Between the lines - FamilyEducation

Between the lines

July 15,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

A few nights ago I was reading T. a Franklin story for her bedtime reading. This one was Franklin Goes to School, and in it Franklin is just so thrilled that he will be starting kindergarten soon that he just can't help himself--he wakes his parents up at some ungodly morning hour so they can get ready for the school bus. Franklin's mother gently teases him about waking too early and then cheerfully makes them all an enormous batch of pancakes (with ladybugs on top because, of course, they're a family of turtles).

L. was listening in.

"How come you're not like that?" he asked.

"Like what?"

"Like Franklin's mother. How come you're so grouchy when I wake you up early?"

"Thanks, Paulette Bourgeois," I thought to myself. Thanks for making me, and almost every other parent out there, look bad. I explained to L. that Franklin's first day of school was special to him, and that of course his parents wouldn't grouch at him for waking them up at the crack of dawn for his first day of kindergarten. Then I reminded him about his birthday, when I had gladly gotten out of bed with him at 6:30 because it was his special day. And I made him a waffle. "But," I told him, "if Franklin woke his parents up every night at 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. and then 6:00 a.m., they'd be pretty grouchy, too."

I'd like to see Paulette Bourgeois write THAT book. I'd like to see what life at Franklin's house would be like if his parents were continually sleep-deprived.

**********

This is not the first time my kids have held me up in comparison to some idealized children's book parent. In Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? (another favorite of L.'s, when he was three) the ever-patient Papa Bear interrupts his reading to constantly bring his cub lantern after lantern to help him sleep at night. In the end, when the lanterns fail to offer comfort, Papa Bear carries the cub out into the night to look at the moon, gladly postponing his night of reading. For weeks after reading this book, L. would be up for hours, asking for "lanterns" to light his sleep. When we fussed at him, our patience frayed, he would wail, "You're not like Papa Bear!" and the guilt would set in, deep and dreadful. We weren't like Papa Bear, we had failed.

After the Franklin discussion the other night, I wondered again where those other children's picture books were--the ones that help kids see the world through their parents' eyes for a change: what it's like to be woken up early for eight years straight (for six months in a row when L. was a toddler, he decided that 5:00 a.m. was by far the best time to get up), seven days/week, or to have to deal with meltdowns at the grocery store, or to spend almost every mealtime never really being conscious of what you're eating because you're busy mediating a three-ring circus act. In so many children's books, the parents have endless stores of patience and the lessons they teach their children are always learned so quickly, within just a few colorful pages. Maybe some tears are shed, maybe some injustices keenly felt. But by the end all is well again, the ups and downs of childhood mere one-dimensional, cardboard-cut-out bumps in the road.

One of the many valuable and bittersweet truths learned early on in the parent-child relationship is that just as children aren't perfect, parents sure aren't, either. We're not superheroes, we can't fix everything, and sometimes we're unfair or grouchy, or make mistakes, or just want to sleep in instead of doing crafts at 7:00 a.m. Sometimes we're not all sunshine and patience, despite what the picture books seem to show. But long after the stories are over and the books closed, we flesh-and-blood parents are the ones who endure--and hopefully the lifetime of support and love and heart and soul we provide will supplant a few grouchy mornings along the way.