In classic children’s literature, nothing interesting ever seems to happen until Mom’s out of the picture. Are generations of great writers trying to tell us something?
By Liza Mundy
At my daughter’s elementary school, the administration makes it a point of pride never to use a word when an acronym will do. Hence the period first thing in the morning — a half-hour during which children are told to put their backpacks in their cubbies, select a book, take their seats and read quietly — is never referred to as “reading” time. Instead it’s called “We Enjoy Books” time, WEB time for short. My daughter and her fellow first-graders have not yet sussed out the vaguely Orwellian, you-will-not-just-read-this-book-you-will-enjoy-it message here; they just come in and do what they’re told. Anyway, the good thing about WEB time is that parents are allowed to drop by to see how our kids are getting along with all this book-enjoying business, and the other day when I did just that, I was glad to see that the book my daughter had picked out was The Cat in the Hat.
Glad because I’d been meaning to reread that book, which a few months earlier had been featured in an interesting essay in the New Yorker. The essay, by Louis Menand, was written not long after the death of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, who wrote The Cat in the Hat after being given a list of 300 words and instructed, by his publisher, to “write a story that first-graders couldn’t put down!” With The Cat, not only did Dr. Seuss usher in a generation of instructional readers far livelier than those of the McGuffey tradition; he also created a text, according to Menand, larded with subversive messages. Cold War rivalries, national security anxieties, the space race, proto-’60s counterculturalism — Menand finds them all in this tale of a cat who enters a house unbidden. But most of all he finds Freudian longing, awakened in two small children by a mother who inexplicably, if temporarily, deserts them. “What private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish?” demands Menand with all the outrage of a Child Protective Services official making a home visit, suggesting that the mother may be off somewhere having an affair, gone on an “erotic errand” — like, one supposes, Catherine Deneuve, the housewife-turned-prostitute in “Belle de Jour.”
At the time I found the essay provocative but a little strained. Doubtless parts of it were tongue-in-cheek, but which parts might those be? It wasn’t clear. However, as my daughter sat there reading — excuse me, enjoying — I did have to admit that the book is more edgy than I remembered. Growing up, I never noticed how unhappy the kids are at being left; never noticed how odd the cat is, how almost sinister, with those strange notions of fun, that adamant refusal to leave when the children ask him to. And Thing One and Thing Two — imagine if your own kids got mixed up with this malevolent, hyperactive twosome! In truth, I found myself enjoying the book in a decidedly ambivalent way. Menand was right, I found myself thinking, in finding unsettling aspects to this tale. But he was wrong in
regarding the mother’s absence — the catalyst that sets off the unsettling — as something unusual or new. The Cat in the Hat might have been a radical sort of reader, but as a tale of maternal absence, it’s part of a long line of children’s books that depend, for their very existence, on what I’ve come to think of as the mom-who-is-dead-or-gone.
Indeed, I sometimes think there would be no children’s books at all were it not for mothers conveniently dead or missing; that no adventure can be had, no high jinks gotten up to, as long as a mother is hovering close by, poised to put a stop to any dangerous nonsense. What mothers are, from the point of view of anybody who wants to write a book that kids can’t put down, is a narrative problem. A barrier to the plot. To have a lively, adventurous children’s book, you cannot have a normal, attentive mother; you have to have a mother who has been disappeared, a mother who is away and/or bat-brained enough to leave her child in the care of someone even less responsible. A fish? Well, true, that was a first. But there is in fact a long tradition of children being baby-sat by animals, be it Mowgli, raised by wolves in The Jungle Book; Wendy and the Darling boys, left with Nana, the affable sheepdog in Peter Pan; or the baby in the Good Dog Carl books, whose mother routinely deposits him with the family Rottweiler (“Look after the baby, Carl!”), after which, as the dust jacket always promises, “the adventures begin!”
