Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nuclear Family Fallout

About a week, or so, ago I went out for some drinks with a pair of local dads, here in the borough of Windsor Terrace/Kensington, Brooklyn. After we moved from the very cool and highly regarded bar Double Windsor we ended up sharing a pitcher of $9 Bud at Farrell's, which has been around, I believe, since Prohibition.

After a little while the subject of "help" came up. By help I don't mean domestics who clean the apartment. I mean simply having family members around who can help you with the child on at least a semi-reliable basis. None of us had any and all of us believed this is one reason why it's been so challenging and at times stressful for us as parents.

For us here in BBD Mansions this has meant that we almost never go out to see the movies, because baby sitters are prohibitively expensive. Since we don't have any family help we simply stay in instead. It's meant that we can't ever get a break from our adorable child. Not that we want a break from her, but other than the two days a week she's in daycare it is all us, all the time. And daycare just started in September. So for the first year and a half of her life we were the ones with her 99% of the time.

When Stella was born we also didn't have any real family help. So when she was colicky and not sleeping (which lasted more than a year) we simply were spent. No one came to relieve us, no one helped us with our apartment when it was a wreck. No one gave us a hand or cooked us a meal when we were wiped out from months of stress. It just didn't happen. This made the first year, and change, of our lives as parents extremely hard, and put a lot of strain on us personally.

I spoke to my mom about this, and she remembered how it used to be different. She raised our family in the suburbs, but back then baby sitters were cheap, something like 50 cents an hour. Today we pay from $15 to $25 in our area. That makes a movie cost something like $70-$75, conservatively. We really can't justify this, because I've been unemployed and Randi works part time. But even when I worked we couldn't do this very often.

When we want to see family we drive at least an hour to get anywhere, with traffic that can become two hours. So we don't do that a lot.

These days we've learned to switch off nights when either one of us have Stella. If Randi wants to hit the town, I can feed Stella, bathe her and put her to bed. No big thing. She does the same for me. We do this maybe a few times a month, maybe.

But when Randi was breastfeeding, and Stella had already rejected the bottle (so it had to be the breast) we didn't go out. We just didn't. Because without the breast Stella would cry all night until we got back, making us doubt if it was worth it at all to get some dinner down the block. We didn't have our first "date" after Stella's birth for, I believe, at least five months.

What I've come to realize is that all this is highly, highly unnatural. The nuclear family, in extremus, is just not a socially healthy way to raise a family, or indeed be a family.

Our situation is extreme, I realize. My wife's family is in Kentucky, and my parents are both almost 80. So most of the people who would be there for us are not able to help all that much. Most other people I know in NYC aren't in our boat.

This is a tough town when you don't have any real help with your kid ever. When no one can help you carry all your stuff up and down your third floor walk-up. When you never have an extra pair of eyes or hands on your kid. When you, or your spouse, is the only one ever there, ever, to feed your bundle of joy, wipe her, or clean her. Ever. It takes the pressures incumbent upon living in an intense town and makes them about 1000 times more real.

At the same time it also makes it so much harder to appreciate and enjoy the things about NYC that are so great. A lot of this is the social and nightlife. When you can't see your friends you start to feel isolated, as we did for almost a year straight, maybe more. When you can't see shows, or do improv comedy or any of that stuff you used to love you start to wonder if all the extra expense of life here is worth it.

Again, I do realize that our situation is not the norm. Many people have more family help than we have. But the model that our modern families are based upon I believe is a faulty one. I believe kids benefit from having a lot of family love around, not just love from mom and dad. I believe parents who get a semi-regular break from parenting are probably better parents. I believe all this is a symptom of a society that has evolved towards more and more isolation from one another, which is not good.

All this is a long way to say that over the past four days we had my mother in law Judy in, and it was great. Although the child rearing burden was 1/3 less due to the extra person it felt like a much, much greater relief than that. If I had to go to the bathroom if we were out I would simply ask Judy to watch Stella. She was happy to. If I was wiped out and needed to lie down for 10 minutes it was okay, Stella was with her mom and grand-mom, keeping Randi from getting worn down, or me, if the tables were turned. If we went to the playground there was another person watching our girl and playing with her. These might seem like little things, but the ability to relax for a moment, catch my breath, help my wife, have her catch her breath, was a godsend. It really was.

We've done the best we can, and I believe we are good parents. But I know we've also been stressed ones. I wonder, sometimes, if we would have turned out that way if we'd simply had just a little bit more help.


alexlady said...

oh i wish we lived closer! like, down the block. i'm glad you all had a nice time with judy. the party sure was fun!

Anonymous said...

You might try forming a babysitting co-op with your friends. You watch theirs, they watch yours and everyone gets a break now and then.

Anonymous said...

you hit the nail on the head. Thomas - dad of another nuclear family in Brooklyn on 7 days vacation from it with my mother on law from germany in town

Randi Skaggs said...

We are actually in a babysitting coop, and it's wonderful, but sadly not full-proof. Example: when you find you have bedbugs, suddenly nobody wants to sit for you. But it is better than nothing, that is true.

Holly said...

I hear you! There's a reason traditional societies are organized the way they are. As wonderful as it is to be able to go your own way, there are lots of drawbacks that become very clear once you become a parent.

David Serchuk said...

Hi All,
Thanks for the comments, and, yes, it's good to know some of you have been there too.