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aging

Lately I’ve been thinking about age and what we make of it, and now we operate with it, through it, despite it. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how people make assumptions of others based on the number of years behind their belt. According to gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the 1960’s, ageism is “a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” Since then the concept has grown into stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes towards any group based on age.

Several months ago my beloved grandfather passed away, and I want to add “at a ripe old age of 91,” but that would just illustrate my point. After a serious case of the shingles, he declined rapidly and died within two months of the onset of the disease. The medical staff attending him, though very considerate and sympathetic, gently (and then not-so-gently) advocated for us to let him go. He had lived a full life and nobody could have asked for more from a man who spent the first 70 years in Russia, fought and survived a world war, and lived on to have children, grand children and great-grand children of his own. My mother was at odds with this idea of letting her father pass quietly, without a fight. She asserted that surely if he was able, he would have wanted to continue living, if he could speak coherently, he would have told us Yes! Keep trying with me! Don’t give up!

For the doctors caring for him, grandpa’s age played the crucial role. The assumption was that he had lived enough. It was a “ripe old age” that most men are not lucky enough to attain. And since he’d reached it, somehow that meant that he should be OK with not living any longer. This line of reasoning started to look odd if you applied it going backwards in time. So if it’s appropriate not to fight for the life of a 91 year old, what about a 90 year old? An 85 year old? An 80 year old? Why do we, healthy, youngish people get to decide when an elderly person has “lived enough?” But the opposite reaction, that of assuming grandpa wanted to continue living at all cost, was perhaps also misdirected. Mama might have been superimposing her preferences on him. A person in their mid-50’s would want to live, so naturally a person in their early 90’s should feel the same…

Ageism is equally maddening and confusing when applied to children. When I took my 10-year old daughter to a gourd weaving class designated for adults, the well-meaning teacher, herself in her 70’s, chuckled and with an exasperated sort of resignation exclaimed, “Well, this’ll be a hoot!” Lo and behold, two hours into the class my daughter proved to be the most attentive, dexterous and successful gourd weaver in the group. The teacher judged her unfairly, which was all the more surprising because at her age, she should have been familiar with the sting of age discrimination.

Children really have it tough. They are always maturing, and adult caregivers and educators never seem to keep up. Talking down to a child as if they were three when they’re ten is akin to talking down to an elderly person as if, by default, they were senile. Both are completely unacceptable, but it seems that the former happens even more often than the latter, and definitely with no consequences for the offending adult. Not only are children treated with less respect than they deserve, they also have fewer rights. They cannot go out and purchase what they want – they do not have buying power. They’re always forced to ask their parents for any of their needs, and forced to justify it. Also, they cannot get places. While we-the-adults can just hop in the car and go wherever we please, children have to plan well in advance, coordinate their drivers, beg, explain, negotiate.

You would think ageism affects only the very young and the very old. Not true. As a 30 something, I come into contact with it regularly as a result of where I work (mostly with older people) and where I serve (mostly with significantly older people). Even when I am with my husband’s friends (who are also 20-30 years older than I am), I feel like I am a little girl at an adults’ gathering. I can be delightful, I can be a fun addition to the ensemble, a welcomed decoration on what would have been quite a dreary table otherwise, but surely when the adults start talking serious, I cannot have any input. At this point it is no longer clear whether the “elders” are emitting a sense of being older, or I have already internalized a sense of being “younger” and therefore frivolous and irrelevant.

And, of course, there is age discrimination on the job: older professionals struggle with finding a new job because younger ones are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks and be a liability, and also because they can be paid less and are assumed to be more adept at grasping new technologies and being “team players.”

Truth is, you can’t get away from it. We as a society cannot ban ageism because, at its root, it is a way for us to classify people, to make general assumptions without which we cannot operate (unless we are ready to get to know each individual personally, fully, before we make any judgement about him or her). But still, it helps to be aware of the snap judgments you make about people, and to hold them in check. It’s what you’d want others to do for you, isn’t it?

