblivious to how hard my mother worked to keep our household up and running. But every now and then I’ll look back on something from my childhood and be curious enough to ask her. Earlier this summer I found myself thinking about the evening cookouts we used to have once or twice a week at our family cabin in the mountains during our month-long Colorado vacations. The cabin was about thirty minutes away from where we stayed in town: we’d often drive there for dinner, sometimes just us five but more frequently with guests, spend a few hours, and return to our place in town for the night. I remembered happy evenings around the campfire with grilled hamburgers and toasted marshmallows and songs and jokes, but I didn’t remember anything about the sleepy return to town at bedtime. “How did you get all the dishes washed after we got back?” I asked my mother last month. “Didn’t it take hours to unload all the food and cookout gear?”

Of course it did, but I didn’t think about that at the time; it was one of the privileges of my happy childhood. My children may be oblivious to the hours I spent yesterday morning cleaning the house or the 45 minutes it took me to prepare yesterday’s picnic which we took to the pond for an early dinner and swim, and that’s a gift I’m giving them. If they someday choose – and are fortunate enough – to have an adulthood similar to mine, with families of their own and lots of opportunities to have fun, they’ll do this same thing themselves.

Yes, it’s good for them to help out around the house and do age-appropriate chores. But if they’re blind to just how much effort it sometimes takes to make vacations and holidays memorable, to keep the house clean and organized, to be generous hosts to friends and relatives, and to keep everyone safe and happy so much of the time? I may just have to consider that a privilege I’m happy to be able to give them.

1 comment:

  1. I once announced to my children "there is no such thing as the laundry fairy!" My nine-year-old feigned shock and despair which made me laugh -- and kept me stocking his drawers with clean laundry. I like the way you look at it -- this is a privilege you hope to be passing along to the next generation -- but I do fear sometimes that I am raising two boys who will have no idea how to function outside of our home and will expect their wife to act as the laundry fairy. That said, I am very glad for the lawn mowing fairy.