When I was a young child visiting my grandparents for summers in Charleston, I would often help my grandmother hang laundry on a line strung between metal poles in her back yard. It was my job to hand her wooden pins with which she secured the sheets that billowed like ship sails in the wind. I would rarely notice the chafed skin on my grandmother’s hands, the knuckles twisted with arthritis. I only knew the linens at her house were scented with sunshine, and while I was with her, Mother Mac took care of me with love.
Now that I am all grown up, I have a home of my own, and amidst myriad other duties, I am also in charge of laundry. Even when I find this work tedious, I often look at the labels in clothes—wash on gentle cycle, shape flat to dry—and I think about how much easier this chore must be for me than it was for my grandmother since I have the luxury of top-of-the-line appliances.
Of course, when trying to raise whole and happy families, how one handles dirty clothes is the least of one’s concerns.
In this matter—the proper care of children—Mother Mac had also been an expert. Unlike me, she never seemed to be at a loss for how to handle child-rearing obligations. She seemed to intuitively understand how to apply special care with those careworn hands to the special needs of four daughters and countless grandchildren.
So I started thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if parenting had evolved with appliances, and our kids now came with convenient tags sewn onto the backs of their necks, like the tags I find inside their outfits? After all, I know I’ve accumulated a laundry list of parenting mistakes over the years, and there have been moments when I just had no idea what I was doing. In such situation, it would have been so nice to remove the guesswork with a short set of easy-to-reference instructions.
For example, I recall teaching a creative writing workshop for primary school students in Kennesaw some years ago. My young son was in attendance. For my closing activity, I handed out brightly colored beads for students to put on strings to illustrate how writing a sentence can be like making a necklace; each word is as carefully considered as the gems one might thread onto a chain. Apparently unimpressed by my brilliant metaphor, my freckle-nosed offspring twirled a haphazardly created bracelet around one finger and shot it like a rubber band across the room.
Gritting my teeth, I picked the bracelet up and stuffed it into my pocket, only to be met a minute later by my red-faced child demanding I give it back to him. With a word of icy admonishment, I banished him to an isolated seat in the corner.
Moments later, adults arrived to pick up their children. A mother paused to ask me a question about her daughter’s writing. Just then a seed pearl bounced off my forehead and fell with a rat-tat-tat across the tiled floor. With heat in my cheeks, I glared over at my own flesh-and-blood miscreant who was defiantly pelting me with unused craft beads.
I think if you could find a label on my neck in that moment, it would have read 100% Failed Parent. I knew there wasn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach for every disciplinary situation, but right then—my ego shrinking--I had no idea how to react to my son without embarrassing the both of us.
Perhaps if my grandmother had been around to advise me with her homespun wisdom, she would have told me in her sweet, calm way that it would have been okay to hang my kid out to dry in front of others when his behavior so clearly needed straightening. She might have reminded me to swallow my anger, but she would have said to apply firm discipline immediately regardless of what others thought of me. It’s remiss to let the stain of disrespect set simply because it’s not convenient to remove it.
Truthfully, I can’t remember exactly what I did back on that workshop day when my son behaved so badly. But over the tangle of years, even if my response was wrong then, it all came out in the wash because a lot of what I would do turned out right. Most important, I learned to give myself a break because, whether talking about mothers or sons, there’s no human blend called “perfect.” Yet the kid proved to be made of durable enough stuff to not be ruined by my occasional mishandling, and he’s grown up now to become a fine, young man.
On this I like to think Mother Mac would also not have been surprised.
She knew years before I did that no matter what their specific needs in a fleeting moment, kids of all stripes, cut from all kinds of cloth, turn out okay if parents aren’t afraid to put in the hard work, if they are willing to apply love in abundance.
So she would have smiled at my fancy washer and dryer designed to make doing laundry easier, but she would have known in her bones that no matter what the generation, no matter what the situation, there will never really be any shortcuts in the proper care of children.
Of course, the things we do that actually matter were never meant to be as easy as something so perfunctory like washing clothes.