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Dream

The last few days I was on a very random sleeping schedule as a result of working many night hours. And so today, when I collapsed into bed at 9:30 in the morning, my over-stimulated, sleep deprived brain birthed the following dream…

I wake up and sleepily roll out of bed. It is about 11am, I am fumbling around in my room, only pj pants and a thread-bare wife-beater on, when in burst Gri. He is excited and proud, and he holds by the shoulders in front of him a man of average height, light-skinned and sandy-stubbled, with a trilby hat covering his pale hazel eyes. “Look at her! Isn’t she lovely!” he exclaims gleefully. The man looks at me calmly, smiling with his eyes. “I don’t even have a bra on!” I murmur embarrassedly to Grisha and shove past them into the bathroom, trying to cover the outlines clearly showing underneath the tank.

When I come out, dressed and slightly irritated at my partner’s lack of tact, he is happily peering into a pot of something gurgling on the stove while his friend wanders aimlessly through the house, picking up objects, touching things, sniffing. I am shocked to notice that Grisha is not wearing any pants. No pants whatsoever. I rush up to him and in a hushed voice hiss, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?! Why did you take your pants off??!!”

“Oh, it’s a tradition of ours,” he replies, “When he comes over we always walk around without our pants. It’s freer that way!”

“But what about his wife?! She’s gonna come any minute now, and this is totally unacceptable!” I am incredulous. This is so absurd. I literally take and shove him into the bathroom, telling him that I’m not letting him out until he gets decent. As I’m guarding the door, I hear noise in my bedroom. Coming into it, I see the man and a woman, with full, strawberry blond curly hair below her shoulders, standing in the middle. They have moved my bed and rearranged all of my furniture, and at their feet lies a pile of broken picture frames and photographs that were just in them, hanging on my walls. I am speechless and so they explain matter-of-factly, “We thought you should try something different. It’s a better look, don’t you think?”

“These are the guests from hell!!!” I think. I start hyperventilating because I have a special affinity for pictures, a peculiar sort of attachment to them. Mustering my last bit of courtesy, I ask the woman, “Who are you?”

She looks casually at the man, smiles evasively and says, “Oh, I’m a friend…”

Somehow I realize that she just showed herself inside our house, and get the feeling that Grisha, who’s come out of the bathroom, is also quite surprised to see her. She is someone from his past, but not the proper friend’s wife we were expecting, nor the man’s girlfriend. Quite bewildered, we show our guests back to the living room and there, right in the middle of the room, we discover a huge monster truck, standing with mud dripping off its wheels and its hood scratching our ceiling. “I couldn’t find any place to park” the man says unapologetically. Grisha and I telepathically share the understanding that they must have knocked down our whole garage wall to get the thing inside.

I take Gri to the side and, now in full panic mode, tell him that we have to get these people out of here RIGHT NOW, while we still have a roof over our heads. He isn’t willing to do it though, explaining that the man’s an old friend and that it would be rude. “Let’s just let them hang out for a while longer” he suggests as I glance over his shoulder and see that now we have four guests instead of two. The newcomers are both children, of different ages and degrees of haphazard messiness. One takes me by the hand and leads me outside into my little garden. Long hours I spent there nursing my dill, cucumbers, tomatoes and zennias. But now, everything has been dug out and replanted according to height in one long row. The child is delighted with her creation. I feel like this is more than I can take and stumble blindly back into the garage.

And so the day continues. Eventually four more children appear, as if they belong there, and each gets busily to work. One plays in the kitchen, another plants huge globs of oil paint unto my almost-finished painting, suggesting that it looks better this way. Their connections with each other and the two parent figures are not clear. In fact, it’s a pretty even spread from the 30-year old thoughtful, quizzical man, down to a two-year old rambunctious munchkin. Some sit reading (pulling out of the shelves) all of our books, others wash a long-haired mutt who weaves in and out of the picture in our dining room. A couple others want me to play with them, to run around with them and pretend that I am a dragon. And at some point I just give in.

