Aren't Your Children a Problem?

On raising children in the Maine woods
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UNLESS my memory plays me false, parenthood anywhere from the heart of Texas to the middle of Manhattan is one long coping with maladjusted personalities, crooked teeth, allergies to goose feathers, and lamentable traits inherited from the other side of the family. In short, children certainly are a problem—only in the woods the details of the problem aren't quite the same as they are on the Outside.

The problem starts with getting them born. Of course, with Sally, I skipped this. She's my stepchild, and sprang into my life full-panoplied, as it were, at the age of twelve. I skipped not only the actual giving birth, but also the housebreaking and habitforming. This advantage is offset to an extent by the fact that I'm responsible for her not only to her father and my own conscience, as I am with Rufus, but also to her mother as well—no mean responsibility. It would be had enough to have something happen to your own child. It would be almost impossible to have to go to another woman and say, "So sorry, but. I let your daughter get drowned." That's the chief reason that the first thing I did about Sally, when I took her over, was to insist that she learn to swim. All in all, though, I would say that I came by Sally in the easy way.

Rufus I got the hard way, on the 18th of December at 2.55 A.M., with the thermometer down to 10° above zero. That's a night I won't forget in a hurry. Neither will Ralph, I imagine. Ralph has always been the type that, if he heard it rumored that the wife of one of his friends was going to have a baby eight months from date, took to crossing the street and raising his hat politely from the opposite sidewalk when lie met her. He was taking no chances of having to ride in a taxi with her to the hospital. The mere thought caused him to break out in a cold sweat. Well, the night Rufus was born he didn't have any time to worry about what might happen in a taxi. He was much too busy coping, singlehanded, with what was happening right then and there. In spite of the temperature, he was doing his quota of sweating. I can see him now, with a wool cap pulled down over his ears, his mackinaw collar turned up to meet it, and his mittens on, reading by lantern light a little book called If Baby Comes Ahead of the Doctor. Perspiration was running down his face. You see, he knew the doctor couldn't possibly get there for ten hours or more.

Nothing is more tiresome than the details of some other woman's pregnancy, but just bear with me for a minute. I've been wanting to say this for a long time. I don't believe most women need be miserable at all. There are two simple preventive measures to take. First, they can stop regarding themselves as being, for the period, interesting and unique and fragile, and treating themselves like rare porcelain. It's very bad for them. No wonder they feel rotten. A coal heaver would feel rotten too, if he kept telling himself that he ought to—on general principles. And second, they can just not listen to their married friends' and maiden aunts' tales of the terrible things that may happen to them. Some of the things that otherwise sensible women tell prospective mothers are enough to frighten the wits out of anyone. They won't let you remember that these ghoulish tales are the exceptions and that most babies are born with some discomfort, it's true, but not much else. Personally, I'd almost rather have a baby any day than go to the dentist. My friends tell me that this is just because I was lucky. I think I made my own luck. I felt swell, so why should I alter my normal behavior and curtail my normal activities? And—this I will admit was just plain luck—I was so situated that there were no married friends and maiden aunts to scare the pants off me. Result: I had a very pleasant pregnancy, thank you.

I was supposed to go out to Rumford to have Rufus; but then he wasn't supposed to be born until the first of the year. The idea was that I would stay in over Christmas and then, in a leisurely way, betake myself to the hospital to wait the necessary week or ten days. Consequently we hadn't moved out of the summer house, which is without heat upstairs. Ralph was going to move the things in my absence. In the meantime I pursued my program of "Business as Usual," and the usual business of a lovely day such as the 17th of December turned out to be was sliding on the Pond.

I never saw such a beautiful winter day. It was warm and sunny, and the ground was covered with a light fluff of snow, which was blue in the shadows, and gold in the sun, and faint rose and purple on the distant hills. On the Pond it had blown into tightly packed patches which were white, as snow is supposed to be, against the sky-reflecting deep blue of the glare ice. We'd started to go to Middle Dam, but when we saw the Pond we went there instead. The sliding was perfect. We could run on the snow islands and slide across the intervening spaces of ice to more snow. Cookie went with us and she had a lovely time, too, racing and barking and falling down and scrambling to her feet. We all fell down dozens of times bcfore we completed the mile circuit of the Lamonts' island, which may have had something to do with Rufus's premature arrival. I don't know. I felt quite all right.

