In a recent ethnographic study, researchers from U.C.L.A. videotaped 32 families continuously for one week each. While logging 1,540 hours of video they found “a fire shower of stress, multitasking and mutual nitpicking.”
The New York Times pointed out that most of the researchers were young, childless graduate students. According to one researcher, watching the families in their daily battle with exhaustion was the “very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever.”
It got me thinking: What would these young, childless, career-minded graduate students see if they filmed every waking moment in my home this week?
They’d see the same firestorm of stress: the arguments, the whining, the negotiations, and the occasional bursts of tears, punctuated by brief interludes of peace which usually occur right before or after sleep: singing lullabies to Jake, snuggling in bed with Ruby at 6 o’clock this morning.
There would be plenty to disapprove of.
The mountain of clean laundry that has become a near-permanent fixture in our living room because no one has time to fold it.
The silly spat Brian and I had about Ruby’s class snack after he returned from the grocery store.
Me: “Crackers and cheese? Where’s the fruit?”
Him: “You didn’t tell me to get fruit!”
Me: “I have to tell you?”
They’d see the kids arguing in the bathtub. (“Move back on your side!” “Dop splashing me, Ruby!”)
They’d find Brian standing at the kitchen island, eating a sandwich, alone, a full hour after the kids ate their dinner. They might note that our family has not had one sit-down meal together all week. This, despite research showing the family dinner has something to do with whether children grow up to be tax-paying citizens or criminals. (Maybe that’s not what it says. You can figure it out here if you want to.)
If the researchers stuck around after the kids went to bed, they’d see Brian icing down his forearms after too many hours on the computer, and the worried look on my face as I finish typing up his document.
After bearing witness to a week of cooking, dishes, laundry, school paperwork, homework, housework, and work-work, they would wonder:
Why do working couples ever have children?
And who could blame them for not understanding? After all, the answer doesn’t show up on videotape.
When they played back the part where Jake eats a whole bowl of steamed broccoli without any coaxing, they wouldn’t know I spent months patiently offering him one vegetable after another, and having them pushed aside.
When they watched the part where Ruby voluntarily picked up her guitar to play “All the Pretty Little Horses,” they wouldn’t know that just a year ago she cried in frustration every time she had to practice. They couldn’t see that Brian spent months sitting with her while she plucked scales, slowly convincing her that making mistakes is OK, part of learning something new.
When my stepdaughter, Martha, arrived Friday night, they would clearly see that three kids create 10 times as much mayhem as two. But they wouldn’t see what a victory it is for our blended family that Ruby and Jake don’t think of Martha as their “half sister.” She’s their sister, included in every crayon drawing of The Alcorn Family. They wouldn’t know how important it is that Ruby proudly, reverently guards Martha’s toys and books when she isn’t here, not letting Jake or even her best friend play with them.
What they wouldn’t understand, because you can’t see it in one week, even if the camera never goes off, is how the work of parenting, the hard work of loving other people over months and years, intensifies the love we feel, grounds it, makes it real. The hard work, the intensity of love, that’s the burden and the blessing of this modern day tribe.
There’s a quote by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist:
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
We endure our share of burning, but our house is full of light. You just have to know how to see it.
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