Some posts ago I wrote about Amy Chua, the infamous "Tiger Mother," and her draconian parenting methods. It was immediately clear how her ideas held broad appeal to the swath of parents--myself included--who have high aspirations for their children and get sucked into the notion that children benefit from mastery. Chua's argument, for the two parents out there who may not have read the book (well, or the excerpts), boils down to this: it's ok to be a screaming harridan of a mother if you're actually helping your children learn the true value of hard--really hard--work. Especially if this work leads to their playing at Carnegie Hall or in the U.S. Open.
In a subsequent book group discussion I attended, almost everyone agreed that while Chua's methods were "extreme," her basic premise was seductive. After all, who doesn't want her children to feel confident and accomplished? My take was somewhat different: as the mother of a dyslexic child, I was drawn not so much to the concept of mastery as I was to the idea that it's ok to push through some pain and suffering if the end goal is worthy. In other words, battling with my daughter over reading practice will be worth it in the long run, and I shouldn't be afraid of tough love if it's going to help her learn to read.
Over the course of this summer, I read several more parenting memoirs, including Claire Dederer's Poser, Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child, and finally, Katrina Kenison's The Gift of an Ordinary Day, all of which provided insights into varied modes of mothering and very different kinds of children. Yet it was Kenison's book that stopped me in my tracks, especially when I began to see how her message is in many ways the exact opposite of Chua's. I found myself dog-earing corners and avidly flipping pages--which surprised me, especially because of how ambivalent I'd been about the book in the first place.
You may have seen, forwarded by a friend or posted on Facebook, a video of Katrina Kenison reading an essay about motherhood to a group of women. It's a sentimental but incredibly moving video, both celebrating and mourning the evanescence of childhood, and I find it almost impossible to watch without crying. It moved me to order her book online, without knowing anything else about her, but by the time it arrived I'd already begun to regret my impulse buy (a hardcover, for God's sake!), and it sat unread on my bookshelves throughout the fall, winter and spring. Somehow, its title and the corny cover art of a steaming tea cup made it look like a dreaded "book-club book," and I lost interest.
I'm so glad that I eventually overcame my apathy and picked it up, as I discovered in Kenison an alternative to Amy Chua's views that I can embrace with unabashed enthusiasm. Kenison's thesis is a kind of parental carpe diem: perhaps not the most original idea, but one that resonates deeply in this age of constant future-gazing and plan-making. After an impulsive, even rash, midlife decision to uproot her family from their comfortable neighborhood of upper-middle class strivers, Kenison explores the ramifications of a move to the country and tries to understand her own reasons for wanting such a major change. "I keep hoping," she writes, "that we might strike more of a balance between being and doing, between meeting the demands of life and pausing long enough to appreciate its sweet rewards." And as her older son applies to colleges, she also gains perspective on the rat race many well-meaning parents fall into and she vows to pull herself--and her children--out of it:
I know that if I really want to encourage my own two children to follow a course in life more purposeful than accumulating wealth, power, and prestige, I must first acknowledge the value of such a life myself. I need to show, by my own example, that the path to fulfillment has but little to do with mastery and conquest and much to do with coming to know oneself, finding pleasure in everyday events, doing work that matters, living in community with family and friends, being loved and loving in return.
This is a philosophy so much more in tune with what I believe, and so out of tune with the world in which I often find myself--I can already imagine the horrified looks I'd get by asserting I want something other than "wealth, power, and prestige" for my children! And maybe it's easy to feel that way when you know your children will have certain privileges squared away without question: it's certainly easier not to be a striver when you already have so much.
Nevertheless, this book very much deserves a wider audience, especially as a counterpoint to the harsh, punishing parenting advocated by Amy Chua, and also to the blind worship of mastery that has overtaken so many parents and children today. And for those readers who might wonder how this ties back into food, my ostensible focus, it is exactly this valuing of ordinary moments and everyday pleasures that makes me a family cook: devising, cooking and consuming meals for and with my family gives me enormous, quotidian happiness. And while not every meal is a harmonious one, we are, at least, aspiring towards moments of connectedness and sharing. The table is my community, the kitchen and farmer's market my site for creating the gifts of these blessedly ordinary days.
P.S. Guess whom I just saw in the park, for the first time in over a year? Mr. Nice and Easy! I have never been so happy to see a (relative) stranger in my life. For the remainder of my run I was grinning like a fool the whole way.
What I cooked the week before I went on vacation and (happily) ate meals prepared by others: