At the back of a restaurant a dozen mothers holding their infants to their chests. There is a slight sense of uncertainty, insecurity, such as one may see with first-time mothers. Am I holding my baby correctly? How does my baby or I compare to these other babies, these other mothers?
Our approach to child-rearing is not very efficient, I think. One or two parents devoted to raising just one child, or at most a few children. And think of all the help these parents need from nannies, babysitters, grandparents, childcare workers, teachers. And how many of these mothers, or their spouses, can be naturally gifted at childcare, or well-trained by their own parents, or well-prepared to learn to be good parents, or well-prepared for juggling the ups and downs of their own lives with the ups and downs of their children’s lives? Surely in our modern, high-tech, productivity-oriented society we could devise a better, more efficient system. Indeed we have been making some strides toward developing just such a system, complete with infant formulas and breast pumps and round the clock daycare, giving mothers (and fathers) just a few weeks to cuddle and struggle with their children before the parents go back to their jobs and the babies are entrusted to the care of (poorly paid) professionals, some of whom have tons of experience and all of whom are tasked with feeding, keeping clean, entertaining, educating, exercising, putting to sleep several babies at once.
Well, you can see where I am headed with this. Will we come to say that it is a great luxury, both for parents and for children, to be able to raise and be raised one-on-one, or in small family groupings? Will this luxury be reserved for the rich (in purse and in spirit)? Will we come to say that our society can no longer afford this luxury? Our economy is not as strong as it once was, or we have other priorities—fighting terrorism? driving large cars? continually updating our electronic equipment? taking care of our elderly citizens? going on cruises and to casinos?
What will become of our children then? we might ask. Or what will become of our parents? A Chinese colleague and I have been exchanging e-mails about the poverty, or poverties, of our social lives in the modern big city where people are too busy getting ahead (and keeping their jobs) and staying in shape and playing with their cellphones to have time for what used to be called friendship. By contrast, and luckily, she has her relationship with her two young sons, and I have my relationship with my slightly older son. Among so many other things, Jonah, my son, is a big walker, and so, as I reported to Li, he chose for us to walk to the theater this past Sunday—three miles—and to walk back as well. And when we walk is when we talk. I believe that for suburban parents and children the equivalent experience is riding in a car; this is when they talk. A psychologist recently explained to me that children do not feel comfortable talking face to face; walking or riding in a car positions them in such a way that they can talk with ease. I am trying to remember what Jonah and I talked about; the only thing that comes to mind is the few minutes of conversation about whether the US government made the right decision in dropping an atom bomb on Hiroshima. That may sound like a gruesome and not very intimate subject, but above all the conversation was a respectful, open-ended exchange of views as we wended our way past the tourists and shoppers on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue.
In leaving the mothers at the back of the restaurant and bicycling home to meet Jonah, make him an early dinner and get him started on his homework, I was reminded of one of my favorite stanzas of poetry, and this notwithstanding that the stanza is a translation from a Russian poem I have never been able to track down, and that the poem, ostensibly, concerns not first-time mothers but rather men such as me.
Women, make haste to love us,
For we sing of wonders still,
And we are the last thin cracks
That progress has yet to fill!
— Vadim Shershenevich, translator unknown