All I know is that I woke up in the middle of the night, out of a sound sleep, with a stomach-ache. Only it wasn't a stomachache. It was an emergency, and there were no lights on the Ford, and I didn't have a bag packed. I woke Ralph up, and he went down to telephone the Millers and, of course, woke them up, while I wandered around with an old pair of slippers in one hand and a cake of soap in the other. I couldn't seem to think where I had put my suitcase or what I should put into it. Pretty soon it became obvious that it didn't matter. I got back into bed just as Ralph came up with the information that the Millers' Ford had no lights either, and since it was pitch black outdoors we wouldn't be going anywhere. This didn't upset me as much as it would have fifteen minutes before. I'd already come to the same conclusion, but for an entirely different reason.

I don't want to give the impression that I was calm and unruffled through this whole proceeding. I wasn't. But I took one look at Ralph's face, and saw that he was ten times as alarmed as I was. I'd never seen him really alarmed before, and it was the best thing in the world to have happen to me. I suddenly felt very brave and confident. I remembered that lots of babies are born without benefit of the medical profession, and that the best thing in a crisis is to keep busy. I was busy enough myself. All I had to do was to give Ralph something to occupy his mind.

"You'd better heat up a lot of water," I said. I didn't know quite what for, but I remembered that in books people always heat water under similar circumstances.

He went away and I could hear him rattling away down in the kitchen. By and by he came back and said that he wanted a nice wool blanket to warm over the stove before he put it in the laundry basket. "Got to have some place to park the kid," he explained, and I stopped worrying about him. He was functioning again, that was plain. I told him where to find the blanket, in between pains; and he went away again. When he came hack, five minutes later, he was a father.

Usually a father has no immediate responsibilities toward his new offspring aside from running up to the hospital once a day for a viewing—and of course paying the hospital bill. Ralph's responsibilities, on the contrary, were immediate and pressing. There was the little matter of the umbilical cord to be cut and tied, first of all.

"And don't you wash new babies?" I asked.

"Nope. You grease them." I don't know to this day how he came by this piece of knowledge, but he was right. Perhaps he read it in the Reader's Digest. That's where much of our information originates. He folded his new son in a bath towel and went away with him, while I lay in bed and worried. What did he know about greasing babies and tying cords? The new baby was crying, too—a little but furious bellow. I could hear him from away upstairs. What was his father doing to him? Or wait a minute—you were supposed to worry, weren't you, if they didn't cry? So probably it was all right. It was criminal, I decided, for a grown woman to arrive at motherhood knowing as little about the whole thing as I did. By and by Ralph came back.

"Did you get him greased all right?" I asked anxiously.

He looked offended. "Certainly I did. I should hope, after all the pistons I've oiled in my lifetime" Pistons, mind you!

"What did you use?" I asked, horrified. "Motor oil?"

"Olive oil, naturally."

"Where did you get it? We haven't any olive oil."

"I've got a can. I use it to make fly-dope out of."

Well, why not, after all? If early experience molds a child's life, I could see from where I lay that I was going to be the mother of another mechanic and fly-fisherman.

"He's all right and he's all there," Ralph went on. "Fingernails, toenails, hair, everything. I went over him carefully. And, myGod, is he homely!" He threw out his chest. "I never did like pretty men, anyway," he added complacently. "He's got a grip like a wrestler, and Cookie likes him, so I guess he'll get along all right. And say. What am I supposed to do with all that hot water?"

Oh, yes. The hot water. Well-"Why don't you make some coffee?" Suddenly I was starved. "Make me a sandwich, too a ham sandwich with a lot of mustard."

Alice Miller came down in the morning, as soon as it was light. Lying in bed, I could hear her laughing down in the kitchen. She laughed all the way upstairs. "What do you suppose Ralph used to tie his cord with?" she demanded before she was halfway into the room. "A piece of rope! That poor little kid! The knot's bigger than he is. I guess I'll call the doctor in Rumford when I get home and tell him there's no need of his coming way in here. No sense in spending twenty dollars for nothing."

So Rufus missed his chance of having a doctor look him over. I guess it didn't do any harm. He's never seen a doctor from that day to this, except in a purely social capacity.

