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Shush, I’m working

Quintana once nailed a list of "Mom's Sayings" to the garage door that read: "Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I'm working." In reviews of Blue Nights, "shush I'm working" became a symbol of Didion's maternal negligence.

The article linked above is about successful writers who had one child. Not more; just one. Oh, no wait, it’s about women writers. Apparently there’s some sense that you can’t be a successful writer and have more than one child--if you’re a woman.

In fact, I’ve been told personally that you can’t be a successful writer and have any children. This begs the question: What is successful? The article gives no metrics. I therefore have no claim to be either successful or unsuccessful by the article’s standards--but I have two children.

As a mother of two, I wanted to address the point I’ve quoted. “Shush I’m working” doesn’t have any meaning to a six week old. Or a six month old. It doesn’t matter at all to a fifteen month old. Maybe some of you have extraordinary recall and can remember what your parents actually said to you when you were toddlers. I can’t.

The daughter in question couldn’t have penned those commandments at that age. To write them and stick them on the garage, she had to be older.

I’ve written about early parenting before. When my children were infants, I was lucky to be able to scrape out a thousand words a day--where by lucky, I mean: we needed the money. It wasn’t optional. When my oldest went to school, that looked for “extra” time failed to emerge because school, as it turns out, was much more challenging for him. And therefore, of course, for his parents.

But he understood, from an early age, the concept of work. He understood that it was necessary. When he was young there was no easy way to differentiate between “shush I’m working don’t interrupt me unless it’s an emergency” and “go away”. Where, again, by young I mean toddler years. Rightly or wrongly, I think part of core development when a child hasn’t developed theory of mind (and mine developed it late) is the sense of being loved. Which is not the same as actually being loved. When my son was young, I did not--often--say “shush I’m working” because I couldn’t be certain he could understand exactly what that meant in the context of all of our lives.

But by the time he might have been able to pen those commandments and tape them to the garage, he did. And I think I would have done him a disservice it he hadn’t learned this. Because in order to eat & live under a relatively stable roof, we all have to work.

When my son was three years old, one of his great aunts gave him ten dollars in birthday money. He then insisted--really, truly insisted--that he wanted to spend that ten dollars on groceries. ASD insistence is very, very focused. I could not talk him out of it, so I took him off to the grocery store, where he chose…groceries.

This would be because our income was very, very tight that year--we had just moved to a slightly larger house in the neighborhood, and were therefore very tightly budgeted. We did discuss household finances & budgets at the dinner table, and clearly he’d been listening enough to pick up on our core concerns at the time.

And I felt guilty.

That was my first reaction. We all want to protect our children. To shield them from unpleasant truth and stress. As a toddler, the likelihood that he could earn money was zero; there was literally nothing he could do to alleviate that stress. I think this is why parents frequently don’t mention money in this particular way. We know money stress like it is the back of our hand. We understand the consequences of unemployment, of lack of money--and we understand, when we have children, that the visceral fear of failing them makes it all so much worse. This is not something we should saddle our children with.


I think it is. I talked to my husband about this after he’d come home from work, and we decided that we would tone down some of the discussion--but not all of it. Because this was reality, and this was the reality he would face as an adult. Money stress is part of life. The drive to work, to bring money in, to keep a household going--it’s going to be a constant presence later in life--and given the ASD, it might as well be something that seemed contextually relevant. It wouldn’t therefore come as an unpleasant surprise to him later in life--because he had seen us deal with it.

I don’t think he felt that work was more important to us than he was. But he understood why work was important. He understood that lack of work would have consequences. And as he got older, he figured out for himself that the things that were daunting or troubling, the attention he wanted, had to be balanced with the other very real responsibilities that we had. He understood that--in part--our ability to get work done was not just about us, but also about him.

I did not say “shush I’m working” in exactly those words. I didn’t have to. But if it was necessary, I would have said something longer that meant, essentially, the same thing: Unless it’s an emergency, and you can’t wait two hours, I really have to get this done Right Now.

