Flowers Are Red

Twin Nephs started first grade on Thursday. They were blithely dismissive of the fact that there must have been some sort of mistake and they must still only be about three years old. They were excited to get school supplies—well, alright, Neph 1 was excited—and bore the burdens of heavy backpacks well on Day One, as evidenced in the photos I received. But along with all this excitement came not only the usual tinge of sadness for us grown-ups, but a little extra kick in the head. And not the way Sinatra would mean it.

Sister 1 took Neph 1 (Neph 2 chose to stay at home) and her mother-in-law to the store to get the supplies listed in the emails the boys’ respective teachers had sent. There was a distinct difference between these lists, I’m told. Neph 2’s teacher requested the usual stuff: four folders, a few sharpened No. 2 pencils (awwww, remember No. 2 pencils?), a pencil box, crayons, markers, paper, etc. Neph 1’s teacher, on the other hand, was much more precise.

  • 12 No 2. pencils, sharpened
  • 12 No. 2 pencils, unsharpened

(“Can I get a pencil sharpener?!” Neph 1 excitedly asked. Sister 1 and her mother-in-law looked at the list.

“Sorry, honey. Not on the list.”

Cue minor dejection.)

  • 1 pencil box, primary color
  • 4 folders: red, green, yellow, blue – no other colors

(“Mom, what about this one?!” asked Neph 1, holding up his favorite color: orange.

Sister 1 checked the list again. “Nope. Can’t be orange. Sorry.”

Cue rolled eyes.)

  • 1 marble composition notebook – black and white only (awww, remember marble composition notebooks?)

(“‘Com…poh…sssih…’ I found a composition notebook, Mom!” exclaimed Neph 1, proudly holding it up. 

Sister 1 wrinkled her nose. “Sorry, buddy. That one’s purple. It has to be black and white.”

“But I like purple!” Neph 1 declared, wide-eyed and smiling with remaining hope.

“I know. Sorry.” My sister frowned for him.

Cue big sigh.

“I hope I wasn’t this tough on my students’ parents,” remarked the mother-in-law, a retired elementary school teacher.)

  • 1 eraser, pink, rectangular
  • 2 1″ binders, black
  • 1 16-pack Crayola crayons, standard colors
  • 1 8-pack regular size (not fat) Crayola markers, primary colors

…et cetera.

Neph 1 was still enthusiastic despite having some creative hopes dashed during the shopping trip. So was Sister 1, who was later photographed sitting at the kitchen table with her label maker, carefully branding all the kids’ stuff with their names. Amazingly, she did not label the kids themselves.

At a family get-together a day or so later, Sister 1 was telling a cousin, Callie, this story. Callie is a third grade teacher. She explained that she bets Neph 1’s teacher is older, more experienced, and more structured, while Neph 2’s teacher is probably younger and less organized. “By the time I get them in my class, I can tell which teacher they had in first grade,” she said. “The kids who had the tougher, structured teachers are more organized by the time they’re in third grade.”

My sister realized she’d forgotten to get Neph 1 the hand sanitizer from the list. Brother-In-Law 1 ran out on a quick trip to grab it, and, since there were no rules listed about what kind of sanitizer it had to be, he grabbed a bottle with an orange cap. It turned out to be peach scented stuff. Which thrilled my nephew. Less so, my brother-in-law.

I called the boys at 7:15 a.m. on their first day. My sister was combing their hair before sending them downstairs to get breakfast. “I’m going to do my hair sideways, because I think my teacher will like it,” said Neph 1. (“Do my hair sideways” means “part it on the side.”) He likes to impress people. He and his brother chatted to me energetically via speakerphone about how they get to ride the bus and how Neph 1 knows one other child in his class already but Neph 2 doesn’t know anybody in his. Neph 1 was giddy as he told me, “I get to have my own hand sanitizer! And it smells like peaches!” I’m telling you, it really doesn’t take a lot to make this kid happy. Realizing that they probably weren’t chewing their nutritious breakfast while they were talking to me, I wrapped up the conversation and let them prep their bellies for a day of learning.

That night, I got a message from my sister. She’d come home from work and asked the boys how their first day of first grade went. Unsurprisingly, my darling, exuberant, people-pleasing, sensitive, curious, purple-and-orange-loving, peach-scented godson piped up first.

“Well, I had a GREAT day!,” he told her. “I only got two time-outs—”

Two time-outs?!” my sister cried. “On the first day?! What did you do?”

Neph 1 screwed up his face in a classic expression he may have inherited from his favorite aunt. “I talked. I talk a lot, Mom.”

He may have inherited that from me, too.

“And do you know what?” he continued with vivacity. “Did you know that you’re not allowed to sing in class?”

He turned and looked sadly out the window.

“Today I learned that you’re not allowed to sing in class,” he finished.

Well. I went all Harry Chapin “Flowers Are Red” about it. Do you know the song? It’s about a little boy who goes to school all excited and starts coloring a picture, and the teacher says, “What are you doing?” and the boy says he’s painting flowers, and the teacher says, “It’s not the time for art, young man. And anyway, flowers are green and red.” She lectures this boy: “Flowers are red, young man. Green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.”