No, with all due respect to Menand, Dr. Seuss was up to nothing new in introducing havoc by writing out the mom. I defy you to name a classic fairy tale with a mother intact and alive. This may be because once upon a time mothers often did die in childbed, leaving their babies vulnerable to hostile stepmoms and spineless woodcutter fathers. But the trend didn’t fade when mothers stopped dying so young and in such numbers. To be sure, in some children’s books, it’s both parents who are missing — think Harry Potter — but Dad’s absence is clearly less important than Mom’s. Dads are, let’s face it, a little more lax, a little less emotionally attentive: If Atticus Finch’s wife had been alive, do you think Scout would have been allowed to spend so much time spying on Boo Radley? And what about Nancy Drew? Had her mother been alive, would she have been permitted that dangerous convertible? No indeed! Dads, with their absent-minded, garage-puttering ways, are not a plot problem at all. In fact — as with Caractacus Potts, the eccentric father in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — dads are often a high-spirited accomplice in merry mishap.
Not so moms; so many children’s authors, including (et tu!) Dr. Seuss, have this entirely nonradical, entirely un-new, really pretty dispiriting idea of the mother as impediment to all the fun there is to be had in life. Now that I’m a mother, I look at this whole long literary tradition, works of fantasy and growing up and adventure — “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” even the PBS series “Dragon Tales,” in which the mother is this faraway Latina voice, calling, “Max! Emmy!” while her kids, up in the playroom, are returning from dragonland — and ask myself: Are these stories telling me something? Is it in fact my fundamental role as a mother to keep weird, interesting things from happening to my children? Am I the household killjoy?
Conversely, are the most illuminating things that will happen to my children the things that will happen when I’m not around?
For my kids to grow up and learn and mature, is it really so crucial that I be gone, if not dead?
i have to admit, something like this was at work when I was growing up, a decade or so after The Cat in The Hat was written. In that balmy era, mothers were less likely than they are now to be working in an office, yet paradoxically — even though they were theoretically “home” — they were often not exactly there. One reason The Cat did not seem so odd to those of us learning to read in the ’60s and ’70s was that our mothers routinely did leave us, or at least leave us to our own devices. Mothers, I think, weren’t so anxious and attentive then; mothers were busy; mothers were younger and more carefree and had not cottoned on to the many terrible dangers of the world. There were only, after all, three television networks, only so much news of mayhem and disaster, and you didn’t get it, generally, until 6 o’clock. Hence, while we were by no means neglected, my friends and I spent enormous amounts of time unsupervised, doing things like hammering rocks in our back yard or walking down to the playground to see if there was a kickball game going on and, if there wasn’t, going over to peer into the murk of the neighbor’s goldfish pond or clamber around a construction site.
In this, I think, we resembled most American children. Not long ago, I and a couple of colleagues who had read the Menand essay found ourselves recalling all the interesting things that did in fact occur when our mothers happened to be elsewhere. “We flambeed the table,” one really quite high-ranking editor remembered fondly, recalling a time when her mom had left her in the care of a slightly older cousin, whose idea of a good time was to pour whiskey on the dining room table and ignite it. Back then, mothers would leave you with your older cousin; they would let you baby-sit other kids when you were only a kid yourself. Moms taught you how to cross the street safely and then assumed you could do it. Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I was permitted — no, expected — to walk to school unaccompanied; walk home; walk to piano lessons; literally walk up and down mountains (okay, foothills) from one friend’s house to another. When I got home, my mom might be there, or she might have gone to play bridge, play tennis, run errands. Where, come to think of it, were our mothers? To this day I don’t know. It didn’t matter. They’d come home sooner or later. Either way, my friend Lydia and I, arriving home from school, would make ourselves coffee milkshakes and plates of Saltines, and go into the den to watch “Match Game” with Gene Rayburn.
