Thursday, December 21, 2006

Aunt Caffern

One of the crushing things about motherhood is how commonplace it is. Anything else in life that requires even half as much effort results in accolades and recognition. Tell people that you have a Ph.D., and they often consider that to be something of an achievement; tell them that you have two children and they’re like, "Yeah, so?" (As for which of the two is harder – it’s no contest.)

For that reason, I treasure those rare moments of recognition when someone seems to really get how demanding this mothering gig really is. I can count on one hand (and vividly remember each word of) the compliments I’ve received on my parenting – a friend’s admiration of my patience with one of Bub’s meltdowns, my mother’s conviction that my attentive parenting is responsible for the giant strides he’s making in his language development. Once I get over the initial shock of disbelief, these remarks get filed in the same part of the brain where I store all the compliments hubby paid me during our courtship.

No one, however, appreciates the difficulty of parenthood more than my sister, affectionately dubbed Aunt Caffern by Bub and Pie.

Describing my sister is always a challenge. I’ve blogged about her before, attempted to capture her volcanic energy, the constant tide of words that hurtle out of her mouth, spittle flying in all directions, arms waving in huge, wild gestures to punctuate each utterance. My sister is the reason my small family feels large; she is why I am comfortable with hugs and unafraid of what it means to not be normal. And her defining trait has always been her love of children.

When she was at her vocational high school, Caffern majored in child care; she likes to tell stories about her volunteer hours at a day-care centre, where she had to line up five little ones and perform standing diaper changes on them all. Boisterous and clumsy, she is simultaneously loved and feared by most children – her energy is contagious, but she’s unpredictable: if you’re under three, you can never feel certain that she’s not going to snatch you up for an impromtu embrace.

Babysitting gigs have been hard to come by for her, so the pressure on me to produce a "future-niece-or-nephew" was, for many years, unrelenting. A few years into my first marriage, she attempted to broach the subject tactfully: "You know," she suggested in a deceptively casual tone, "You and Then-Husband might want to consider having sex sometime." Just a suggestion, you know. When I attempted to reassure her that celibacy was not the primary reason for our childless state, she appeared shocked. "I didn’t think you were the type!" she explained.

Her own family plans have always been a source of stress to my mother. For years, Caffern has had a hideous red-haired puppet named "Emily Anne," a stand-in for the daughter she planned to have when her fiance got a full-time job. Since that fiance had a brain injury and only one working limb, it seemed safe enough to go along with the plan; even when her engagement ring broke (necessating the purchase of a $20 replacement), we remained nominally supportive, right up until the day the fiance put his one working fist through her apartment wall, necessitating a hasty break-up.

Caffern is resolutely single for the time being, and her life has fallen into place in a way that at one time seemed hopelessly improbable. She has a good job, packing dinners for Meals on Wheels every morning, and she has enough good friends that when one of them (inevitably) decides to pick a fight and turn the others against her, there’s always somebody for her to fall back on, a companion for her pizza nights and trips to the mall. Once or twice a week, she comes to my place after work and takes over many of the child-care responsibilities in exchange for a good meal and a ride home: she puts the Pie down for her nap, gives her a bottle when she wakes up, feeds her supper, and then puts her down to bed. "I really couldn’t be more of a help!" she is fond of pronouncing, after detailing all her accomplishments to my mother on the phone. In response to my request, she has stopped trying to prove that the children love her more than me, content for now to be greeted by excited cries of "Aunt Caffern!" when she walks in the door. When I drop her off at the end of the day, she pronounces herself happy but exhausted.

The other day, after reiterating her plan to "be single for a very long time" (a plan that she always sticks to religiously right up until the day a new prospect crosses her path), she added a new observation. "I used to want to have kids of my own," she said, "until you had yours. Now I don’t want to have children anymore – I don’t think I could handle it. I’m tired out after handling the kids for just one afternoon, but you have to deal with them every day."

Rarely have I felt so validated.

28 comments:

NotSoSage said...

Your "Aunt Caffern" sounds like someone I would be friends with...and your post reminds me to spend as much time validating my friends' parenting skills and feelings around what an accomplishment it is to raise children with all of your heart and soul.

Thanks.

nomotherearth said...

My mom does the same thing for me. (Although, obviously, she DID have kids of her own...). She's the one person who really makes me feel like I'm doing a good (and hard) job.

Kelly said...

It's great when you get some real validation. I remember talking once with a friend who was going crazy with her two kids. She told me, 'At least, though, I get time away from them. You don't have any family nearby to give you frequent breaks."

The recognition and acknowledgment that my days are long and free-time pretty much nil somehow made me feel better.

Now if only our partners would do the same...

jen said...

your sister sounds so lovely. and so much fun. like breathing clean crisp air.

and i know what you mean - it is the hardest thing, and there is very little glory. so when someone takes note, bringing the internal to light for a moment, it means so much.

Mad Hatter said...

Having just spent 5 days with my fabulous sisters, I read this post with a heart the size of the Grinch's on the far side of Mount Crumpet. Aunt Caffern sounds like she knows her stuff.

Mouse said...

