"You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something." George Bernard Shaw said that more than a century ago, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about parenting. (He and his wife, Charlotte, had no children, as she refused to consummate the marriage; but I digress ...)
Shaw could well have been talking about the job of parents, though, and I have thought of his words often the past few days, since Jessica Stilwell first appeared on my screen.
You know Jessica as the Mom who Went on Strike. One day last week she realized with sudden clarity that she does too much for her children. So, she stopped. No more rinsing their dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. No more wiping counters, or picking up stray items from the floor. She still made dinner, but didn't clean up, because that was the job of her 12-year-old twins and their 10-year-old sister. She still made their lunches, but didn't empty old food from insulated sacks they used the day before; rather she used whatever plastic bag was on hand. Eventually that meant the ones the family used to pick up after the dogs in the yard.
She chronicled it all, with photos, on a blog. Thanks to a tip from a HuffPost Parents reader -- hat tip to Jennifer Lawson -- I wrote about Jessica on Monday, then met her for a chat on the TODAY show this morning.
Her strike is a great story. It's fun to talk about. It's made our readers hoot in solidarity (the woman behind the camera gave Jessica a "you go girl" this morning, and Jean Chatzky, who was waiting for her segment, tweeted "My hero!" from the green room.) But the reason it resonates -- the reason I grabbed the phone and called Jessica the moment I read her words -- is because she hit upon the central tug-of-war of parenting. When you do things for your children, are you giving them something, or taking it away?
During two decades as a parent I began to figure out that the best way to give -- sometimes the ONLY way to give -- is to take. Saying "no" feels like taking. They want. You refuse. It is why too many of us have such a hard time with the word. Leaving them to cry at night feels monstrous and withholding. But isn't it also giving them the knowledge that they can soothe themselves to sleep? Leaving for work, or a night out, feels like desertion. But it is, over time, also proof that we always come back. They lose something, and then they learn.
Talking to Jessica about why she had spent so much time swooping in to clean up after her children, she gave several reasons. First, she wanted to. It felt like love. Her girls are good kids, she says, polite and hard-working and kind. Their lives are crammed with activities and school -- far more than her own days were when she was their age -- so if she can make their way a little smoother, why not?
Second, she herself is a neat freak. Even when her daughters are at their best, their mother still feels the need to swoop in and re-wipe the counter or re-configure the silverware drawer. (Matt Lauer, a confessed "germaphobe" bonded with Jessica before the segment on this point ...) The girls don't get to it fast enough and don't do it as well, so she might as well do it herself.
I've asked her a few times what one thing last week was the final straw -- was it one dish too many, one particularly smelly sock on the floor? No, she said, it was the realization that she was failing her children by not allowing them to fail. Looking around her strewn house she suddenly saw that by doing things for them she sent the message that they couldn't do it themselves. And, actually, they couldn't. Because she had never allowed them to try, screw up, and try again.
Her strike made for a great story, and some fun television, but "Mom Teaches Kids A Lesson", is not really the takeaway here. It's more like "Mom Learns A Lesson About How To Teach Kids", and it involves raising expectations and getting out of the way.
"That always feels at first as though you have lost something," says Shaw. And oh have the Stilwell daughters lost: their personal housekeeper; their blinders as to how much work their parents do. Jessica has had to let go, too: of the idea that her level of clean was the only acceptable one; that sitting on your hands and biting your tongue takes a lot of energy.
But that, of course, is how you learn something -- what you are capable of; the part you play in the whole of a household; that independence is hard, but exhilarating, too. And those lessons are what it means to grow as a child, and a parent.