Growing up is hard to do - FamilyEducation

Growing up is hard to do

April 27,2010
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 pet-related crisis that must have happened during the wee hours of Saturday night necessitated the unearthing of our steam cleaner from the crawl space and the removal of all the furniture out of the office and lots of fussing and snapping from two frazzled parents who couldn't get the soap canister to snap onto the cleaner just right. We were tired, Scott and I. There was dirty soapy water everywhere, and neither one of us wanted our Sunday morning to start that way. We wanted pancakes and coffee and domestic tranquility and order. We both had piles of papers to grade that day, and not enough time, and no one had factored steam cleaning the carpet that morning into their schedules. The night before the toilet had overflowed, and now here the office carpet needed cleaning, and T., who couldn't wait for pancakes, tipped dry cereal all over the floor. She slipped on water that had dripped out of the refrigerator. Our refrigerator is on its last legs, we know it. We should have replaced it when we moved, but we already hit the sellers up for funds to cover the non-working stove, and the ancient dishwasher and our motto has always been: if it still works, keep it. But the fridge leaks water from somewhere, and the seal on one door doesn't work right. Water oozes out of the left-hand corner during the day, and by the afternoon when we get home there's a long trail of it I have to mop up with dishtowels. Sometimes it doesn't leak, though, and we're lulled into a complacent feeling of it's okay--the fridge is okay--we'll get another year out of it, at least. While it will be nice to have a new fridge one day, I squirm inside to think of the expense. Who has $1,000 for a new fridge anyway? And the laptop--our only computer--is on its way out, too, and we just spent a large sum on minivan repairs, and $400 on our pet rabbit who got sick two weeks ago, and we owe taxes, too. I can see so easily how people give in to all this; they drown in the tedious, stressful, soul-sucking parts of the domestic world: making ends meet, paying the bills, trying to stay above water. I can so easily see how unending financial dramas and household mishaps can set even the most in-love couple on edge with each other--there, as you crouch, covered in dirty soap suds, scrubbing urine stains on the carpet, while one child cries over spilled cereal and the other--oblivious to the chaos--demands you leave the office immediately so he can get back onto the laptop, it's sometimes difficult to remember the better, sunnier, romantic moments of life. When Scott and I were in graduate school, we had hardly any obligations, really. Oh, we might have thought we had but, really we didn't. We paid $500/month in rent and didn't even have a cell phone bill to pay. We had only ourselves to worry about, and our cat, and a few scraggly plants. We had a budget we lived on, but we never felt strapped. We didn't have medical bills to make payments on, or a car payment, or even student loan bills, since we were still in school. Yet I remember riding out some bumps in the road and thinking, with some pride, that this was what growing up meant--obligations, and responsibility and shouldering burdens. Mornings like yesterday always make me think about that scene in It's a Wonderful Life when George Bailey comes home in despair, after finding out that Uncle Billy lost the money, and the house is a mess, and the knob on the wooden stair railing comes off in his hand, and the kids are too loud, and nothing is "right". We all have those George Bailey moments as parents, and some parents and families have more of them than others. We're the lucky ones, I always remind myself, that those moments are few and far between, and that we can put food on our table--even if our kids won't always eat it, and fill up our on-its-last-legs refrigerator with fruits and vegetables: the types of foods we parents need to feed our kids, but which often cost too much. But I can still see how that other side is but a few steps away, really, across some line--that side where you find yourself so far from the carefree moments in life that you lose sight of them. You are knee-deep in the domestic mess, in debt, in some place you never wanted to be, too busy and stressed out to care much about anything but paying the bills. I think every parent can see that line out there; this is why sometimes it's so difficult, this business about obligations, and shouldering burdens--this business of being a grown-up.