I am often asked while dropping off my children at school, or picking them up, “And what do you do?” to which my answer is usually: “What the hell does it look like I do?”
Nah. What I really say is, “None of your bloomin’ business,” whereupon I immediately apply a wizarding mind wipe – “Obliviate!” – and disappear and reappear just in time to hear the little voice issuing from my vicinity, sighing and spluttering, and otherwise creating discomfort where before there was meaningless small talk. I have no idea what people do, even when they say it. This is willful, admittedly. You can pass years in the schoolyard talking to the very same people about the weather, and baseball, and music, and asbestos, and the dad who wears headbands and muscle shirts - it is possible, probably preferable, to know parents plenty well enough without having any concrete idea about where, and in what capacities, they spend half their waking hours, still you cannot enforce such things daily.
So let’s make a deal. You promise not to ask me about me about what I do with all of my time once the lunches have been packed, and the T-shirts and goggles and paints sets and books twelve and sixteen of The Time Warp Trio have been located and returned and exchanged, and the vegetables have been disguised, and the laundry’s been schlepped, and the doctor’s appointments have been organized and executed, and the soccer practices and photo albums and birthday presents, and the hundred and eighty-seven days a year that my kids are not actually attending school – you promise me that, okay? - and I swear I won’t ask you about the units you sold yesterday, the phone calls you didn’t receive, the retirement plans you gambled into oblivion.
Tread lightly, masters of the universe: there are plenty of insecurities on both sides of the childcare conundrum, and self-righteousness in equal measure. Stuff leaks out. At water coolers you are likely to run into people you see several times a day – and then without a toddler sticking her finger into your ear, or experimenting with gravity - but in the schoolyard, where we are only marginally attentive, a little information goes a whole lot further than it probably should toward the stories we think we know, and embellish, and compulsively tell about one another.
Our children would meanwhile need to be drugged not to wonder, worry and ask questions about all of our variations. And yet on these subjects of working or not working, of Nanny or Grammy or Mommy or Daddy (addendum to aforementioned bargain: can we promise to attach a monetary penalty soon to the usage of “Mr. Mom?”), on the subject of how we take care of our kids, I find our current generation of children’s picture books curiously evasive. Previous generations had very little to say on the subject either, but that could be sort of excused: Mommy stayed home, and nobody was fussing very much or writing books or appearing on talk shows every minute of the day to discuss extending maternity leaves, or pumping in the conference room, or spying on the babysitter.
If this is indeed a part of our national conversation (and an important one), why should our children be forced to watch an Eddie Murphy movie to participate? In fact there are so many noxious cinematic treatments of the choices parents make (or don’t, due to supernatural intervention) you wonder at least why nobody in the book business has figured out how to make any money off similarly noxious literature. Maybe it doesn’t test well - I don’t know - like books about divorce and homelessness. Or maybe the easier thing is not to bring up the subject of childcare at all – it certainly allows for more drama. Living in the city, where my children are not afforded the physical freedom I had growing up, I do like books where the know-it-all direction and inhibiting authority of grown-ups are nowhere part of the story. I love an adventure, and - working or homebound - parents can be such party poopers sometimes.
Still that’s not the end of us, is it? We might appear meaningfully, rather, at the end of an adventure, waiting with a hot bath and a change of clothes like Peter’s mother in The Snowy Day, whom I have always generally imagined staying busy while Peter is out there braving the landscape and taking his lumps. For me she has also vaguely served as a model for the sort of parent who knows when to get out of the way, and while we do not see very much of her, it’s anyhow reassuring to know that she is somewhere lurking in the background, like Batman, while Peter gets on with his wandering.
In You and Me, Little Bear a cub implores his father to join him playing games. This is a book for very young readers of course, but it’s as good a place as any to talk about the competing demands of fun and responsibility – gathering wood, fetching the libations, cleaning up the cave - at least until father bear is caught napping, a weak spot and a temptation it doesn’t hurt to occasionally acknowledge. We can all be a bit of a fraud sometimes, especially when we appoint ourselves the entertainment.
Then crossing into the realm of working parents is a book called Every Friday by Dan Yacarrino, where a boy delights in simply spending an excellent morning with his father – at the diner, strolling about – when such company is implicitly in short supply.
In The Lost Lake, by Allen Say, a boy’s relationship with his workaholic father is believably documented through the early days of the summer, the boy watching too much TV, the father absorbed in his sketches, indifferent, even begrudging one another until a sudden, and probably work-related bout of delirium leads the father to plot an excursion through the mountains toward a paradise he remembers from his youth. All of the drudgery from the beginning, and some of the disappointments along the way, makes this a place that is finally worth getting to.
And in Gorilla, Anthony Browne introduces another of his sometimes bewildering primates in the service of a little girl whose father – yes, another work-addled dad - is apparently too oblivious to notice her.
We tend to idealize, of course, and if the dilemmas of a working family merit some scrutiny, then so too do the anxieties of those children whose parents are always, relentlessly there. My thirteen-year-old reminded me recently of a book I had pretty much forgotten – Weird Parents it was called – this when I showered him with kisses and squeaky affections, and insisted on chatting with his friends (they really, really like me!) everyday outside of his middle school. The parents of the title actually go chasing after school buses, and they’re way weirder than me, I swear, still I’m grateful we had their examples to refer to, rather than all of the less charitable adjectives I have probably earned.