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Mary Ellen and her three perfect children

Chapter 20: Modern Parenting

My brother says our parents loved us the way the Shah of Iran loved his people—from afar. But they were only doing what “the experts” told them. One of those experts, Luther Emmett Holt, advised parents not to play with their children because, “Undue stimulation could be harmful.” Another warned, “Kissing a baby after it is fed . . . is very likely to cause it to vomit.” And the eminent John Broadus Watson, in his best-selling Psychological Care of Infant and Child, said he was appalled to see an infant surrounded by women who were all kissing him. Watson counted 32 kisses! “Mother love,” he declared, “is a dangerous instrument.” He meant “instinct” but couldn’t say that because according to his theory “instincts” did not exist. “There are . . . for us no instincts—we no longer need the term in psychology. Everything we have been in the habit of calling an ‘instinct’ today is the result largely of training.” He pompously advised mere parents, “Never hug and kiss them [children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.” (The science was settled!)

Personal experience and an instinctive populist disdain for academic know-it-alls armored many parents against this foolishness. But Mary Ellen had no personal experience with maternal affection, so she took the experts seriously. It never occurred to her that her mother’s utilitarian approach to raising a child was not very different from the “scientific approach” advocated by the psychologists.

Her mother had repeatedly told her she was worthless. She was determined to show her that she wasn’t. To do this she had to have a perfect husband and three perfect children. But she also had to have a job. That wasn’t possible. She couldn’t have it all. It wasn’t fair.

She never stopped resenting the way her mother had treated her, but overwhelmed by the conflicting needs of her three children, she began treating us more or less the same way Gram had treated her—as burdens. She also resented the fact that her children were having more fun than she had had when she was a child. We didn’t even seem to understand how wonderful our childhoods were compared to hers. One day my sister tugged Mother’s skirt once too often. She wheeled around and slapped her, shouting, “It’s my turn to play now!”

As she grew older, her career girl persona disappeared. She became girlish and began talking baby talk, sometimes even to people who didn’t know her very well. On Thanksgiving Day, while Herb was carving “Mr. Turkey,” she would address Mr. Turkey and discuss whether he would have liked to have potatoes roasted along with “him.” Sometimes her monologue would be interrupted by the arrival of “Mr. Squirrel” or “Mr. Robin” on the patio for a photo shoot. In certain ways both my parents were childlike. They had a childlike sense of their own merit and a childlike obliviousness to the complexity of their motives.

Mother was a calculating person. This was obvious to her children. But she didn’t think we were very perceptive, so she made no effort to hide her stratagems from us. We soon learned that if she went into the kitchen at about five thirty and leaned on the sink, we were in for it. Staring at the drain, she would “work herself up.” By the time Dad got home from work, she’d be weeping. He’d ask, “What’s wrong, Mother?” and she’d cite something that had happened earlier—something we kids had forgotten all about but that she’d been “saving up.” He would order the guilty party to the basement, and some time later, he would come down and administer “a spanking”—with his belt. My sister says he seemed so uncomfortable while doing this that she felt sorry for him.

I didn’t. I could understand being struck in anger, but the waiting period seemed inhuman. I resolved never to spank my own children and never to swat them except in anger at the very moment of the offense. If the offense took place hours before I learned about it, I would punish them in a different way. I was seven or eight years old, when I decided this. (“The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”)

I’m sure my father’s stepfather hit him in anger and hit him hard. And I know from his memoir that, at least once, his mother beat him with a stick and so vigorously that she broke it. So I suspect Herb postponed our punishments out of a belief that a good, judicious parent did not spank a child in anger. What complicated this situation for his children was the fact that he never seemed to be angry. As my sister said, he seemed uncomfortable with the whole business. It was our mother who was angry, but she wasn’t the one who was strapping us.

Then the spankings stopped. Why? Mother must have read an article in one of her women’s magazines saying corporal punishment was old-fashioned. She didn’t want to be old-fashioned—like her mother. So instead of demanding that Herb spank us when we disappointed her, she sat us down for “little talks.” That was the modern way. And to save time, she did all the talking—except when Herb “put a word in” to “back her up.”

While I was being talked to, I would close my ears to what they were saying and just listen to the rhythm of their sentences. They would see what I was doing and talk louder and faster in order to “get through” to me. I often wished they’d just spank me. Watching these dramatic little scenes, my brother would do his best to fade into the woodwork. He thinks that watching our parents “reason with me” led to his habitual stance as a detached observer.

Because I was the oldest son, I was my parents’ greatest disappointment and got more “little talks” than my sister or brother. But while I raged silently against my fate, I never doubted my importance. Looking back, I think my sister had a rougher time than I did. She was their little doll, so she wasn’t “talked to” as often as I was, but like all playthings, she was sometimes left out in the rain.

In his memoir, my father wrote about a night when my mother had gone somewhere with us kids and he and my grandmother were alone in the house. Gram took this opportunity to tell him her daughter wasn’t competent to rear his children. She was sorry to have to say it but felt obliged to report that we were running wild and if something wasn’t done we were going to “wind up in jail.” To prevent this, she recommended we be spanked whenever we were caught doing something wrong and then on Friday night we should each be spanked again “for good measure”—a kind of lagniappe—to punish us for all the things we’d done wrong but had gotten away with.

Herb wrote that he listened to her complaints about his wife and children without comment. He “heard her out.” Then he told her that he ran his family like a business. The children were Mary Ellen’s “department,” and that as far as he was concerned, she was doing “a very satisfactory job.” Whereupon, Bessie stomped off in a huff and went to live with her sister.

“And that,” he said, “is how we got rid of a mother-in-law.”

I found it hard to reconcile Gram’s enthusiastic endorsement of routine corporal punishment with her indulgent behavior to her grandchildren. She had never threatened us—had never even raised her voice to us. True, she never hugged us, was never physically affectionate. She “kept her distance.” On the other hand, she gave us more candy than we could eat, and more monogrammed handkerchiefs than we could use, and took us to the movies as often as our mother would allow it.

Did Gram’s ideas of how to keep her grandchildren from ending up in jail reflect the way she herself had been treated as a child and the way she, in turn, had treated her own daughter, my mother? I knew better than to ask Mother about this. She had revealed all she intended to reveal about her childhood in her memoir. In it she had mentioned being humiliated, scorned, and miserable, but had said nothing specific about being punished. She could, however, say things to my wife, an outsider, that she could not say to her children. One day when Mother was in her nineties, she confided to Mary that Gram used to lock her in a closet. For how long? She wouldn’t say. Was there more to the punishment? She wouldn’t say.

But after learning from my father’s memoir about my grandmother’s enthusiasm for corporal punishment, I suspect she punished my mother—that “useless piece of baggage”—physically before she locked her in the closet. And I’m sure that my mother made it clear to Gram that she was not to punish her grandchildren in any way for any reason, which must have frustrated her and led her to try to persuade my father to start spanking us whenever we were caught misbehaving and also every Friday night, just to wrap up the week.