When Alexander Viorst asked his mother if he and his young family could move in for a few months during his home renovation, he should have known that his name would end up splashed on the front cover of another one of her books. He should have remembered how much his mother loved to write about him. He should have gone running in the other direction.
Alexander is the infamous little boy who, in the 70s hated his railroad train pajamas, lima beans and plain white sneakers. He was the little boy who had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and despite his repetitive bad luck helped his mother, Judith Viorst, become famous.
Viorst wrote Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in 1972 when Alexander (“who had a lot of very bad days,” says Viorst), was four. Two more Alexander books followed, Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday and Alexander Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move.
So last summer when Alexander, the youngest of the Viorst boys, asked his mother if his family could move in, Alexander should have known the experience, like so many in his life, would be fodder for a new book. While staring in one of his mother’s books was not new to him, it was a first for his wife Marla (who had read the Alexander books growing up) 5 and ¼ year old Olivia, 24 month old Isaac and 4 month old Toby.
Personally, I’m glad Alexander and his family moved in because what Viorst learned from her ninety-day intergenerational experience is enlightening. That she wrote about it in her latest book, Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days, is a gift to the masses. After hearing Viorst’s analysis, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. I felt vindicated. Why? Because Judith with her Compulsive, Over Anxious, Type-A, Raised Three Children (without a Nanny) While Writing Best Selling Books Personality actually proclaimed, “it was easier to raise children when I was raising children.”
Oh Hallelujah and say Amen! I had thought I was going crazy.
Viorst studied “The Alexander Five” and came to a number of conclusions about child rearing in the 21st Century.
1) The Car: When Viorst was raising her children in the early 70s, she piled 8 or 9 kids into her small station wagon without thinking that it could be dangerous, without concerns for car seats, seat belts or head rests. Ninety-days of buckling and strapping her grandchildren then unstrapping and unbuckling them and then doing it all over again on the return trip nearly did her in. “Do you have a clue of how easy it used to be to leave and get back home again? I acknowledge that the locking and loading into the car with all the belts and buckles is a necessity, but it used to be so easy.”
2) The Playpen: According to Viorst the banishment of the playpen is tragic. As she recalled this beloved product with great affection there may have actually been a tear in her eye. “I’m trying to start a campaign,” she said, “a bring back the play pen movement.” Those who never used a playpen — and I include myself in this group — have no idea why it is such a lifesaver. And then Viorst explained all the things a parent can do by simply plopping a baby into a playpen. I listened in awe, saliva quite possibly dribbling from the corner of my mouth. Why, you can go to the bathroom alone, read the paper, drink a cup of coffee, even make a bed ALL ALONE. “Free to pee, not you, just me,” Viorst declared, her playpen movement in full swing, parents cheering, throwing their vote her way, endorsing her and then some. “I’ve already written the lyrics to ‘where have all the play pens gone,’” says Viorst. While I yearned for that kind of independence, I must admit I squirmed a little in my seat. After all, wasn’t a good mother supposed to carry her baby EVERYWHERE she went? Isn’t the mother suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome the most extraordinary mother of all, the badge of honor in the shape of blue Velcro wrists straps she must wear until the pain goes away or the child goes to college? Viorst questioned today’s mother, wondering where this idea came from. After all, when she was a young mother not thirty years ago, putting a baby down was never tantamount to child neglect. These days, however, mothers “wear their babies.” It’s true. She’s absolutely right. So where did this concept come from?
3) Raising the Bar: The answer may be in the bar. Not the alcoholic beverage bar (although not a bad idea), but the bar that divides the mother who works in the home from the one who works outside of the home. The pressure on each is extreme. The working mother, guilty that she is away from her child for hours at a time, compensates with the much written about “floor time.” She’s been told that quality is more important than quantity and so at the end of a long day at work, she works at playing with her child. The at home mother who lacks neither quantity nor quality suffers her own pangs of guilt that she has left her out of home job to stay at home and feels obliged to prove, justify this decision, by becoming the absolute best mother in the universe. And so the bar is raised and raised some more and raised to such astronomical heights that today’s mothers ends up in a Catch 22 that Joseph Heller could never have dreamed of. Quite different from Viorst’s child rearing years when there were two overriding themes: “A happy mother makes for a happy child” and “A good enough mother is good enough.” “You’re going to screw up,” says Viorst,” but you’re going to get another chance and a chance after that and another after that. Little people don’t get scarred over one word. I think parents are putting too much pressure on themselves.”
4) Explanation Society: Viorst is overwhelmed by all the explanations that parents today feel obliged to give their children. It wasn’t like this when Viorst was raising her three boys. Her generation of parents “felt allowed to be more Fascistic. We were ‘benevolent dictators.’ We could respond with ‘because I said so,’ and ‘that’s because we’re the grown ups and you’re the kids,’ and that was reason enough,” Viorst says. Today too many parents feel that they need to carefully explain their decisions to their children, decisions such as “why it’s not such a really good idea to draw on the living room wall with Mommy’s lipstick or why a kid should consider taking his foot off a child’s face.” Viorst says a parent should be able to say, “enough now,” and be done with it. So why the difference? Are we a generation of parental explainers because we were sick of being told, “because I said so”? Actually, Viorst theorizes that our present day Explanation Society stems from the fast changing times, a pace that leaves “kids growing up faster and demanding answers immediately.” When she was a parent “we didn’t have to be so detailed with our replies” partly because the questions weren’t so complicated. When children are exposed to a more perilous world, one riddled with pedophilia, AIDS, drugs, suicide bombs, sex, in other words too much information, parents have a whole lot more explaining to do and explanations become a way of life.
While the “colonization” and “rape” of Viorst’s home took some getting used to and while Alexander and Marla may not have been completely thrilled with the publication of Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days, I for one am glad the inter-generational adventure took place. Viorst, as witness to the incredible parenting done by her son and daughter-in-law, gave me pause. I realized that it’s not that I am not as good a mother as my own mother was, but that we live in different worlds.