Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to give a mother advice when you aren't one

Earlier this week I went to lunch with two old friends, who happen to be sisters as well as mothers.  We hadn't seen each other in a while and after talking about ourselves at length I felt obligated, if not particularly interested, in asking after their children.  This is how I learned that the tween son of one is excelling academically.  Literally excelling: he plots his grades in an Excel spreadsheet and graphs them to track his progress.  She also reported that he cries if he gets a grade less than 100%.

"That's OK, right?" she asked half-heartedly.

I looked at her sister for a cue on how to respond, but even she wasn't going there.  In any case my friend hadn't left much of a pause for an answer and instead was endeavoring to answer herself with an explanation of how much satisfaction her son gets out of academic achievement, offering the example of his excitement at being accepted at a tony local prep school.  I really wanted to tell her that no, this was not OK.  This was crazy pressure for a twelve-year old to put himself under and was bound to backfire at some point.  Hadn't she read those horror stories about Korean kids committing suicide over their grades???  But instead I just smiled and nodded my head.  Because if there is one thing I know from experience it is that there is precisely no way to give a mother advice when you aren't one.

Just as I sidestepped that minefield I encountered another one.  I wasn't even talking about kids.  I was talking with the other mother -- whose kids she reported were primarily interested in soccer and music in seemingly benign doses -- about a mutual acquaintance who happens to be our next door neighbor.  They are a family of four, lovely in every possible way except for the fact that their home looks like a one-trailer trailer park with the wheels removed from the trailer.  The house -- a typical Santa Monica WWII-era bungalow -- was always a bit rundown, but appears to have gone without any maintenance during the seven years we were away.  The shutters, previously a bit ramshackle, have been removed instead of repaired, leaving rectangles of mismatching paint around the front windows.  The front garden is a weed haven, except for an abundance of cacti that were planted on the left half of it some years ago when, ironically, the wife took a class in sustainable landscape design.  A handful of broken bricks and concrete blocks scattered about complete the overall look.  As I reached the end of my thorough dissing of our mutual acquaintance's failure to keep up property values on our street I was met with a simple shrug from my mother-friend.

"I can relate," she said.  "When you have kids, that kind of stuff just isn't a priority."

This was the point at which I remembered that her house was a little weedy out front.  And felt a little bit like an uptight childless house maintenance Nazi.  It seemed like a good time to ask the other mother more about her son's fabulous new prep school.

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