Ava Lon, who normally translates German, French, and Polish for us, contributes occasional essays for Gates of Vienna. Below is her meditation on the different roles played by parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the raising of children.
Children, Parents, and Grandparents
by Ava Lon
The subject of childless Europeans keeps coming up, in reference to the high fertility of the Muslim invaders.
Thinking about this issue led me to the conclusion that cultures (and I don’t say “civilizations” for obvious reasons) that have close-knit families have a strong advantage over the West. Grandmas, sisters, cousins, aunties, make having more children simply easier for a woman: they (her family members) can help with cooking with cleaning; they can babysit when she’s seeing a doctor, or spending an afternoon with a girlfriend. Add to that the fact that in those countries, having a cleaning lady is possible even for families with modest revenues, because it’s really cheap, and you have the one of the important answers of why Western females don’t procreate. One of the answers. Not the only one.
Don’t forget that being a mother is a 24/7 job. Women do need to take a break from that, like any other human needs a break from any other job. I went through this as a young woman: without the help of a husband (who was working long hours already and two jobs at one point, so I don’t blame him), without the support of friends and families (neither my mom nor my mother-in-law were reliable helpers), one is simply very, very lonely and very, very tired. I wanted more than two children and I had to earn each of them (staying in bed for nine months every time so I wouldn’t lose them. Even so, the first time around I did, and it is still hard, years later).
And yes, I am telling you how a mother feels when she has help, instead of telling you about all she should give to her children. You know how it works: mom happy, everybody happy; and like on a plane, in case of an emergency: before you give the oxygen mask to your child, take one yourself.
If you think it sounds like a truism, think twice. It is obviously a very important factor, not having guilt-free family support, not having to pay for a baby sitter, and not being able to come home a little later, for whatever reason. It is great to come home after an afternoon of errands and find your children happily playing under the supervision of your mother, or your mother-in-law, or your sister or you aunt or all of the above. It is great to simply be able to take a shower without having someone knocking at the door of your bathroom, yelling and crying. It is wonderful to be able to take a nap, after taking care of a crying baby for a number of nights, or breastfeeding. It is something that makes you want to have more children: you just CAN imagine, that you can do it, because you know this family members want those kids as much as you want them. They will take their time and appreciate it, because those kids are perpetuating their, genes too. They make life worth living; they give life a sense of purpose.
It certainly was the case with both of my grandmothers, who willingly gave some of their time to take care of me and my cousins on both sides of the family. The best kindergarten in the world cannot replace a devout grandmother or grandfather, because children should be raised by grown-ups, and not by other children. Don’t get me wrong; kindergartens have their place society as well, not the least because some mothers have no choice; and I command them for having children, despite not having any decent support.
I am actually blaming the idea of insurance and retirement funds for that development , believe it or not. My mom or my in-laws never had to please us (my husband and me), so we would take care of them later, so we would help them in illness and old age (not that I wouldn’t do it anyway). Therefore they never felt the need, the urge, the duty, the INSTINCT of supporting their children, their grand children, their genes, their legacy.
So if you tell me that European women are lazy or selfish I’ll tell you that some really are, and that many bought the feminist narrative (about being the victims of men, and the necessity of self-affirmation by the lack of progeny). But I’ll tell you who the really lazy, selfish people are: it’s the people from the generation of my mother and from mine who couldn’t wait to retire and have fun, somewhere on a beach for the rest of their lives. I met a number of them. And yes, they worked hard, and it’s their money, and what am I talking about? But the result is very visible, because absent grandparents are extremely contraceptive.
You can look at just the next ten or twenty years of your life, and then not care about the rest, or you can make an effort and first imagine that you grandchildren will actually live way beyond your life. What world are you leaving behind? What have you done for them that was done for you? You weren’t living in a void, either; I’ll bet your parents and grandparents worked all their lives and cared about future generations more than about the next beach and golf course.
My mom didn’t, and my in-laws didn’t, when I was expecting, and was on a serious bed rest. So we had to hire someone to help, although my well-off mother-in-law lived just around the corner. And it wasn’t just me: most of my friends couldn’t count on their parents where their children were concerned. How many times have I heard that a girlfriend wished for more than one or two kids, but simply had no support from her family, except at Christmas?
I don’t say grandparents are perfect caregivers: parents aren’t; nobody is. You might still need a shrink twenty years after your mother or grandmother passes away, I know. And having brothers and sisters is no guarantee against being lonely, but perhaps better socialized and less neurotic…
I used to live in China as an expatriate. Our neighborhood was about 33% white, 33% Chinese and 33% mixed families, all of which had a cleaning and cooking ladies. Most of those women were pregnant with their third, fourth or fifth child. We arrived with a four-year-old and a baby, so I was busy with the younger one, but had we stayed longer, I would have followed the trend and example and had at least one more. Returning to Europe — where children are your problem: they should be quiet at all times (not even talking about crying kids; giggling and polite ones also seemed to annoy the general public) and are only worth mentioning when they themselves become taxpayers — was very dissuasive.