The sinking sun catches glimpses of me chasing two of the smaller kids across puddles in the backyard, hunched over like a monster and growling in exaggeration. Grisha is talking with the man and the woman, bits of dialogue float past me, “So what is it you do, exactly?” “Oh, I sell money.” The woman responds. “I borrow it from Mortar (evidently a special lending company) and sell it for more…” I come up and chime in, “But why are people buying it from you?? Why can’t they just get it from Mortar for cheaper?” She shrugs, “I dunno. Guess they ain’t very smart” she drawls with a southern accent. “Well, it’s probably time we be headin’ back” the man says softly and glances at me from beneath the rim. “Yes. It’s been awful nice…” the woman adds and disappears into the already moving van. Most of the children are sitting there too, and I catch up to it with the last two, who were chasing me in an exciting game of tag. The van pulls away slowly, and I run after it, feeling unusually light.

I realize that something magical happened today, and in my last attempt to make order of things, I yell after them, “Who are you guys? What do you do??” A girl of about ten, with wavy, flowing hair, pulls a little out of the gently moving van and responds softly, “We just visit people, is all….”

Losing speed, I come to a halt and watch as the van turns into a small street I have never noticed. It slows at a house and one of the kids jumps out, waves a goodbye and heads home. Several houses further, it slows again and another kid nimbly crawls out an open window and skips towards his house. The van is too far away now to see clearly, but I somehow intuit that the man and the woman are the last two left. The darkness brings a haze that envelops the van, and it’s gone.

I turn around and start walking home. Unconsciously I pick up speed, and before I know it I am flying across ditches and driveways, running as fast as I can, feeling as if a thousand weights have been lifted. I realize that these mysterious people came to me to rescue me from the multitudes of complexes which oppress me. Overwhelmed by tremendous relief and gratitude, I rushed home to start a new life. I was finally free.

Verusha: Mama, what if the reindeer run into us while we’re walking?
Me: We’ll just jump out of the way…
Verusha: I think they can crash into us. They can crash into you so hard that you might die.
Me: Well…
Verusha: But it won’t be the saddest thing, if you die.
Me: Why not?!
Verusha: Well, you’ll resurrect. God will resurrect you eventually, and then we’ll be together again.
(Silence)
Verusha: And in the meantime I can go sleep over at Anya’s house. And then I can spend the night at Penelope’s, and the next night at Alana’s…Oh, I know! How about when you do resurrect, just give Alana’s mom a call, and tell her you’re ready to pick me up?
Me: Sounds like a plan.

Lev Dmitrivich

Today I want to say a few words about parenting.

Before having children I felt I was quite responsible and mature for my age. I had played an important part in helping my parents care for my “baby brother”, ten years my junior, and as the oldest child, that sense of responsibility was there from my earliest childhood. But when I gave birth to my own children at the ripe old age of 22 and 23, I realized just how underprepared I was. And today, five years later, I feel even less qualified to be a parent.

Have you ever noticed how each developmental period in a child’s life seems pivotal? It gets overwhelming and incredibly discouraging, thinking that this is the period where children are best at learning new languages (for example), and instead of sitting down with them for daily speaking lessons of French or reading and writing lessons in Russian, we feel quite accomplished when the kids are more or less fed and clothed and bussed off to school before 10 am. If we manage to find matching socks and at least one of them brings a backpack along, then the day is considered Successful.

Why does it seem that we are in Survival Mode while other families are doing Baby Mozart and learning to read at one (which I think is ridiculous, by the way) and playing chess at five and are eating healthy organic meals that have been planned in advance, instead of thrown together by Mom still wearing her sneakers and NASA badge? And the tragedy of the fact is that when you ARE in survival mode, you don’t eve have the time/strength/mental capacity to ask for help. You just go on autopilot and hope the teeth will get brushed of their own volition.

But the most difficult part for me has not even been the near-constant guilt of not doing better (or merely half-decent), but the fear of my children getting hurt. I don’t mean bruised knees and cat-scratched hands. I mean something serious which comes about as a direct result of my inattention or apathy. Fortunately for all parents, children seem to be mercifully resilient.

How do you determine what is an important symptom/situation that warrants full medical attention, and what is not and should be ignored for the sake of preserving your emotional and mental strength for things that matter?

I’ve been using the simple method of trial and error, but surely there has to be something better. The possibility of my child suffering is the most painful part of parenting. It is this constant and tangible burden that I was not ready for. This same weight makes it difficult for me to imagine how parents can achieve or obtain peace.

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