This week, in the lead up to Mother's Day, I've been thinking a lot about Jacqui Kendrick, the Winnipeg stay-at-home mother of three who was recently in the news after Manitoba Child and Family Services paid her a visit following a complaint that her children were playing by themselves in the backyard.
It seems a concerned (read: annoying and interfering) neighbour complained that Kendrick's children, aged two, five and 10, had been spending a lot of time amusing themselves on the family's swing set and slide in their private, fenced-in yard. Kendrick, for her part, told both the CFS and CTV News that she was home the entire time, watching from the kitchen window. But that didn't stop CFS from creating a file on her, or insisting on checking where the children slept and how much food was in the cupboards for them to eat.
Now let me just say that I am not one to take a hard line on the subject of so-called "helicopter parenting." Compared to the incredibly relaxed standards most of us were brought up with, most parents today seem like raving neurotics. I walked a kilometre by myself, in the rain or deep snow, to kindergarten at the age of five – a journey my parents thought nothing of. And yet I wouldn't dream of letting my seven-year-old stepson walk to the corner store on his own – for good reason.
It's not that my parents' generation was innocent of the possibility their kids might be hit by a car or abducted, they just thought we were sensible enough not to cross the road without looking both ways/not to get in the van if a stranger offered us candy (we were actually coached on both these scenarios in elementary school). And while it's flattering how much credit they gave us kids, I think parents in the seventies and eighties were a little overly chilled-out when it came to child supervision and safety. In fact, the statistics bear this out: Child injury and accidental death rates have plummeted since the mid-nineties, when helicopter parenting became the norm. Part of this has to do with revised safety standards on children's car seats and playgrounds, as well as seat-belt laws, and part has to do with a shift in human behaviour. We are just a lot more careful where our kids are concerned, and in many ways it's paid off.
But I do draw the line somewhere, and this week that line is the treatment of Jacqui Kendrick. Mothers are more often the ones in charge of small children and, because of this, we are more prone to the colossal amount of guilt, frustration and startling social judgment that comes with the task of caring for them. As much as Kendrick clearly knew CFS was being ridiculous in questioning her, she was reduced to tears by the implication that she was somehow negligent in letting her children play outdoors.
This is something I think almost any mother can understand, and an emotion that goes back to the initial feeling of utter shock I felt the first time I was called a mother.
Leaving the hospital the day after my son's birth I was so dazed I pushed the baby out the neonatal-wing doors in one of those wheelie carts with the plastic basin on top they let newborns sleep in. A midwife chased me out to the parking lot and called out, "EXCUSE ME MUM! Could we please have the cart back?" At first I thought she was talking to my own mother, who'd flown over from Canada and happened to be standing beside me at the time. Then I realized she meant me. Me – a mum! I looked down at my son, his sleeping face like a tiny pink fist about to punch a hole in my life, and had one clear thought: "You poor little thing. What have you done to deserve getting saddled with a know-nothing wreck of a mother like me?"
Things got better after that. Much better. But boy, did I feel different. I still do.
All of this is not to say that having kids is the holy grail of human experiences – it is utterly amazing but also a spectacular amount of boring, hard work. And it undeniably reorders your life inside and out in a way that is almost indescribable to those who have not been through it. We produce these small creatures and then we are responsible for them and that, in itself, is colossal, transformative and scary. So start planning for Mother's Day now, whether that means making reservations for brunch or simply remembering to call her up and say the one thing that makes it all okay: I'm alive. You did your best. Thank you.