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Faith in Vermont: Mother's Little Helper

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Posted on September 18, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“Wow, your girls sure are comfortable around the kitchen.” 

The friend who said this to me was visiting us with his family. He would repeat the statement several times over the course of the weekend, but I believe the first time he mentioned my daughters’ culinary confidence was while watching my seven-year-old slice herself an apple at the kitchen island. 

I nodded and smiled in response, acting every bit the proud mother.

What I thought – but did not say – is that the five words that most strike terror into my heart are: “Can I help you, Mommy?” followed closely by, “I’ll do it by myself!”

How I dreamed of hearing those phrases uttered by my children when I was just starting out as a mother! Back in the days when our house was filled with infants and toddlers who needed me to do everything for them, instilling independence in my children was a glittering goal on the horizon. I longed for my children to gain the confidence and ability to do things for themselves, and to participate meaningfully in household tasks. 

Now, I realize that what I really wanted was for my children to jump, ability-wise, from age three to eighteen. I neglected to consider the in-between years; I forgot that, if competent independence was the goal on the horizon, the journey to reach it would involve years of becoming. 

For every seven-year-old slicing herself an apple at the kitchen island, there is a backstory that goes something like this:

“NO! Not that knife!”

“WAIT! Let me get you a cutting board first!”

“Close the refrigerator.” [Five minutes pass.] “CLOSE THE REFRIGERATOR!”

“Wash it with soap and water, and I’ll get you a band-aid.”

“I know it was an accident.” [Spoken through gritted teeth.]

“Go get a towel and wipe it up.” [Also spoken through gritted teeth.]

I absolutely believe in teaching my children life skills. I want them to be comfortable with – among other things -- wielding a kitchen knife, pouring themselves a bowl of cereal with milk, stirring the pasta on the stove, or putting their laundry in the wash. Yet every time my child asks, “Can I help you, Mommy?” I have to stifle the urge to say, “No thanks! I want to do it by myself.” And whenever a child declares, “I’ll do it by myself!” I have to hold myself back from begging, “Please let me help you!” 

Why is this? 

It’s about the mess, of course: the mess, and the waste. How many bowls of Cheerios with milk could we have made out of the Cheerios that have coated our floor, and the milk that’s pooled on our countertop? How many times has my daughter begged to be able to add granola to her yogurt by herself– granola that I make from scratch, and which is my own favorite breakfast food – only to dump half the granola into her bowl, take two bites, and declare herself full? The scenario that causes the most consternation around our kitchen table is when our daughters insist on pouring their own maple syrup; from across the table, I watch my husband’s eyes as he totals up the $2 per drop spreading across their plates. 

Messes can be cleaned, though. You know what I can never get back? Time, that’s what. 

Mornings in our household can feel a little frenetic. There’s a dog to walk, 24 chickens and seven ducks to feed and tend, six human mouths to feed, one husband to get off to work, four children to prod through their pre-school ablutions, and one homeschooling mother to fortify for the day ahead (that’s me.) And, almost without fail, one early-rising daughter will ask to help me make the coffee: beans on the floor, grounds on the counter, water dripping down the sides of the coffee maker, and the whole thing taking twice as long as if I’d done it myself. They also seem to have radar for the mornings when I’m making pancakes. “Can I help you, Mommy?” Eggshells in the batter, batter on the counter, crinkled and asymmetrical pancakes, and the whole thing taking twice as long as if I’d done it myself.

Now, I should mention that my daughters all have specific chores for which they are each responsible; chores they have to be reminded to do on a daily basis. Oddly enough, their chores are never the things they’re volunteering to help with or do by themselves. What they will do is to move in on each other’s chores, turning housework into a series of boundary disputes and power struggles. 

For instance, the daughter whose job it is to help me feed and pasture the poultry in the mornings often sleeps through her duties or begs to be excused on the basis of exhaustion. But, should she discover that her younger sisters have been coming out to help with poultry chores in her stead, all hell breaks loose. 

The same thing happens if the daughter in charge of feeding the dog notices that the dog’s water is also low and refills it, thus “stealing” the job of the dog-waterer. (Yes, we love our dog so much that we had to make food and water two distinct jobs.) Or if someone gets so fed up with stepping on Cheerios that they sweep the kitchen floor before the kitchen-floor-sweeper has deemed the situation bad enough to merit her efforts.

Once, when a daughter didn’t make it to the bathroom in time to empty her bladder and the living room rug received the honor instead, she halfheartedly helped her father dab up the puddle with a towel and moved on. My husband, going the extra mile, sprinkled the soggy spot with baking soda and prepared to vacuum it, when another daughter volunteered to help with the coveted vacuuming. At this point, the original floor-wetter tore around the corner, screeching, “It’s my pee! I get to vacuum it!”

It’s moments like this that fill me with pride that I’m raising such confident and helpful children. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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