My daughter Franny, who turns ten this month, has just started working as a Mother’s Helper one afternoon a week after school. She works for a SAHM who needs a couple hours of sanity. She folds laundry and sweeps. She plays with two-year-old Juniper, pushing her on the swing, dressing doll babies, having tea parties.
“I helped Juniper go to the bathroom,” Franny told me proudly. “I wiped her butt. Don’t worry, I washed my hands afterward.”
She must have noticed I was staring at her incredulously. But I wasn’t staring because of the butt-wiping admission. I was agog at the realization that my baby is now old enough to wipe someone else’s baby’s butt.
Franny makes $5 an hour. She works two hours a week, so by the end of one month, she’s earned forty bucks. Not bad for a girl who’s just turning ten.
Franny is a responsible, capable kid. She wakes herself up every morning for school, putting on the outfit she laid on her chair the night before. She does her homework, usually without reminders, and asks me to sign off on her assignment book. She feeds the cats, and if they need medicine, she dispenses it. If you send her a letter, she will send you a reply right back, on a handmade card with flowers and hearts and multiple exclamation marks.
So I knew, as she was approaching the double digits, that she could handle a Mother’s Helper job. I asked around the neighborhood until I found someone willing to take a shot on a not-quite-ten-year-old.
I want Franny to learn the importance of being financially independent now, while she’s still a kid. I’ve used the occasion of her new job to talk to her about how women need to learn to make their own money so they won’t have to rely on anyone else. I tell her that she will feel good about herself this way.
What I’m saying, between the lines, is: don’t make the same dumb mistake I did.
Don’t expect Prince Charming to swoop you up in his gleaming Lexus and whoosh you off to a life that unrolls like a red carpet before you, a life where you get to stay at home and care for your children in your beautiful house in a grand neighborhood, picking up some freelance work and catching some mid-morning yoga classes in your leisure time. Maybe that life will work out. Maybe it won’t. And if it doesn’t, where will you be?
I don’t know why my mother didn’t instill self-reliance in me. She was a child of the Depression and worked full-time her entire adult life as a music teacher. When she wasn’t working, she cleaned the house, made the meals, and paid the bills. My dad was out of work for a few years, and had it not been for my mom, we would have been sleeping in our station wagon.
Mom didn’t ask me to do much of anything. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was adopted and she didn’t feel entitled to make a mother’s demands. Maybe it was because she was exhausted, and a bit of a control freak, and it was easier to do everything herself instead of insist that others pitch in. Maybe it was because I was an anxious child, so she didn’t think I was capable of taking care of myself.
Whatever the reason, I grew up to believe I needed someone else to take care of me. So I married a man whom I expected to soar to great heights in his chosen career. A man whom I expected to provide emotional and financial security, the way my brother-in-law did for my sister, the way many of my friends’ husbands did for them.
But that rosy-hued fantasy didn’t work out so well.
Had I been used to taking care of myself, I would have landed on my feet much faster than I did post-divorce. I would have experienced less stress that I undoubtedly passed on to my children as I went back to graduate school and started over in a new career.
I don’t want Franny to depend on a man to take care of her. I especially don’t want her to depend on her dad. Prince’s money comes with strings, and if she gets used to the dole-outs, she will find herself cinched so tightly that she won’t be able to breathe. She will be told where to live, who to marry, where to vacation, how to decorate her house. She will be denied the opportunity to grow up and feel a sense of accomplishment for what she can do on her own.
Franny can already do a lot on her own, besides babysitting. She is flying cross-country by herself this summer to visit my sister. When I asked her if she wanted me to come with her, she gave me a resounding “NO!”
I am profoundly grateful to watch her emerging self-agency, but sad to experience the gradual pulling-away that she needs to do in order to grow up.
Twice in the past month she has declined the bedtime story-reading and snuggle, our nightly ritual since she was an infant sitting on my lap in the rocking chair, then in her bed when she got old enough to sleep in one.
So it came as a luscious surprise last weekend, when Atticus was out of town on a business trip, and she put her hands on my waist, gazed up at me with big mooey eyes and a grin and asked: “Mom, can I sleep in your bed tonight?”
We crawled under the white duvet, just us girls. We settled our backs into the pillows, and watched Harry Potter on TV until Franny decided she’d had enough, then turned off the light and fell instantly asleep.
I stayed awake for awhile, listening to her soft breathing, gently stroking her long auburn hair. I didn’t want to go to sleep, because I knew this might be the last time we ever slept in the same bed together. So I drank in the moment as long as I could, a blanket of serenity wrapping around me as I imagined my girl growing up and away from me, into a woman who won’t make the same dumb mistake her mother did.