Sometimes, we wouldn’t even come home right away. Back then, if your mother didn’t leave you, well, then, you yourself could say you were leaving, and then you could just do it. Sometimes, as early as fourth or fifth grade, we would catch the city bus after school or on Saturdays and ride it downtown, traversing the railroad tracks that divided the suburbs of my home town, Roanoke, from the city proper. We’d ride past the Planned Parenthood building; past the public library, whose grounds, I later learned, were an early gay cruising spot; we’d get a Coke float at Woolworth’s and catch the bus home, waiting at the bus stop beside women on their way back from cleaning jobs. There was a lot of social education in those trips, though we didn’t know it. Later, in junior high school, we’d sometimes forgo the bus and walk home after school, a trip of several miles that involved crossing major commercial highways, picking our way past car dealerships and bowling alleys. Sometimes we would stop and hang out in a waterbed store run by a Vietnam vet with bluish shrapnel scars on his cheeks.
Occasionally, weird, Thing One and Thing Two-type things did happen. A friend of mine, walking to school, saw a man standing at his window, exposing himself. Another friend, playing in the schoolyard on a weekend, threw a ball over the fence; the man who got out of his car to retrieve it creepily joked, upon giving it back to her, “cost you a piece of p — -y.” My brother, roaming the neighborhood one day, stuck his hand through a chain-link fence and had the tip of his finger bitten off by an English sheepdog named Moby. Kids would hide cigarettes in treehouses, bury Playboys in plastic bags in the woods. Back then, woods were everywhere: My friend Kate and I always played in the ones around her house, sometimes pulling up sassafras seedlings to make tea with, other times going down to the railroad tracks and putting pennies on them for the trains to flatten. When swaths of woods were cut down to make way for a shopping mall, we would roam around the mall perusing books like The Exorcist or Coffee, Tea, or Me?, the pop bestseller about the supposedly uninhibited lives of — as they were called then — stewardesses. This was our introduction to, as Menand put it, erotic errands.
By and large, I think this unsupervised time was a good thing. During our childhood, I think, our mothers’ laxity instilled in us a sense of responsibility and trust and confidence. It encouraged us to be resourceful and self-reliant. But as it continued into our teens, I also think it did spill over into something less benign. By the late ’70s, many parents were divorcing, drinking, indulging in errands erotic and otherwise; fathers were leaving; mothers were dissatisfied or unhappy or rethinking every choice they had ever made in life, and therefore absent in a new, emotional way. I don’t blame them. It was a very hard time for mothers. I remember that the mother of a friend literally did leave her family for a period of months, to go “find herself.” I have no idea where she went or what she found, but I do know that when she came back, she and her husband split up. At the same time, the ’70s were having their own influence on us, the offspring. Drugs were available and so was liquor, and sometimes, looking back, I wonder what in the world mothers thought when they opened the doors to their own basements and caught a whiff of what was going on during the parties their children held downstairs.
Or, did they never wake in the middle of the night and sense a strange, palpable absence? Apparently not. My favorite sneaking-out story is one told by my friend Jim, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and who at 14 developed the habit of sneaking out and going into town with a friend. One early morning he was returning home to work his paper route (this was back when kids were considered capable of handling paper routes) and saw the family car barreling down the street in his direction. He stood, horror-stricken. Busted! As the car drew nearer, Jim saw that behind the wheel was neither his mother nor his father, but rather his 12-year-old brother, Jerry, who had stolen it and was driving, now, with rapt concentration, so intent on getting the hang of all this steering-wheel-and-foot-pedal stuff that he didn’t even notice his older brother standing, shocked, by the side of the road.
What if they had been paying closer attention, those moms of ours? What if they’d tracked our every movement, taken care to notice, in the morning, the precise location of the car keys? What if I’d never been permitted to walk home from school alone; what if I’d been driven to piano lessons; what if I had never met the blue-cheeked vet who gave us McGovern pins and inspired our first political opinions? My sense is that those of us who had a relatively strong internal compass survived all this and even thrived. I think being left to our own devices helped us grow into independence and something like adulthood. But it’s true: Thanks to the toxic combination of ’50s-era supervisory looseness and ’70s-era social revolution, some kids’ compasses malfunctioned. So many children died, in my unsupervised teens, in car crashes. Kids got killed. Kids got arrested. Kids got pregnant. Kids despaired, at home, with miseries they couldn’t express to their parents, and shot themselves with shotguns. When I was growing up, all of these things really did happen to people I knew. Thing One, Thing Two, Thing Three, Thing Four. We were alone, and the door was unlocked, and the Things just kept coming.