I know that some children feel they’re in competition with their parents work--for time, for attention. When you’re very, very young, it’s hard not to, because your sense of the world doesn’t include having to, oh, pay for things. But the truth is: they’re going to have to work. They have to get things done. The sooner they understand why, the less resentful they’ll be of the things you have to do. Protecting them by keeping them ignorant of the difficulties you face doesn’t seem, to me, the way to teach them this. If they understand the big picture, they understand why the choices are made, and why sometimes it’s not fun, fun, fun to make them.

So…I’m kind of annoyed at the very idea that “shush I’m working” was somehow taken as proof of negligence by a bunch of people who probably don’t have children of their own. Or who don’t have bills to pay. Or who don’t have dual-income households. Or, or, or.

Our children are not infants forever. They’re not toddlers forever. Did I say this to an infant? No. Would I have said this to a toddler? No. But at some point in their lives, they’ll begin to see us as more than parents; they’ll see us as people. And people have many, many concerns in common, one of which is responsibility. Sometimes, to get things we want, we have to toil away at things that we don’t enjoy nearly as much. Setting an example of actually doing so - is, to my mind, perfectly reasonable.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 10th, 2013 12:08 am (UTC)
(Yay, you're back! And I've seen more books of yours out in the wild to read, too!)

I don't think I ever said "Shush I'm working" when the kids were toddlers, because they'd never have understood. I used my headphones when I could, and blocked out what I could by focusing on the screen. Now that the kids are (much) older, they get the "you'd better vamoose before my forehead veins start throbbing" look. (Especially when they decide to have a loud argument about something on the home computer when I'm RIGHT. NEXT. TO. THEM. /sigh)

What I think is that the kids got a view into my work since I worked from home, and they're not that fond of parts of it. (Especially the "meetings" part; they tell me my meetings are boring and they have no idea what it is I'm talking about.) But when I say "Split!" they get it. They know something is going down, and they REALLY don't want to hear it.
Jun. 10th, 2013 12:26 am (UTC)
Absolutely, perfectly reasonable.

That big picture you mention, and its inclusion of work, is what helps children see themselves as part of a greater community rather than the person the community ought to coddle and entertain. Learning to respect the parent's need for work time is part of that.

I am my child's mother. For the last five years, I've been a single mother. If I had chosen to spend those years as my son's ever-present entertainer and minute-problem-solver, we wouldn't have a home. Given the opportunity, kids learn that the time parents spend working is as much a part of the love as time spent doing the fun stuff!
Jun. 10th, 2013 01:06 am (UTC)
Given the opportunity, kids learn that the time parents spend working is as much a part of the love as time spent doing the fun stuff!

This has been my experience. I think it’s helpful if we’re honest with our kids about the pressures we are facing, because when they’re young and at home, we’re all in it together.
Jun. 10th, 2013 12:35 am (UTC)
Oh look: "Lauren Sandler is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One."

I guess that explains how she knows exactly what is best for everybody who isn't her. ::epic eyeroll::
Jun. 10th, 2013 01:07 am (UTC)
I confess that the one child/multiple children thing didn’t irritate me in the same way as the existence of the article at all - no one ever says “you can’t be a successful (anything here) and a father” at the same time. It’s the base assumption that raising children is, obviously, all on Women.

Jun. 10th, 2013 10:58 am (UTC)
Yes, definitely that. I got distracted by "OH LOOK! AN AGENDA!" and didn't comment on that aspect of it.

It's not just the corollary that since the role of women is to Raise Children, they can't do anything else. As the youngest of four children who were raised by our father alone after our mother died, I get intensely irritated by the blithe assumption that raising children is something only women do.
Jun. 10th, 2013 01:16 pm (UTC)
The irony of that mismatch is that in my experience in IT the people --men and women-- who were most successful were the ones who ended up divorced. They spent too much time at work and not enough time at home, and their marriages suffered for it. At a previous employer it was an ongoing joke that if you wanted to get a senior position with the company you had to get a divorce as a prerequisite.
Jun. 11th, 2013 03:39 am (UTC)
Yes. I tried to explain to someone that being a full-time lawyer is not a 40 hour a week job. It’s a *70* hour a week job. If you don’t have the time to put into the career, you’re not considered dedicated enough.