3

I frequently read in magazines articles which begin:-

Do You Realize—
That blank per cent of the homes in America have no running water?
That blank per cent have no bathrooms?
That blank per cent of our children are born with no doctor in attendance?
These appalling figures show that the huge army of the underprivileged—

I cluck my tongue, suitably appalled for a moment until true realization hits me between the eyes. "My God," I think, and then l am truly appalled. "That's us they're talking about! Why—we're the underprivileged! Why— Why—"

But are we? I'm not stupid enough to recommend that all, or even any, children be born with only their fathers in attendance. But because it happened to Rufus doesn't make him underprivileged. In fact, I would say he was especially privileged—not in that he was held up by the heels and oiled with piston-oiling technique, but because, from that moment on, his father has had a very special feeling for him. All normal fathers love their children, we will assume. They all feel a responsibility toward them. But—and I think I am not being merely sentimental when I say this—that early, primitive responsibility that devolved upon Ralph toward Rufus left its mark. Fatherhood is necessarily a less intimate relationship—physically at least—than motherhood; but Ralph can't think of himself only as the guy who buys Rufus's food and clothes, and administers spankings. Fundamentally he is always the guy who tied his cord and greased him when there was no one else to do it. That is something I wouldn't want Rufus deprived of, for all the hospital treatment in the world.

Nor can I bring myself to believe that our children are hopelessly handicapped because they take baths in washtubs in front of the kitchen range, read by the light of kerosene lamps, and sleep in unheated bedrooms. We'll give them a bathroom and steam heat and electric lights when we get the house rebuilt; but perhaps we'll be making a mistake. Soft living isn't important to them now, because it never has been.

What can we give our children, then, that won't be outmoded, that won't, under some eventuality that we can't foresee, prove to be a handicap to them? I don't know the answer to that one. Once I would have said "Ideas and Ideals." But I grew up in the years after the First World War, when perpetual peace was supposed to be the easily attainable ideal. I was trained in that ideal, and I believed in it with all the sincerity of which I was capable. Perhaps it is still attainable—but if it is, it will be by some different means from those I was taught to trust in. I don't want my child ever to feel as lost in the world as I do right now; nor do I want to inculcate in him the doctrine of force and aggression at no matter what sacrifice of the rights of others.

We can give him a happy childhood to remember, a way of life that he will be willing to die to protect, if the need arises. That sounds like a grim and Spartan gift to a littlc boy, but it's not as dangerous a gift as the belief in pacifism and universal well-wishing to which my generation was exposed. I don't want to raise my son to be a soldier—but if he has to be one, I want him to be a good and capable one. I want him to know what he's fighting for—and Freedom and Democracy won't mean a thing to him unless they are all tied up with memories of things he has loved ever since he can remember: things like the sound of the river, and the way Kyak lies and dreams in front of the open fire on a crisp autumn evening, and the picnics we've held at Smooth Ledge. The name of his country won't be worth fighting for unless he can remember from experience that his country is the place, not of equal opportunity, not of universal suffrage, not of any of those lofty conceptions so far above a little boy's ability to comprehend, but the place where he walked with his father down a woods road one evening and saw a doe and twin fawns; or the place where he came in from playing in the snow and found the kitchen warm and fragrant and his mother making popcorn balls.

That's all that I can give him; that's all that I dare to try to give him—something that he will love enough to want to preserve it for himself and others against whatever danger may threaten from whatever quarter, and the toughness and courage with which to fight for it.

Even here I am working in the dark. He won't remember the things I expect him to remember. I don't remember from my own childhood the important things that happened; but I can recall a hole in the ground among the roots of a maple tree that grew in front of our house. It was a small hole, about as big as a pint measure, but there was something about it. It was moist and smelled of earth and water when I lay on my stomach and thrust my four-year-old face into it. It was everything that was mysterious and marvelous to me then, and somehow it still is. I couldn't have explained to anyone then what that little hole in the ground meant to me, and I still can't. But the memory of it makes me wonder what Rufus is carrying around in his head that he can't share, and never will be able to share.

4

Of course the biggest problem we encounter in bringing up our children in the woods is their formal education. They do have to go to school. Even if there weren't laws requiring their attendance, even if we were quite capable—which we aren't—of giving them a solid foundation in the three R's, we should still have to send them. One of the most important parts of education is learning to get along with other people, and we just can't supply a society of their peers for them to rub up against. Rufus has seen so few children of his own age that he has no idea how to act with them. He lets them walk all over him, he's so happy to be with them. So we'll shortly have to ship him out to his grandmother's, where he will learn among other things, I hope, to stand up for his rights. It's going to be rather a painful experience, so the sooner he gets it over with the better.