But the little boy says, “There are so many colors in a rainbow, so many colors in the morning sun, so many colors in a flower, and I see every one!”

And the teacher says, “You’re sassy.” And after he argues again, she puts him in a corner, where he gets lonely, and he goes to the teacher and tells her she was right, that flowers are red and green leaves are green, and there’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.

Then the boy’s family moves to another town and he goes to a new school and the teacher is smiling and says, “There are so many colors in a flower, so let’s use every one!” But do you know what the little boy does? He paints all the flowers green and red. And when the teacher asks him why, he says, “Flowers are red, and green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.”

Like lots of other Harry Chapin songs, it means a lot more than a cute story about a fun kid and a dour teacher. It means that kids start out in life all excited and full of joy and natural curiosity and natural creativity, and stupid rules and the way they’re enforced start beating all of those great things out of them starting in first grade.

I read my sister’s story and thought, “That kid is going to get all that precious, wide-eyed excitement and innate joy beaten out of him, starting today.”

I actually cried.

This is another reason I can’t have kids, by the way. I’d be that mom who’s always falling apart at some perceived injustice or another.

Hell, I cried just typing the story out.

I totally get, by the way, why the kid can’t sing in class. I remember first grade, and I don’t recall being scarred by the realization that I wasn’t allowed to sing in class. (I don’t recall getting in trouble for singing, anyway. I recall getting in trouble for talking and being out of my seat without permission. And I recall standing in corners. In fact, I recall a particular moment in second grade when, standing in the corner, I glanced up at the crucifix nailed to the wall above my head, and my teacher saw me and said, “Yeah, you’d better pray!”) I am not psychologically damaged or less creative for these rules. I think Callie is probably right about structured teachers instilling organizational skills and an understanding that there are times and places for behaviors. It’s not the teachers’ fault. You can’t have a kid busting out with a Katy Perry song in the middle of an addition lesson.

Still… I think I might buy Neph 1 a few supplies he can keep at home. Like a purple composition notebook, and an orange folder. Because there are so many colors in a flower. And I want him to see every one.

And I’m glad my brother-in-law accidentally picked up peach-scented hand sanitizer. 

Now on my bookshelf: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Womb With A View: Why Target Is Excellent Birth Control

I’m about to tell you something shocking about myself. Something my family and even some of my closest friends don’t know. Something I’m sure I’ll be judged for, and even possibly ex-communicated from the Catholic Church (as if this would be the only thing that would do it).

I don’t think I want children.

You're not getting grandkids from me!


There, I said it.

My biological clock is digital. It does not tick.

Now, for most total strangers, this isn’t necessarily a monumental revelation, so maybe I oversold it a bit in the lead. But make no mistake: women of childbearing age who choose not to have children are judged, by loved ones and total strangers alike.

When I was in my early 20s, I told my father I was leasing a four-door car partly because I figured I might be married with a kid by the time the lease was up. It is possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever said. And when I think about it, I wonder why I even thought that. Did I really think about having children at all? Sure, I thought about babies. And names. But that was probably pretty much it.

My theory is that most people really don’t think about it. They fantasize about it, but they don’t really think about it. I’m not saying I’m smarter than them because I have thought about it. For some people, children are the ultimate consummation of their lives. It’s their whole raison d’etre.

But boy, do they go through hell having them.

I’m not just talking about the sleepless nights or the messes made right after you get things cleaned up, the fevers and runny noses and whining and potty training and testing of limits, and then the growing up and testing of limits even more. When I talk about not really wanting children, I’m not talking about what children are like.

I’m talking about what mothers are like.

The best illustration I can give is Target on a Saturday. Target on a Saturday is the best birth control ever.

One Saturday, as I was perusing the greeting card aisle, a young mother was admonishing her son. “Grayson. Grayson, stop. Grayson, STOP IT. GRAYSON!”

Well, first of all, you named him Grayson, so that’s problem number one.

But this kid wasn’t doing anything wrong. You know what he was doing? He was singing. Not at the top of his lungs. Not a song about poop or farts. He was just singing. He was probably about four years old, and he was happy.

His mother, however, was not.

She was frazzled and exhausted, probably hadn’t had a shower yet that day, and was yelling at her child who was not pulling things off shelves and throwing them all over the floor or drawing on display cases with lipsticks. He was just singing.

Let him sing. He’s happy. You’re not. You are the problem here.

Now, lest a bunch of mothers jump on me, let me say this: I get it as much as a childless woman can get it. I know that kids can wear on you and wear on you until your last nerve is in danger of spazzing out completely at the smallest of irritations. Being a mother is, without question, the hardest thing on Earth to do. I have nephews, and I watch my sisters struggle with discipline and snotty noses and time-outs and neediness and Robert Mapplethorpe-esque outcomes of potty training attempts. They love their children more than anything in the world, and it’s sometimes not enough to keep them from sending me a message that says, “Come and get your nephew before I kill him.”