And in this day and age, that can easily destroy a marriage & a family.
Jun. 10th, 2013 02:46 am (UTC)
As an only child I am face-palming and feel like I should apologize for her foolishness just by association.

More pertinently, this is an excellent essay which I am saving in my files.
Jun. 11th, 2013 03:40 am (UTC)
As an only child I am face-palming and feel like I should apologize for her foolishness just by association.

I think she’s probably been hit by assumptions on the other side of the divide, and regardless, certainly don’t think you have anything to apologize for :). There’s no guilt by association in this one.
Jun. 10th, 2013 03:55 am (UTC)
I broke down and read this essay after reading your comments.

I fear...rantage is about to begin on my own blog. Serious rantage, because this kind of attitude ticks me off, big time.

I told my ASD son to shush. I also told him I was on deadline, because you know what? I was doing my damnedest to try to get a writing career going and at that time that meant doing a lot of small writing projects. At age 26, I still have to growl at him (yes, he's still at home...that can happen with ASD/Crohn's/consequent delays in college work) when I'm deep in a project and he wanders in to ramble about something..but now he snarls at me when I interrupt one of his projects. Turnabout is fair play, and I get it.
Jun. 10th, 2013 12:25 pm (UTC)
I don't think my moterh every said 'shush, I'm working' to me. I knew from an early age that she worked -- she used to drop me at nursery school on her way to work -- and it was a fact of my life. If she was marking, say, that meant I was to play or read or watch tv and that was normal. Same with my brother. My mother is a wonderful person and a great mother and neither of us minded in the least that she worked, as I recall. It was part of who she was/ These articles seem to take as read that there is only one model for family, for work, and that is the woman-nurtures/man-works one, and any deviation is damaging. We all held up to that narrow, upper-class model. Yet for the vast majority globally, through time, it has been the minority experience -- and those of us who grew up with those different models are fine. It's another piece of wealth and class and gender privilege wrapped up as Truth, and it's deeply stupid and harmful.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 11th, 2013 03:42 am (UTC)
Odd that no male writers with children were at Boskone that year or that anyone felt they had anything to say to this.

I laughed out loud when I read this - and Thomas laughed as well, because of course I had to read it to him.
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Jun. 11th, 2013 03:45 am (UTC)
I would have killed to have a parent who set clear boundaries: this time I am working, this other time is for you. I got very, very good at finding things to do on my own, and as a teenager, I snuck in family time: my brothers' room was next to mine, so I'd do my homework with the door open and listen to my stepfather read to them like he once read to me.

I think sometimes parents forget that teenagers haven’t stepped entirely out of childhood. There are moments in my now twenty year old’s life when he has been emotionally knocked over and he reaches instinctively for the comfort we could provide when he was much younger. And as we can, we give it.

But we don’t always see when it’s wanted, and this is a good reminder, for me.
Jun. 11th, 2013 09:11 am (UTC)
How is he doing at age 20, by the way?
Jun. 11th, 2013 06:38 am (UTC)
From a completely different perspective (I have a sibling and I have absolutely no interest in having any number of offspring myself), I think part of the problem may also be that you are EXPECTED to have a child/children. Society tolerates men who aren't interested in kids; it wants to know exactly what is wrong with a woman who isn't. Less so now than in the past, I think, but I have gotten some spectacular comments from people. I even feel guilty from time to time for not wanting kids. So you end up with people who have kids for all the wrong reasons, then don't want to deal with the actual care of those kids.

*Having* kids should be a choice you make after thinking a bit. It shouldn't be the default you have to find excuses to get out of.
Jun. 14th, 2013 08:32 am (UTC)
Madeleine L'Engle wrote after having kids, she had a lot of them and even adopted one. I think i also remember reading that she put a sign on the door when she needed to work. It's been a while since i read her biographies, but I think she said that she drew inspiration for her work from her kids, from their perspective.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )