“You know what movie we should get for Valentine’s this year?” Hugo recently asked. Many years ago, I began a tradition of buying a movie musical on DVD for the boys, many of them from Hollywood’s Golden Age, each year for Valentine’s Day. While I try to keep a low media household, I have always been a fan of family movie night. I suspect my original reason for buying musicals was to expose the boys to something family friendly other than Disney and, perhaps more importantly, enjoyable to me. I used the excuse that most musicals are love stories and, therefore, apropos for Valentine’s.
The first Valentine’s musical I gave them was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which to this is day one of our all time favorite movies. There are love scenes and fight scenes and plenty of lush singing by Howard Keel and the cast. Back then, films were cast with Hollywood unknowns, pulled from the theaters of New York, and the professional dancers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are delightfully athletic and graceful. (I wish Hollywood musicals today would do the same, particularly with professional singers, something I believe would have greatly improved last year’s Les Miserables).
Romantic Comedy Not Just for Chicks
This past weekend, Parade Magazine published a piece by syndicated columnist Connie Schultz on what women want for Valentine’s. Schultz describes a friend who wants to watch a chick flick with her husband so long as she can duct tape shut his mouth to prevent his running (and presumably condescending) commentary. That just won’t be a problem my boys’ partners will ever have. For example, when Claude was eleven and Hugo eight, they insisted upon watching, in one sitting, both disks of the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice. Originally broadcast as a TV mini-series, the movie is over five hours long. And they didn’t just watch it with me—they devoured it. That same year, all three of my older boys watched the French film, Amelie, so many times I found them viewing it without the subtitles (if you take nothing else from this post, watch Amelie and you too will fall in love). I wonder if I can take credit for cultivating their love of romantic comedies or if they were born predisposed to love them?
On a winter’s day when school had been cancelled because of snow, I piled onto the couch with then fourteen-year-old Claude, eleven-year-old Hugo and seven-year-old Jules to watch When Harry Met Sally for the first time. The younger two would hop off of the couch and cover their ears and eyes when the scenes became mushy. We now watch that film every 6-12 months. Having seen it so often, I focus on the late Nora Ephron’s writing, which made art out of the inner lives of women. (Sure Woody Allen does the same for men, but he’s a guy and the both the outer and inner lives of men have long been considered art while the lives of women have been typically viewed as, well, mundane.) Also, I now find Meg Ryan’s acting amateurish compared to Billy Crystal’s. I cringe at the scene in which she is sobbing because her ex-boyfriend is getting married. I just don’t feel her pain or believe her tears. Yet that scrappy Billy Crystal, with a chest like a 12-year-old boy, is convincing, time and again, as the leading man. Every time we watch it, we root for that guy to get the girl.
Are They Gay?
First of all, I have succeeded (as opposed to erred) on the side of being wide open. The boys might tell you too wide open. I’m like the dad Liam Neeson plays in another DVD we own, Love Actually. When his young son tells him he’s in love, Neeson’s character responds, “Well, who is the lucky girl…or boy?”
“I swear you want me to be gay!” Hugo regularly jokes with me when I’ve made another either/or comment.
“No, my dear, I don’t want you to be gay any more than I want you to be straight. I just want you to be happy in your own skin,” I tell him.
What I think is going on is that, in certain circles, it is easier today for men to enjoy any number of things that in the past would have been considered exclusively female. Typically, it is easier for a subordinate population to adopt characteristics of a dominant population but not the other way around. For example, in western culture women wearing pants (i.e., the clothes of men) became normalized in the mid-twentieth century, but men wearing dresses did not. Today, and again in certain circles, men can openly express interest in everything from fashion and art to personal care (read: fancy treatment of hair and skin) without worrying what others will think. I believe this is because fewer people today, especially younger people, consider sexual orientation as something to judge any more than the color of one’s eyes or hair. We all benefit from this long overdue advance in attitudes and civil rights.
Years ago, when Claude was perhaps in kindergarten, I read The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein. She describes how boys in our culture have long been expected to deny their softer emotions only to wind up as adults who struggle in relationships precisely because they are emotionally disconnected. Rather than worrying about feminizing my sons, I have shared with them things I enjoy and also followed them when their passions developed in areas new to me, such as sports. I find sports dull and never understood the freakishly intense emotion it brings out in some fans. Who are those people? I used to think. Then I attended Claude’s first basketball game and discovered one of those freakishly intense people lives inside of me. Every time he played, I cheered for Claude and his teammates (and even the kids on the opposing teams) until I was hoarse.
First, Framework and Tools. Then, Step Aside.
Max remarks on the openness with which my boys discuss things with me that he would never have shared with his mother or his father. Yes, things like their bodies and sex. But also money and bills. Politics and religion. In my mother’s house, money was only discussed as something she never had enough of and I was forbidden from looking at the bills. Politics and religion were also expressed as an exclusive and obvious choice—those who didn’t believe what my mother believed were described as fools.
I have chosen to go the other direction. I talk with my children as people and, when appropriate, am transparent with them regarding adult matters. When they were each about thirteen, I sat down with Claude and later Hugo and showed them my bank accounts, pointing out the few deposits and the many expenses. We are a team with finances, working together to achieve both our mutual and individual goals. I’m confident all of them will successfully manage their own fiscal lives.