I live two hours away, so that’s a serious request.

My nephews are the best little guys ever, and I relish the chances I get to spend days (yes, days, not hours) with them. But I know in my heart I could never raise them without losing my mind.

I know women who wanted children desperately – or at least thought they did – and went through all kinds of very expensive and highly unpleasant medical procedures and marital strain to have them. And then they did have them, and a few years later they realized they hadn’t really thought it through, didn’t realize what it would entail. Turned out, reality was not the romantic notion they held in their heads and hearts. They don’t really want to be mothers. What a devastating and self-hatred inducing conclusion to come to. There are some women who might be able to barrel through this realization and be good moms. And I’m not saying the people I know don’t love their children. They do. You know who they don’t like? Themselves.

Being a mother comes with plenty of guilt and second-guessing, even when your children could not be better behaved and your relationship with your partner is thriving and you have it as together as is humanly possible. But being a mother when you don’t like yourself? That’s going to hurt you, and it’s going to hurt your kids.

I don’t hate myself, but I think I would if I had children. I would constantly be worried about whether I was doing enough, giving enough, loving enough, sacrificing enough, trying enough, showing enough, teaching enough, pleasing enough. I would constantly be worrying whether I was enough. I would find myself often wishing they would just go away. I might lose out on moments of joy because I was wrapped up in the anguish and exhaustion. There is precious little validation for these worries in a mother’s life, and I’m just not sure I’m wired to handle that kind of lifelong self-doubt and sacrifice, let alone protect my children from sensing it.

I have a sister who was born when my parents were 39. She was  not an accident; rather, she was a last-ditch effort. My parents knew that, if they wanted another child, it was now or never. And so she came to be. And that meant my parents would be 57 by the time that little girl turned 18. She has kept them young and up on the kid lingo of the day, but having her at 39 had a pretty significant impact for my mother.

My mom didn’t go to college, and her working life has always been as a secretary. There is nothing wrong with that. She worked hard, and she did it so that her kids could have a few extras in life. My  mother was the kind of mom who believed that she had to give everything over to being a mom. She criticized herself for every impulse or desire that seemed selfish, and told herself she couldn’t have any of the things she wanted if she wanted to be a good mother.

The problem is, I don’t think she was happy. And she felt guilty that her children didn’t make her happy, that we were not enough to fill her life and satisfy her. (And of course we weren’t. We were loud and annoying and messy and germy and constantly complaining about what she was making for dinner.) And her unhappiness – her fatigue and isolation and frustration and dissatisfaction – came out to her children in a lot of criticism and judgment and negativity. I’ve realized that this is exactly why she and I have always had a tense relationship. I was her oldest child, the one who made her realize that children are not little balls of personality Play-Doh that she could shape into being exactly what she wanted them to be. I was not the first daughter she had dreamed of. She told me as much once. And she has watched all of her girls grow up and go to college and have careers and do everything she might have wanted to do. And she resents it.

A few years ago, she uttered a sentence that told me more about who she was than all the years I had been her daughter: “I always thought that I’d start my life when my kids were grown.”

Oh, Mom.

If she had only known how beautifully wrong that thinking was, she wouldn’t have put it off for so long that she no longer had a dream of what to do. She robbed herself of happiness, and, in turn, set an example for her daughters that the way to raise children is to try to give them everything, keep nothing for yourself, and then be jealous of them.

I would never say my mom was a bad mother. She was not. But she was not a happy woman, and this is why. And happy women make better mothers. I find it an immutable fact. So much so that every time one of my friends or sisters got pregnant with their first child, I told them not to forget the women they were before they had children. It seems that can be easy to do. And when all you’ve ever wanted since you were three years old was to be a mom, well… then you never knew the woman you were before becoming a mom. Like my mother.

One day all your kids are out of the house, and you are a stranger to yourself.

Researchers have found that childless adults are happier and less stressed out than parents. (You can read a super-telegraphed article with links to the studies here.)  One woman has written a book about how, in the midst of a divorce, she realized she did not want to be a full-time mom, and she gave custody of her children to her ex-husband. What a gut-wrenching realization… and how brave of her to share that story.  I don’t know for sure if it’s true that childless people are happier, though I’m a sucker for empirical data that back up my suspicions. But I can see plenty of reasons that it might be true, even if it’s just that none of our clothes have vomit stains on them and we can take a shower whenever we want. I’m not being flip; those little things are a big deal.

And yes, I know that not having children might set me up for loneliness and sadness in my old age. But I don’t think that having someone to wipe my drool when I’m 85 is a good reason to have children now. There’s an awful lot that goes on in the 50 or 60 years before you get there that could make your kids want to smother you with a pillow as soon as look at you when you’re an old lady.

So I go to Target on a Saturday and I see these women, who are yelling at their happy little ones and telling them not to sing, and it breaks my heart. I feel terrible for a woman who is so worn out that she doesn’t see the pure beauty in a child who just wants to sing. And I think, “It’s not that I don’t want children. It’s that I don’t want to be her.” And I wheel my purchases out to my 2-door car, and head on home.