What is wrong with the West is that in some places you cannot talk to your neighbor without prior appointment on the phone. Nobody wants to be bothered. Everyone’s time is money, everyone is important and “you are taking advantage of us if you want us to babysit,” as my father-in-law used to say. He is old and half-blind today. Who do you think brought him to the doctor? My son did. And he didn’t say he was taken advantage of. But he could have.
I am not bitter. I am describing a larger trend that should be overturned, if we want to survive as a civilization. My experience was very typical in Switzerland, where I was living when my children were born. I have heard it wasn’t very different from the experience of my French and German friends (of course I cannot support it with statistics — this is an essay about my life, not a research paper; but I would love to see if anyone every was interested in the subject).
When Hillary Clinton says that it “takes a village to raise a child”, I cringe, because she means that the government should have a say in what you teach your kids. Nevertheless: yes, it used to be the village, where people knew each other. Where your family and neighbors reacted when your son or daughter was misbehaving, and made sure you, as parent, found out about it. Where your parents lived next door and children could just walk into their or the neighbors’ house.
What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with more role models in a child’s life than a mother and an all-too-frequently absent, father? What’s wrong with having more people than parents and a teacher (the government) to show the young ones what’s right and what’s wrong?
I think people should be encouraged to be grandparents. I wrote an essay about it a couple of years ago. This is also a tribute to my grandparents:
People today are busier than ever. Parents have little or no time for their children. Grandparents sadly either live far away or are unwilling to spend time with their grandchildren.
I am writing today to convince you to become not decent, not good, but outstanding grandparents. We all have parents and we all have grandparents. Some of us were more lucky that the others to have loving, patient grandparents with some time to spare. Tell me they were not important! Tell me that an empty place where a grandparent could have been wasn’t a painful place. They are as vital as our parents, or they are even more crucial than our parents.
Grandparents are important because they remember the world that our parents don’t — parents who in any case are too busy making a living to pay too much attention to the past (or so they think).
Yet the past, history, is what should teach us how to live today and how to plan for the future.
All too often we assume that progress is inevitable. The world is just getting better. But it isn’t always. My grandparents remembered a world before communism, with no food rationing, with freedom of movement (to travel), with a free unbiased press, with the freedom of speech. How I loved their stories about the world before WW II, before Poland sadly became part of the Eastern Europe!
Past generations teach us not to repeat their mistakes, if we only listen. And, really: all we have to do is listen. Who are we to say that communism would work for us tomorrow, if history teaches, it didn’t work yesterday in Russia, Poland, China, East Germany, Cambodia, Angola, Yemen, North Korea and Cuba?
Progress isn’t inevitable if we don’t learn from our grandparents. They know what worked and what didn’t.
My grandparents were rural teachers. They were very poor. Fortunately, as farmers’ children they both knew how to cultivate the land and take care of animals in order to survive. Their tiny two-bedroom apartment was a part of the school building. “The school” was just two classes across the corridor, in an 18th-century house, with thick brick walls, a large attic and a deep basement. My mother sent me there while she went to college and also during vacations and holidays. The house was situated in the middle of an orchard. I remember my grandfather grafting different branches from one tree to another, so that one tree could carry up to three different fruits. He also had beehives, and allowed me work there with him, telling me about bees’ habits. I was never afraid of them and they never stung me. He showed me the bees growing inside the honeycomb, and how to extract the honey with a special machine.
He kept rabbits that I fed when I was there. I refused to eat them, though, once I made the connection between rabbit on the plate and a missing rabbit in the cage…
My grandmother, on the other hand, always kept sheep. From sheep to sweater, I saw her go through the entire process: cutting the wool, washing it, combing, and spinning on an traditional spindle, dying and then knitting socks, gloves or sweaters.
I played around the house and often entered the classes, so I don’t remember learning how to write, read and count. There was also a school library where I spent a lot of time. And behind the house, on the south side, there was a vegetable patch and a berry garden (with strawberries, alpine strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, red- and blackcurrants and gooseberries) and a little vineyard, because my grandparents also made some home wine.
I was a city kid learning about the countryside, about the seasons and the animals. Before I was ten I learned how to saw, to knit, what to feed the chicken and the rabbits, how to make fire in old ovens around the house, how to make yoghurt and butter, how to bake different types of cakes and pies, and how to make fruit and vegetable preserves.
My grandfather was the one who cooked. My grandma simply hated it. He prepared meats and stews and made an incredibly smelly cheese. It used to chase me out of the house for hours at a time, when the rotten cottage cheese was heated and salted and caraway was added to it, before it was cooled down in form of a sausage.
I often think about what I learned effortlessly in their house. I never knew I was being handed a treasure until I compared notes with my friends: lessons of history and of survival that my mother simply hadn’t time or opportunity to give me. My friends didn’t have a childhood like mine.
We need to know who we are to function as human beings. We need to know how to survive every day: work, food, shelter, and on a bigger scale, learning from the past. Only the past can give us this answer to who we are and what we have to do. We need it for the present and for the future. Grandparents represent that past, which was also handed to them as legacy.
Please, become outstanding grandparents. You have more to offer than you might think. Your life, which might not seem exciting enough to you today, will be fascinating to your grandchildren one day: if life is better then, they will wonder how you made it. If it becomes more difficult, they will find yours even more interesting. And if their life is just different, you will still be able to compare and teach them right from wrong.