I certainly hope the school authorities don't start out by giving him an Intelligence Test before he's learned the ropes. If they do, his I.Q. will be about 50. (I don't believe in I.Q.'s anyhow. My own is up in the near-genius group, and nobody knows better than I the abysmal depths of dumbness I can plumb. I just happen to have a very good memory for the sort of things they ask on Intelligence Tests.) But poor Rufus! All the questions dealing with such common things as running water, electric lights, hens, and railroad trains will leave him completely in the dark, and they don't ask how to tell a fox track from a dog track,—a difficult thing that he can do easily,—or how to use a birch hook, or how to employ a cant (log to its most efficiency. I suppose that is what the textbooks dismiss blandly as Feeblemindedness by Deprivation.

Sally's education has been somewhat peculiar. The first twelve years of her life she lived in Southern Illinois and attended school regularly. Then she came to us for a while. Just as she was getting used to our peculiar mode of life, her mother sent for her to come to Liechtenstein—a small country between Switzerland and Austria, in case you didn't know—and she spent two years there and in the West Indies. She didn't go to school at all, but she was being educated nonetheless. She learned, among other things, not to giggle when a Count kissed her hand, no matter how much it tickled; how to get through the customs with the least trouble; how to wear clothes; and how to order a meal in German. Then came the war, and Sally came back to us. She goes to school in Upton now, boarding with the Allens, who are among Ralph's oldest friends. She certainly ought to be adaptable—she's had a varied enough experience. I think that she is. When she was fifteen, her birthday party was held in the bar of a hotel in Haiti, closed to the public for the occasion. When she was sixteen, her birthday party was held in the Allens' kitchen—open to the public for the occasion, I judge. Apparently everyone in town attended it. As far as I can tell, she enjoyed both parties equally.

The school in Upton is a two-room school, and I'd forgotten that such a thing existed. If I had remembered it, I would have delivered a speech beginning, "Well, in this day and age, with all the fine schools available, no child of mine—" I should have been wrong. Sally learns in what is known as the Upstairs Room, where Grades 7 to 10, inclusive, sit under one teacher, as much as she could possibly learn in the biggest and best-equipped school in the country. Her Mr. Flanders is a very good teacher. The excellence of a teacher has nothing at all to do with his background, or the amount of salary he is paid, or anything else except his own personality and inherent bent. A good teacher is born, I am convinced, and his presence would make a good school out of a woodshed.

But Sally gets more than book learning out of going to school in Upton. She gets, for the first time in her life, the sense of being a member of a community. This is a thing more easily acquired in a small town than in a large one, and it's very important to feel, I believe, that you are a member of a whole. There's time enough, later, to be an individual. When she gets out into the world, she will be "different" because she went to a rural school. It will make a good story. It will set her apart. We all want something to set us apart from the rest, to make us interesting. It doesn't have to be very much. I myself derive a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that I'm the only person I ever encountered who grew up in a family where they had family prayers every morning after breakfast. My sister and I are probably the only people in the world who grew up in a household where the immutable winter Sunday morning breakfast was oyster stew. Ralph says now that he wishes that on the night of Rufus's birth he'd thought to move me out into his workshop. It couldn't have been any colder than the bedroom was, and Rufus might then have had the distinction of being the last American child to be born in a log cabin. Not that it would have made any difference—unless he wants to run for the Presidency of the United States sometime, which God forbid; but it would have been something to talk about. That's what I mean.

So Sally, some night in the future when she's sitting in the Stork Club all done up in gold lamé,—also, God forbid!—can smile reminiscently and say, "You know, I got my education in a rural school in the backwoods of Maine." I think the effect will be very piquant.

Right now, though, she's having too much fun to worry about being different. She belongs to the 4-H Club, and goes to church and teaches a Sunday School class of infants, and has a boy-friend. In fact, she has a different one every time we see her, practically, which makes it nice. If she stuck to one I'd probably think I had to worry about its being serious. In short, she's living the usual life of a small-town American girl, only she's getting a lot more out of it than most small-town girls do. She's been around enough to value it at its true worth.

Probably I ought to be able to draw some valuable deductions and conclusions from my special set of circumstances in regard to the problem of child-raising. I'm sorry to say that I can't. The only conclusion that I've come to is pretty general and pretty trite. All any parent can do is to stagger along as best he is able, and trust to luck.

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