The boys know my politics. I have taken them to Democratic events all their lives, from hearing presidents speak to canvassing neighborhoods. When Bill Clinton was running for re-election, I was eight and half months pregnant with Hugo and carried two-year-old Claude on my shoulders at a rally on OSU’s campus. The staff moved us to the front of the crowd. I suspect we made for good optics. All my children have worked on elections and gone to the voting booth with me. On Claude’s eighteenth birthday, before I took him to lunch, we went to the Summit County Board of Elections so he could register to vote. I hope they remain Democrats; I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But more importantly, I want them to consciously consider the role of government in their lives and be active in the democratic process. Yes, even if they vote differently than I.
As for religion, recently Claude and Hugo both have expressed that they see the Buddhism they’ve been raised with more as an ideology than a religion. I do not disagree. The form of Buddhism we practice mirrors key aspects of twentieth century western philosophy, particularly that of existentialism. That said, can meditation be a pathway for a more open mind and heart? Yes, of course it can. Are Buddhist teachings religious? Yes, of course they are. Does it matter if my boys and I don’t believe everything we learn through our studies in Buddhism? No, for I hold suspect the unquestioning believer of any religion. I have given my children an awareness of their spiritual lives. What each of them, or anyone, believes is each soul’s purview and never mine to dictate.
Secrets and Lesser Parenting
When I have the time to reflect, I see the long view as a mother, including the diminishment of my importance in the lives of my boys, as they become men. But in heated moments, I’m not so mature.
One evening in late December, Max and I sat at the kitchen table talking with the boys as they cleared the dishes after dinner. Lyra was in my lap when Claude stopped and, standing next to me, began texting on his cell phone. Suddenly, he was off in another conversation, separate from the one occurring in the physical space his body occupied. For several minutes he giggled, typed, paused while reading, giggled and typed again.
“Who are you texting?” I asked him.
“A friend,” he answered without looking up from his phone.
“Well, yeah, but who is it?”
“Just a friend,” he said more emphatically, his eyes still locked onto the small screen of the iPhone I had given him at Thanksgiving.
Okay, I don’t know how other parents feel, but when my kids don’t answer me directly, I become something like a hardened detective. If I can’t get a straight answer, it must be because the child believes I won’t like the answer. But in this case it didn’t make sense because there isn’t anyone Claude shouldn’t text.
“What is your friend’s name?” I asked Claude more pointedly.
“You know,” he said with surprising intensity, “I’m an adult and I don’t have to tell you who I am texting if I don’t want to!”
At another time I might have been able to calmly say, “Well, let’s talk about that.” But at that particular moment, it stung. Perhaps it stung because I had just spent all my savings paying for Claude’s first semester of college when his fees included an Apple laptop and expensive software. Perhaps it stung because just a couple weeks earlier Claude had called me repeatedly and with no small amount of confusion as he tried to figure out how to proceed with a young woman who had been giving him mixed messages and now I was being yelled at for a pretty unintrusive question. But mostly I believe it stung because I felt displaced. I felt the first twinges of no longer being the most important woman in my child’s life. Even though I know this is a inevitable and good thing; they all need to launch out into their own lives.
“If you are such an adult then why is it you are on my phone plan and not one of your own?” I asked and behaving badly, as many a scorned woman will do, I followed with a string of similar questions. I even felt like returning his Christmas presents, though fortunately I had the sense not to say so. Taking the baby with me, I went upstairs and sulked on my bed as I nursed her to sleep.
Later, after talking with Max, Claude came up and stretched out on the foot of the parental bed, which feels like the boat for family emotions. It is on that bed that our teenagers often lie with us and tell us their dreams and their fears. They have asked us what to do and sometimes even what to think. That night, Claude told me he needed to figure his love life out on his own. I agreed. That is, afterall, the goal of all my parenting: for them to become successfully independent adults, with fully formed minds, spirits and bodies. That doesn’t mean letting them go is easy.
Who knows if what I have done has been good or a bunch of hogwash? And how much influence do parents have really? How much should they be allowed? I think of poet Philip Larkin’s dismal take on parenting (Larkin – This Be The Verse) and hope I have done my children no harm. Having a second set of younger siblings has made the boys nostalgic for their own childhoods even before they’ve fully left them. So either I’ve done okay, or we have a strong case of the Stockholm syndrome developing here at Whoopsie Piggle.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that’s what you should get us for Valentine’s Day,” said Hugo. “I loved that movie so much when I was little and I know Leif will too.”
The afternoon I posted this piece, Hugo read it when he came home from school because I’d told him he had been quoted. Sitting in front of a laptop he said outloud to his brother who was a whole state away, “Oh, my God, Claude, I can’t believe you said that, what were you thinking?” referring to Claude telling me that as an adult he did not have to reveal who it was he was texting. Then looking at me across the room after reading further Hugo said, “Yeah, no, Mama, there is no other time Claude could have said that and you’d have been cool.”
“Well, sure, maybe in the morning when I’m not so tired,” I said.
“You mean, Ms-Don’t-Talk-to-Me-Until-I’ve-Had-My-First-Cup-of-Coffee? No, I don’t think so,” Hugo said as he laughed.
Nobody knows anyone so well as children know their parents.