*Author’s Note-see end of post
Pregnant with my first child, I can’t help but try to see in the future. I spend hours (or rather waste hours) imagining not only what it will be like to be a mom, but also what my child will look like, what his or her interests will be, what our relationship will be, etc. The list goes on. I realize this is a very dangerous endeavor. Kids never live up to their parents’ expectations. But I try to convince myself that it is just a game to help me get used to the new role I will be playing. But I find my mind wandering as far into the future as when my child is all grown up, perhaps married, but certainly independent. And an important part of this fantasy is that he or she lives down the street or across town – somewhere nearby!
This is rather ironic since I, now married and long independent, live 2,000 miles away from my parents, my sister, my grandmother, and the house I grew up in. And since moving to Los Angeles eight years ago, I have never looked back. In fact, it is very difficult to get me to spend the time and the money to return for visits. Such trips are a chore rather than a joy.
I am not going to claim that I was driven away thanks to my dysfunctional family because that is simply not true. My childhood was nauseatingly ideal. I can’t complain, for I really had no problems (other than zits and the confidence that I was perhaps the most insecure teenager who had ever lived). I can only hope my child has such a carefree, innocent time growing up! Only these days, I’m not sure it is even possible.
So why am I here in Los Angeles while they are there in St. Louis? I had bigger dreams than my hometown could offer me. The move wasn’t an escape as much as a spreading of my wings.
Now, as my parents get a little older, a little loonier, and a little scared of both, I am certainly glad I am so far away. The phone calls are great, but I know I could not deal with them in person with the same grace. So I definitely do not regret my separation.
My husband, from Los Angeles, and I have recently discussed leaving the LA area for what are probably obvious reasons. My only hesitation is that his family is here. And there is something really nice about having them close by. I would sincerely miss dropping by for a bar-b-que or a trip to the mall. I would miss having his dad work on my car or borrowing his tools.
This is how I want my child to feel. I want him or her to be well educated and a world traveler. But I also hope that he or she desires to remain connected to his or her family by living in the same vicinity. I’m surprised at myself. I had no idea I felt this way.
But the more I think about this, the more I realize that this “splitting” of the American family (in addition to the splitting of so many marriages) is one of the primary contributors to the breakdown of our society.
One thing in particular has come to my attention. As I anxiously await our baby, I’m stricken with the fear that I have no idea how to take care of a baby. I realize this is an extremely common fear – just about every mother experiences it. But my fear goes beyond simple insecurity. I have never been around babies before. My only sister is three years younger than me, so I certainly don’t remember anything about her being a baby.
And because my parents, as adults, also moved far from their parents and siblings, I had no cousins or other extended family to watch grow up.
I have also noticed that Kaiser, my health care system, offers numerous workshops for expectant parents: Baby Care 101, Beginning Breastfeeding, Advanced Breastfeeding, Postpartum Care, Feeding Baby, Health Care for Baby, etc. When I first saw the list, I uncomfortably giggled, thinking how silly it was for me to sign up for these classes. Shouldn’t I already know this stuff? As a woman? But I have lingering doubts. To sign up for any of these classes is to display my inability to be a mother without the help of some specialized class.
But then I read something that changed my mind. An author discussed the rising popularity of and the need for such classes. The reason? Because in the past, most of this knowledge was passed on from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. But today, daughters leave home, leave their hometown, even leave the state to have and raise their families. So family cannot support each other during such life-changing events. Daughters are left to fend for themselves. To discover how to effectively breastfeed and to detect signs of jaundice, colic, ear infections, and other common health problems. So what do those of us do who have never held a baby and don’t have our mothers to guide us? We sign up for classes given by the professionals.
Suddenly, I felt I must take every class available to me. I no longer felt guilty. Being a good mother isn’t necessarily instinctive; it is learned. And I needed a teacher.
But it goes beyond those first few days adjusting to the new life in the home. The most important role a family can play is that of a support system. Thanks to modern technology, my mom is always a phone call away, and my dad is a click on the mouse away, but it isn’t the same as being down the street. I’ve had my share of bad days when my life is overwhelming. Having my husband be my sole source of support is sometimes too much to ask. And I know with the new baby, I am going to need more support than one person can actually provide me.
Luckily, my husband’s dad and wife and his sister and brother all live within a half hour of our house. Without my own family, I have come to depend on them tremendously.
Another fallout of the separation of the family happens at the other end of our lifetimes: the increased need for nursing homes. In fact, my grandma was recently admitted to one, Her condo is now up for sale, and all of her belongings have been dispersed.
In some cultures, the concept of a nursing home doesn’t even exist. The younger generation takes care of the older generation. Families would never consider sending their family members away (of course the situation is different if that family member needs round-the-clock medical attention).
Yet in this country, we routinely place our parents and grandparents in nursing homes. I imagine, should my parents live long lives, that I will do the same to them. I cannot imagine after all these years and all this distance bringing either parent out to my house for me to care for them in their old age. That is very disquieting and difficult to admit. But I can only guess that it is much easier to do for those of us living on the other side of the country from our parents.
As I feel the baby kick, I am brought back to my wishes for his or her life and, maybe more importantly, for our family. I also find myself wishing for more connection and less separation for all families. Perhaps a lot of our social problems, of so many lost and lonely people, of people falling through the cracks, and of the heartbreak of children growing up without extended family would be resolved.
*Author’s Note: This essay was written in 1996! And I just found it. I don’t think I have seen it since then. The baby I was pregnant with is now 26 years old. Click HERE for my reflections on this essay.
Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino
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