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Parenting 101

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When I was pregnant with my son, I met a neighbor who had been an at-home mom since her 10-year-old was born. I couldn't imagine how she kept herself busy. I sarcastically told my husband, "Yeah. That's me in 10 years." As it turned out, that has been me for the last seven years.

When I went into labor and left my job (pun intended), my paperwork indicated that I'd be back at work after three months. I kept my options open. I didn't know how well I'd do with a baby. It wasn't out of the question that I'd freak out entirely and need to get "back to work." But after a couple of months of intense, newborn boot camp, there was no way I could have parted from Benny. At three months, babies are just beginning to be cute, and parents are just regaining a little coherence.

My husband and I had anticipated this turn of events. We never grew accustomed to living on two incomes. We bought less of a house than we could afford. We read books that stated children do best with a consistent caregiver for the first two or three years. I put together a support network of other at-home moms.

You've probably seen an analysis of what homemakers do, how many professionals it takes to pick up the slack and what this "free" labor is really worth. The hours are long and you're always on call. It's physically demanding. If you think in terms of holidays and vacations, the benefits are lousy. And there's a lot of pressure to be perfect, a lot of fear that if you say or do the wrong thing, you'll screw up your kids for life. But that is all just as true of the parenting done by parents who are in the paid work force. Being at home with your children isn't so simply compared with paid labor.

What's different about being an in-home mom is that you get quality of life. You can cook and eat together, go outside every day, make Halloween costumes and holiday gifts. You won't have a choice about doing those things when the money gets tight. You can write letters, bake bread and meet your neighbors. Life goes on at a human pace, not in fast-forward. You're there when your kids hit all those milestones: first steps, first words, first taste of a green vegetable that doesn't come back out. You really know your kids, because you're there all the time. You even get to enjoy their childhoods. I'm selfish--I don't want someone else to get those memories. And I don't want my kids to grow up carrying around a long list of loving caregivers who left after a year, like I do.

I know that I'm lucky that my family can live on one income. I've also worked hard to make that happen. I'm not at home because I'm rich or lacking in ambition. I made a conscious choice, a radical choice. I dropped out of consumer culture because I wanted something different. Sometimes I worry that my children will think that all moms should be at home. But I can't believe that corporate culture, with 70-hour work weeks, fast food and conspicuous consumption is a better model for them. At least I have the time to explain my views on these issues to them, which I wouldn't if I were still commuting an hour a day.

Occasionally I hear comments like, "You're not working now, are you? You're just at home with your kids." I usually say, "I'm working really hard. I'm just not getting paid." But the worst conflict I feel is internal. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing. When I'm yelling Eat over your plate, Use a fork, Close the refrigerator for the millionth time, I think "Am I the right person for this job?" Sometimes I feel like a rotten feminist. I worry about how I will transition back into the workforce at some murky date in the future. I think a lot about being financially dependent on my husband. Sometimes it's hard to breathe.

But after almost seven years, being at home is not so much a decision as it is a given. I'm fortunate to live in a neighborhood with many families who have made the same choice. When I go to my weekly playgroup, we talk about diapers and nursing, but we also discuss politics and literature. It's a progressive group. We are all at home with small children, but we live in 2000, not 1961. We may be sleep-deprived, but we're not victims of the feminine mystique.

Many of us are tired of glossy parenting magazines that are the offspring of mainstream, consumer culture. They might address topics like vegetarianism or holistic medicine, but they're sure to attach a disclaimer. The principal job of these magazines is to sell Teletubbies.

I'm equally leery of parents who tell me how my children will behave, and what I should be doing with them. They often begin by saying, "Oh, it's really simple, you just do X." Or sometimes they exclaim in shocked tones, "My children never ... ." Nothing has ever been simple with my kids, and they do almost everything. There are very few questions about parenting that I feel I could answer unequivocally.

I'm not an expert on children, just on my children (Benny, almost 7, and Cassie, 2 1/2). But in this column, I'm going to write about what I know. I know how hard it is to raise children in a thoughtful, nurturing manner, so that they think for themselves and respect other people, including those who differ from them. I know what it's like to try to balance your children's exposure to mainstream culture without making them total freaks. Why just last week, my husband found himself explaining the evils of capitalism to Benny when the price went up on a pack of Pokemon cards.

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