Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna cry because I didn’t do that homemade play-doh project I was going to do. Or because my kid doesn’t know how to play hide-and-seek or climb a tree. Or because I haven’t played any classical music for them in a long time. Or because I haven’t made sure they know who Bambi is. Or because I haven’t made that blueberry smoothie in the blender yet.
You know what? All those sentences have “I” in them. If I were a pioneer woman, like my ancestors, I think I would be so consumed with hard work all day long that there would be no “I” in any of my sentences about my children. I would be working to make sure they were fed, clothed, and (sometimes) clean. Well, guess what? That IS what I do all day long.
Despite the fact that this modern life provides so much mothering help –like washing machines, dishwashers, DVD players, and baby swings (wow, how did they survive without those?) – my mothering life is still about the fulfilling the basic needs: feeding, clothing, and cleaning my children. I spend as much time preparing a meal as I do feeding it to them as I do cleaning it up. Three (four) small children make an enormous mess as they are learning to eat. I have to clean every surface of the dining room after they eat. Then I have to clean the kitchen.
Do you think this leaves much time for me to worry about whether or not they are being mentally stimulated? I practice “benign neglect”, partially out of necessity and partially out of choice. My pioneer ancestors, and every other kind of ancestor, probably practiced benign neglect because they were busy surviving. If that pioneer mother had to knit every sock by hand, do you think she had time to worry if her kid mispronounced his “f’s”? If that pioneer mother had to haul water from a stream, do you think she had time to worry if her kid ate enough vegetables that day? If that pioneer mother had to keep a fire burning all day, do you think she had time to worry if her kid doesn’t know what sound an elephant makes? (What does it make?)
Do you think that pioneer mother loved her children any less?
My psychology degree comes in handy sometimes. I often think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that physiological needs have to be met first – before any higher needs can be met. If our needs are a pyramid, then bodily needs are the base. Water, food, and sleep are basic human functions that have to happen. Next up the pyramid comes “safety”, where a person feels secure and safe in his body, home, and family. In the middle of the pyramid, there are “love/belonging” and “esteem”. Not until the very top of the pyramid do we see “self-actualization”, which covers creativity, learning, and even acceptance of facts. In my education classes, we were taught that our students could not learn if they were hungry. I have fed children in the back of my classroom from my own pocket.
As for my own children, I often think about how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applies. I am busy all day long, just meeting the base of the pyramid for the kids: basic human needs like food, water, sleep, and oh, poop. (No kidding: “excretion” is on there.) And between those chores and emergencies and necessities, I squeeze in as much of the “love/belonging” and “esteem” as I can. We are hugging and kissing and touching. I make time at every diaper change to poke their bellies, kiss their lips, look into their eyes, see how much their eyelashes grew that day. It is shamefully easy never even to make eye contact with a baby (two babies) during a diaper change. I can be up to my elbows in poop and forget that there is someone attached to that bum. Mothers of multiples – or maybe all mothers – have to work hard to slip in those moments that make a child feel special as often as possible. I put my hand under their shirts and stroke their backs whenever I can, just so they can feel my skin, if only for a second. I am constantly trying to find ways to meet their “love/belonging” needs and their “esteem” needs.
But what about their higher needs? What about the self-actualization? What about that project I never got to start with them? What about that game I never played with them? Well, unless it’s reading a book or going outside (I almost never say “no” to those two things), they’re going to have to figure it out themselves.
I trust that by leaving my children alone while I tend to basic needs, that they will naturally gain the higher thinking processes on the Hierarchy of Needs. They are learning about give-and-take while they negotiate toys with each other. They are learning about space and time and pain and risk as they scale and descend from the couch. They are learning fine motor skills and sharing as each twin slides one rainboot on his foot.
I provide the base. They’re going to climb to the top. Maybe literally.