For a very long time, it made me uncomfortable whenever my in-laws would tell us what a great job we're doing with Scooter. Then I learned to welcome them. There are so many times I question what I'm doing with him (language development and picky eating being two big ones), so it's nice to get those moments when someone shows me what I'm doing right.

And you know it's a compliment when someone with as much energy as your sister says taking care of kids full-time would be too tiring for her!

Beck said...

Aunt Caffern is a good aunt.
I get a lot of validation as a mother from a lot of odd sources, but I think that's primarily because my transformation from weirdo hippy dropout to responsible parent/adult was very startling.

Blog Antagonist said...

Don't you love moments like that?
When my children were small and my sister was still childless, she made several "suggestions" and also felt quite free commenting on my parenting. Years later, with a 4 year old and twin infants, she apologized to me profusely. That was a great moment for me.

It's nice that she recognizes what it takes to parent. A lot of folks without children (ahem...my OTHER sister) just don't have a clue how...consuming, it is.

Kristen said...

John's sister has developmental disabilities, and so much of your descriptions of Caffern reminded me of her - especially in the post about her childhood.

Also, over Thanksgiving, my dad got to experience the, um, ENERGY that is Bryce and Quinn's waking hours for several days in a row. He called me after we got back and said, "I get it now. I know what you mean. You're right, it's exhausting." Of course, he loved it and wants them around all the time, but to hear him say he knew we weren't exaggerating FELT SO GOOD.

bubandpie said...

Kristen - Hehe. My mom spent the afternoon with me one day when the Pie was about 4 months old and doing her 90-minutes-up, 30-minutes-down routine. At the end of the second two-hour cycle, when the all-too-brief nap ended, my mom gasped, "She's relentless!"

I just had to grin - because the Pie couldn't even hold a candle to what the Bub was like at that age, when my parents would leave as soon as he fell asleep, feeling as if they'd done their good deed for the day, and with no concept of how incredibly short the 29-minute nap is to a pair of exhausted parents.

mamatulip said...

Validation like that makes even the toughest days worthwhile.

Kyla said...

Aunt Caffern sounds wonderful!

cinnamon gurl said...

Great post.

And thanks for pointing me to you older post, which was also great. I often worry what people think of me as I sprint the last couple of blocks home with a crying Swee'pea in the stroller.

crazymumma said...

I love how you describe her. She sounds a bit larger than life. The only people who seem to recognize what us parents go thru are other parents themselves. i cannot tell you how many friends sans kids have asked me what the big deal is....

Lady M said...

Go, mama!

My pregnant sister-in-law came to visit us when Q was a about three months old. At the end of the visit, she said, "Wow, it sure is a lot of work." The unsaid part was that it's worth it, but it was nice for someone to recognize how much sheer running, cleaning, washing, feeding, wiping, and coaxing there is.

Joker The Lurcher said...

what's even better is when your kids are older and they tell you themselves what a good job you do. my son is now 12 and when i get in a state because i don't iron his clothes or do things like the other mums he is really quick to say he wouldn't have me any other way. it makes it all worthwhile.

Jenny said...

I think we could all use a little validation like that in our lives!

Aimee said...

Amen! I've overheard my mother telling her friends: "Aimee just does everything, EVERYTHING, in that house. I don't know where she finds the strength because her children are so bright and energetic. She does more than I ever did when my kids were that age." Of course, she lets me "overhear" those kinds of things because she is a dear and loves me, and she knows that a little stroking goes a long way. (And of course she was just as busy when we were small, plus she held down a full time job for most of my childhood.)

Robbin said...

I WAS that Aunt. Right down to the red hair. And I honestly think it is one of the reasons that I was the LAST of the girls to have children - at fourty.

Sandra said...

I am completely smitten with your sister. I loved your post about her ... and such sweet (and so deserving!) validation!

PeanutButtersMum said...

interesting point about the lack of compliments on our mothering. it's soooo true!

Oh, The Joys said...

Amen, Caffern! Every, every, every, every day!

Momish said...

I must admit, I am for the most part, the person who is now going around and apologizing and validating my friends who had children way before me. But, still, I have had a few validating moments of my own along the way and it does feel wonderful indeed. I think I like your sister a LOT!

Denguy said...

"but you have to deal with them every day."

How true it is!

Susan said...

Awesome blog! Your sister is fantastic. Everybody needs to have an Aunt Caffern in the family.
It was great timing to know most parents know this is a hard job, because we just heard from our friends with an 8 week old baby who announced he's been sleeping through the night since day one. Our little hasn't done that yet, at 10.5 months old!
BTW I really admired how good you are with both your children yesterday. I loved how you let C. brush your hair and you didn't care one bit that your face was covered in hair while you talked to me!

bubandpie said...

Susan - I was thinking of including you in this post, actually, because you are one of those friends who EXCEL at giving memorable compliments on my parenting!

binkytown said...

This is so huge-sometimes the off-handed compliment, the ones that don't exactly sound like a compliment can mean the most. How lucky for you and Bub and Pie to have such a force in your lives!

ewe are here said...

I think your sister sounds lovely. And fun. And full of life. And you and your little ones are clearly lucky to have her.