Wednesday, April 14, 2010


A few years ago, I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics (didn't everybody?). In case you're unfamiliar, Freakonomics is a peek at some surprising statistics that tend to contradict everything we assume we know. Think it's crazy to keep a gun in the house if you have children? I do, but according to Levitt, having a swimming pool at your house is 100 times more likely to kill a child. If you tend to believe that the amount of money we spend on campaign finance in this country is pretty ridiculous (about $1 billion per year in a major election period), how does it make you feel to know that we collectively spend the the same amount annually on chewing gum? Whoa, right?

I didn't have children when I first read Freakonomics, but even then, the chapter that really smacked me in the head had to do with parenting, or maybe more accurately, not parenting. Levitt cites some initially puzzling statistics regarding the factors that relate to school success for children. For example, in the study he discusses, it didn't seem to matter if a child's parents read to him every day; it did matter if the child's parents owned many books. Say what? It didn't seem to matter if the child's mother stayed at home with him; it did matter how old the mother was when the child was born (older seems to indicate more academic success for the child). It didn't seem to matter if the child visited museums frequently; it did matter if the parents spoke English in the home. Spanking, going to Head Start, watching too much television all seem to have minimal overall impacts, but (no great surprise) having highly educated parents seems to make a big difference in how a child performs in school.

The general conclusion here is that, despite our culture's fixation with "perfect" parenting strategies, ultimately, who the parents are seems to matter much more than what the parents do. According to Levitt, parents who are "well-educated, successful, and healthy" tend to have children who do well, at least in school. Now, obviously the statistics only deal with academic success and do leave out a whole host of other emotional and spiritual issues, but for me, the data really hits home, both literally and figuratively.

In recent months, I've been realizing that for the last five years, I have spent an incredible amount of energy trying to be the best parent I can be, but truth be told, I haven't given myself very much attention. In fact, I think I have a bit of a martyr complex. There's this wierd self-congratulatory voice in my head that genuinely seems to believe that the more I deprive myself of all things good and lovely, the better mother I am. How many times I have a left the library with a huge totebag of books for my boys, only to walk wistfully past the adult section, so much wonderful literature calling out my name, certain that I just couldn't spare a moment to stop and choose just one book for myself? I've been kicking around the idea of going to grad school for years now, but honestly, I spent many more hours choosing the perfect preschool for Jonah than researching options for myself. When the budget is super tight, guess who still gets the expensive organic yogurt at our house, and guess who ends up with the crappy generic cereal? I have used my role as a mother to justify my lack of time and energy for exercise, intellectual stimulation, spiritual development, and date nights. And mostly, I've just considered it all an occupational hazard.

But then I think about this study. About the idea that who I am as person may just matter a whole lot more than what I do as a parent, when it comes to the kind of humans my little guys may turn out to be. I want them to know that their mother is a woman who can devour a good novel in one sitting. That despite stepping away from my career for a few years to be home with them, I'm a damn good high school English teacher. That my body thrives on exercise, and that I'm a much more peaceful person if I start my day with some good yoga. That sometimes the beauty and grace of Jesus still makes me cry. And that, despite our hurried daily squabbles, I'm crazy in love with their dad.

It has taken me five long years to figure it out, but I think I'm finally learning that embracing my own needs and passions will ultimately make me more of the mother Jonah and Eli deserve, not less. I'm a little rusty, feeling awkwardly like the blank-faced cartoon parent on the airline safety card, dutifully placing the oxygen mask on her own face before tending to her cartoon child. It goes against my instincts a bit, I admit. But I'm getting up and exercising in the mornings. I'm looking into grad schools. I'm trying to dress myself in unstained, unwrinkled clothing that don't make me feel like a hobo.

And little by little, maybe we'll all breathe a little easier.