Not that I blame our moms. In truth, the kids I knew who had overprotective moms were by far the wildest. They were the ones who kept chairs hidden in the bushes near the porch, to assist in nocturnal excursions and/or illicit visits from boyfriends. And here’s the thing: Even those overprotective moms are nothing, nothing compared to the routine hovering that so many of us mothers engage in now. Precisely because we know exactly what we were doing when our own parents weren’t watching, we’ll be damned — me and my peers, and you too, I’ll bet — if we’ll leave our kids for a minute. We are older, as mothers, than our own mothers were. We worry more. We treasure these hard-won children. We read The Cat in the Hat, and, like Menand, we think: Was that mother insane or just incompetent? We’ve read those milk-carton ads for abducted kids; we’ve shivered at the disappearances of Polly Klaas, Elizabeth Smart. We are with our kids so constantly, mothers today, it’s a wonder we don’t sleep in front of their doorways.
It’s true, many of us are working in offices. That’s a change, and it’s also an impediment to the continual supervision we now see as normal. Still, we have babysitters; we have nannycams; we have day-care centers, school aftercare. We have soccer lessons and music camp and book groups. We have all sorts of ways to make sure our kids are being watched, if not by us then by an adult we have hired to do so. We have ways to make sure they are never truly alone, that no Things can get them and they can’t get up to any Things. When we do come home, we attach ourselves to them. According to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, mothers spend more time with their children today than they did 20 years ago, even though far more mothers today are working. This is a heroic statistic, but at the same time it is just so pathetic. We have no lives! No leisure! To the idea of erotic errands, I have one word: When? We are too busy overprotecting our children, office moms and stay-at-home moms and dads of all ilks. Another colleague of mine has relatives who, when their 12-year-old is out riding her bike, actually follow behind her in their car. Apparently we do not trust our children to ride their bikes alone. What if — even with their helmets, their kneepads — they were to take a spill and tumble into a gutter? Would they go into therapy, as adults, and blame us? Would the police come, deplore our lapse and take them away?
We are hovering — in all neighborhoods, and in all social classes. This last fact came as news to me. Having read of, and met some, latchkey kids — children left alone in townhouses or apartments after school — I suspected for a while that some subtle socioeconomic differentiation had occurred. Upper- and middle-class women, I posited, are the ones who are now hypervigilant, the ones financially able to either (1) stay home or (2) hire child care. Meanwhile, I suspected, lower-income women — with less money, less-flexible work hours, longer commutes, less access to good child care — are now the ones more likely to be absent, forced to leave their kids in what is known, in the research, as “self-care.” (“Self-care,” technically, is the term for the kids’ condition in The Cat in the Hat; there is no research term for “fish care.”)
It turns out I was exactly wrong. Poorer women are even more likely to ensure that their kids are supervised. According to the research group Child Trends, 12 percent of children ages 6 to 12 whose family income is below roughly $35,000 are in self-care; the percentage is higher, 17 percent, in families with higher incomes. “Low-income parents are very concerned about safety, and place a lot of restrictions on their children,” says Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends. In other words, the poorer the child, the less likely that child is to be left alone with a sibling and a fish. Which is good and bad. Poorer kids may be safer than we think, but they are also less able to get out of the house and explore their world. Such moments, when they happen, are incandescent: “I just took a walk yesterday and saw this wonderful scene on 11th Street, all these kids gathered around watching a man welding a fence,” a friend of mine who lives near Logan Circle recently told me. “He was waving his welding wand and they were shrieking and jumping back. It wasn’t safe, but it was fun.”
