Michelle (msagara) wrote,

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.

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