My family is loud.
But we are loud for a reason. We have several televisions and several computers. But since we live in a home with many rooms, none of this technology is housed in the same room. So, it follows, at any given time, none of my family members are in the same room at the same time. So how do we communicate? By shouting from room-to-room, of course. I didn’t say we had a good reason for being loud.
Yes, the official protocol in our home is to address each other face-to-face, using an “inside voice.” But this is not always realistic when you are a mom firing off multiple directives at children while simultaneously checking email and trying to beat your all-time high score in Webkinz’ Color Storm. When my family shriek at each other from room to room, I fulfill my mom duty by bellowing “Stop Yelling!” even louder from the comfort of my desk chair. By the way, our house was built in 1927 and has very thick, soundproof walls.
Having never been a parent before, I had little sense of whether our family interactions were anywhere on the bell curve. So I broached the subject of inter-room communication with some fellow moms. However, I carefully chose who I asked. Any mom who seemed too composed or took a Zen-like approach to child-rearing was out. I apparently picked likeminded moms because I was assured by my sample that they have their moments of engaging in “outside voice” talk while inside the confines of their homes. I felt better.
But I do not know for sure whether these moms truly are screechers, or were just humoring me. Because when you live in a house and travel by car, parenting is a private matter. Behind closed doors, you are free to yell, eat with your hands, sing off-key, watch bad TV, and engage in any number of socially unsanctioned activities, without fear of embarrassment or judgment.
However, there are ways to penetrate the “Cone of Silence” of suburban living: eavesdropping on your neighbors in their backyards and through open windows. During the spring days when it is too warm for the heater and too cool for air conditioning, I get an idea of how my unflattering parenting moments stack up against my neighbors’. Had it not been for auditory glimpses into our neighbor’s family lives, I never would have known that one neighbor’s child didn’t start her Science Fair project until the day before the fair. Or that another neighbor kid has a temper and gets really mouthy with his father. And if I thought we watched a lot of TV, we are absolute luddites compared to one set of neighbors.
Several years ago we lived in Brooklyn. Living in shared buildings, with no backyards, and where you are constantly walking, means your parenting skills are on constant display. For someone who is used to keeping separate sets of all parenting supplies (snacks, wipes, water, make-up, gum, change of clothing) in both the car and home, there is an enormous learning curve to this public parenting. Hair has to be combed, diapers packed, boogers cleaned, all before venturing out; no longer can these acts be done at a red light or a parking lot.
Parenting in the public arena seems to have a whole different set of priorities. In my experience, Brooklynites show a great deal of concern when a baby is missing a sock. My daughter was stroller age at the time, and enjoyed removing her left sock and hurling it in the street. Also in my experience, Brooklynites appear to calmly stroll with their toddlers while both mother and child are perfectly groomed, engaging in numerous “teachable moments” by observing the wonders of nature, while singing European children’s songs on pitch, with all socks intact. As a temporary Brooklynite, I was not up to any of the aforementioned tasks, and felt the looks of pity as I balanced ripping grocery bags on my shoulders as my child pulled the scrunchy out of her hair, knocking the stroller enough so my ice coffee spilled onto the handlebar tray, causing me to curse/trip/further spill.
During our year in New York, I signed my son up for some sort of martial arts class. He had taken a similar class back home in Los Angeles, and it was one of the few activities that didn’t have a waiting list dating back to when the child was in utero. The class was at 5:30, giving me time to return from work, pay the nanny and take my daughter to pick up my son at his after-school program. The karate class was 15 blocks away. No problem, I previously lived in New York and routinely walked dozens of blocks at a time, usually with a goal of reaching a shopping destination. Nothing can motivate like a good sale. However, when I calculated the distance from school to karate, I didn’t factor in dawdling, heavy backpacks, bathroom stops, stroller gridlock, hot weather, cold weather, rainy weather, snowy weather, layers of clothing stripped off, layers of clothing put back on. Why didn’t we take one of those famous NYC buses, you may ask? Well, who knew that no strollers allowed on the bus unless they are folded up? Like that would work with two fidgety kids and enough gear to survive for years in the wilderness. And, at the end of our journey: a second-floor karate studio with 18 steep stairs and no elevator. How’s that for adding insult to injury. And to top it all off: A child who didn‘t really like karate after all.