Clearly, parents — particularly inner-city parents — who keep their children off the streets, and away from unfamiliar welders, have reason. Yet it’s ironic: In most ways, the world is safer for children than it was in the 1970s. Infant mortality has plummeted, as have child deaths. So many danger indicators are down. According to Child Trends, motor vehicle deaths are down, childhood illness is down, fights on the way to school are down, the number of kids carrying weapons in school is down. Back in 1976, 29 percent of all 12th-graders smoked on a regular basis; now, 17 percent smoke. Far fewer teenagers binge-drink than did so in 1976. Teen pregnancy is at what may be its lowest point ever. Abductions have always been rare — in the hundreds, each year, typically committed by a biological father — and still are. In part, children may be safer because we are more attentive to their safety; because we always fasten seat belts, always enforce the rule of wearing helmets. But part of it is because the world is not, even now, as dangerous as we think. We have such a hard time believing this. “Parents are extremely worried about their children,” says Moore, who attributes this to “media coverage of high-profile incidents.” I think this is true. I myself don’t worry much that my children will be stolen by a household intruder, but I do feel so traumatized by high-profile carjackings that I probably won’t leave them alone in a car until they are 21.
Such anxiety, of course, introduces dangers of its own. Children wander less than ever, and are more obese than ever: Just 4 percent of kids were overweight in the mid-’60s, compared with 15 percent today. Only a quarter of schoolchildren walk to school. Of these, I would wager that far fewer walk to school alone. The other day I was picking up my daughter and saw a second-grader I knew walking, alone, the few blocks to her home, a sight so rare and lovely that I watched her for a while, admiring her unhurried gait, her smile, remembering the interesting details — buttercups, dandelions, bugs, puddles — I encountered when I walked home like that. I’d let my own daughter walk except that — well, there is that busy commercial strip between our house and the school. And the school provides few crossing guards, because who would take advantage of their presence? Mostly, what you see are mothers driving and walking their kids to school and then . . . following them into class. I can’t remember my own mother ever accompanying me to my classroom, much less sitting in a tiny chair next to me helping me read. How crazy is that anyway, me sitting with her during WEB time? Why can’t I just leave her alone and let her encounter The Cat in the Hat by herself?
I do try. I try to trust her to handle encounters with interesting cats. I’ve started to encourage her to walk to a playmate’s house, all of three houses away! It’s more radical than you might think. During the day, even on weekends, my neighborhood is shockingly deserted; there are a few older kids out scootering or playing basketball, but virtually no children, especially younger ones, out aimlessly walking. It becomes a vicious circle. We send our kids to organized soccer practices because we don’t want them roaming the neighborhood; because so many kids are at soccer practice, there are few incentives to roam the neighborhood; and because so many parents are out, with their kids, at soccer practice, you can never be sure anyone is home in the house your child might conceivably roam to. “Our moms sent us out, but they knew there were moms in other houses,” points out Kristin Smith, a researcher at the U.S. Census Bureau. In other words: A mom could be absent, decades ago, because at any given moment she could assume that lots of other moms in the neighborhood were not.
We can’t, so we don’t send our kids out. We either drive them to soccer or else we keep them in, where we ourselves (or our husbands, or the babysitter) entertain them. We paint rocks with them. We make soap with them, and candles, and jewelry boxes. We do homework with them. We organize play dates and elaborate birthday parties! We’ve gone off in the other direction. We usher them into every damn activity. Sometimes I fear my kids will remember me as the mother who instead of letting them find adventure was always trying to show them where adventure is. Sometimes I worry they are going to remember me as that mother determined to inflict upon them swimming, kayaking, roller coasters, a life of fun! and thrills! in which my husband and I are the omnipresent guides. Sometimes I worry that they will remember me as the mother who never went AWOL. Sometimes I worry that we as mothers are so determined to reverse the stereotypes, to be there with our children and be there for our children, to show them what a fun and interesting place this world is, that we are no longer the absent moms; that, in a weird way, we ourselves are the Things.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
Published on: Sunday, 5/11/2003, Magazine section
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