I don’t like it when I feel like a bad mother. It’s a crappy feeling. Since I’ve started working so much more, I struggle with this sentiment fairly often. After my oldest daughter was born, I was in a new mother’s support group with a fabulous therapist with whom I continued to work in myriad capacities for several years. I will never forget when she taught me about a concept she’d gleaned from Mothering magazine they called “benign neglect,” the gist of which is that your children will become more self-sufficient and creative if left (safely) to entertain themselves rather than having you create diversions for them all of the time. For a chronically hyper-vigilant, over-parenter, this concept has been one that has been a challenge for me to put into practice. As my girls have gotten older, however, and everything I’d worked on in therapy has had some solid time to marinate in my being, I’ve gotten better and better at it. Lately, though, I fear I’ve become a little bit too good at it.
I remember back in the day when the girls were really small and all my husband and I did all day was damage control, we’d watch our next door neighbors enviously as they did yard work, ran errands, and drank wine on their front porch while their kids played in their rooms or drew hopscotch patterns on the driveway. “When would our kids be old enough to do that” we’d ask ourselves. Where was the light at the end of the toddler-tunnel?
When they were small, we did engage our girls most of the time, though we noticed that left to their own devices they did occupy themselves quite happily with their imaginary games for fairly lengthy periods of time. Now that they are 12, 10 & 8, we, too, live like our neighbors once so enviably did. Hours will go by on the weekends with the girls in their rooms reading or knitting or doing homework, outside making “houses” with dolls and sleeping bags down in the tree house, or gallivanting with their friends. Because of this freedom I find myself putting them off when they do ask me to do something with them. “I just have to…” is my frequent refrain–fold the laundry, start the dinner, finish this article–and they eventually lose interest in waiting for me to be available and get involved in some activity that doesn’t require my attention.
I’m not comfortable with this. Where “benign neglect” was once a parenting mode by which I’d had to push myself to abide, it is now my general mothering modus operandi. And while I still firmly believe in the benefits of avoiding over-parenting one’s kids, as my girls get older and the days go by so much more quickly than they did during those years of baby and toddler intensity, I realize that their childhood is incredibly fleeting and I want to tear myself away from the “I just have-tos” to stop and simply BE with them.
This leads me to the pie. My firstborn has been asking me for the past few weekends to make a pumpkin pie. Even with making the pie crust from scratch, the whole project takes about an hour. A blip. Yes there’s the clean-up to do and yada yada yada, but it’s really a minimal time investment. Even still, something kept getting in the way of this pie’s getting made. We’d be out of butter. I’d say yes and then the day would get away from us and the dough wouldn’t have time to chill if we started making it at four in the afternoon. Instruments needed practicing, onions needed chopping, floors needed vacuuming. But this past Saturday, when she came into the kitchen to ask if we could please make a pumpkin pie, I said yes. Yes. She looked at me somewhat incredulously. “Really?” she asked. I hadn’t said, “maybe later” and I hadn’t said, “let me just whatever.” Just yes. “And why don’t we make an apple pie, too.”
My eldest has become very capable in the kitchen, a likely benefit of all of my benign neglect. She has taken over the weekend morning pancake making because I’m often doing housework that I used to do during the day when they were at school before my days were spent working. She makes incredible chocolate chip cookies, too. She’s not allowed to use the food processor, though, so after she mixed her dry ingredients, filled a pyrex with ice water and cut her butter into tablespoon-sized pieces, I helped her mix the dough and wrap it in plastic wrap to chill for an hour. While it chilled she took my phone, googled the Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe (the best one ever even if you’re not using Libby’s pumpkin which we weren’t) and mixed up the pie filling. “Can you reach the tsps for me?” she asked, pointing to the measuring spoons in the cabinet. So freaking cute.
On Sunday, she appeared again, ready to make the apple pie with the other slab of dough that was in the refrigerator. The Small One chimed in, “Can I help?” so I put the two of them to work peeling apples while the dough came to room temperature. When the apples were peeled and sliced and mixed with sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg, I pulled out Martha Stewart’s Baking Book for the crumble topping recipe, chopped them a bunch of walnuts and set them up to make the topping. The only part I took in all of this was rolling out the dough and crimping it into the pie dish. Into the oven it went.
I watched the pie closely as I’d forgotten to turn down the oven temperature the day before and the pumpkin pie had gotten a bit overdone. My daughter had been annoyed and I didn’t want to get distracted and drop the ball on the apple. The house filled with the sweet, spicy autumn smell of baking. The girls went off to do something else and I cleaned up the kitchen, did some work and folded laundry.
A dear friend of mine who now has a doctorate in psychology and is a children’s therapist in San Francisco once said when we were in college, “a need met is a need that goes away.” As much as parenting from a benign neglect standpoint is helpful in growing children who are able to create their own diversions, as with everything in this crazy life, there needs to be a balance. Too much in the benign neglect direction and the girls are tugging my apron strings a bit too much than is tolerable. Baking a pie or two is sometimes all it takes to meet that intrinsic need for connection my girls have. Or reading the story on the couch. Or taking 10 minutes to go down and swing on the swings. Or going for a walk with the dog. Or helping to dress the dolly. Life is busy but life is also full and rich. Bake the pies. Nurture those moments of connectedness. All too soon my nest will be empty and there will be plenty of time for chores and work and quiet. And I don’t want to ever look back and feel like I missed it.