Being a matriarch is hard

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

We’re looking forward to a gathering of the clan this summer, on a smaller scale than this one in 2001. Good to review sometimes.

Breathes there the mom, with soul so dead, who never to herself hath said, “This matriarch stuff is not all it’s cracked up to be”?

If you’re a reader of op-ed pages and letters to the editor, you’ve surely been following the controversy Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen ignited when he wrote that rearing a child is not the world’s most difficult job, as parents who leave the work force often claim.

When I read Cohen’s original piece, I thought, Boy, are you going to hear from stay-at-home parents – male and female – who take umbrage at the suggestion that what they do is a piece of cake. I was right. Most of the letter-writers focused on the fact that turning drooling infants into upstanding, taxpaying members of society is tough work.

Of course it is. But there’s a difference between “difficult” and “important.” Raising children well is enormously important.

But difficult? Ditch digging is difficult. Roofing can be difficult. Saving lives in high-stress venues like blazing buildings, train wrecks and over-crowded emergency departments – that’s difficult.

However.... After last week, I’m ready to cut stay-at-home parents slack. Dave’s 70th birthday and our nation’s 225th coincided, as did our German contingent’s vacation time, so it seemed imperative to get the clan together. Here.

We cleaned and polished, bought an inflatable queen-sized mattress for the kids, laid out towels and all the pillows we could round up. We borrowed a golf cart to augment our single-seater, and accepted a friend’s invitation to house the overflow.

Fortunately, Mary and Rainer didn’t mind being the overflow, and cheerfully commuted by golf cart. Jean’s crowd filled every inch of our small upstairs: the bedroom for her and Brian, the loft for Abigail and Esther on the mattress, with little Isaac sprawled nearby on a quilt. The five of them shared the upstairs bathroom, although I noticed Jean slipping downstairs occasionally to shower.

I went into the week with visions of bathing in the glow of my first full-fledged matriarchal event, my daughters catching up on whatever daughters talk about on this, their first get-together since Jean’s wedding in 1999, while the men bonded over beers, children threading sweetly through it all. Except for a long-overdue book review and a column due on Friday – both assignments I could do after everyone was in bed – my slate was blank.

So was my mind, in short order. Friends, seeing me during that week of picnics and celebrations and dashes to the store, beamed “Enjoying being a grandmother?” fully expecting me to mirror their delight.

Quite honestly, the answer was no. Don’t misunderstand: These kids are as close to perfect as any kids I’ve ever met. I know you say the same thing about your progeny, whether biological or by marriage, the way we got ours, but I’ve seen yours screaming from one end of the house to the other, and I know how exceptional mine are. They’re polite and self-disciplined, and responsive to suggestions that they run the carpet-sweeper or load the dishwasher.

Entertaining them was a snap. We picked (and ate) blackberries, peaches and blueberries, and visited Steve Stinchcomb’s little patch of heaven, Turnipseed Farms. At home, Abigail’s nose was usually in a book, and Esther was ecstatic finally to be old enough to drive a golf cart. Isaac got Dave to show him how to bait a hook and dangle a line in the pond below the house. (“Catch anything, Isaac?” “No. The fish all went away.”)

The most exhausting aspect of the week was meals. As you grandmothers know, nine in the house means endless discussions of what to fix, who can eat what, who will eat what, when to eat, how much to buy, and whether to eat indoors or on the screened porch. The issue was infinitely complicated – less by likes and dislikes than by dietary requirements.

Abigail is allergic to milk products. Her dad is on one of those impossible high-protein, low-carb schemes. Dave and I are quasi-vegetarians, careful about fat and cholesterol; so is Rainer, since he too had angioplasty for a blocked artery. On top of it all, with Brian laid off, Jean has been practicing extreme frugality. Even though, as our house guest, she did not need to worry about shopping, she continued to model thrift to the kids.

The dynamics of the assembly suffered most from the fact that, at 39 and 43, our daughters have never resolved what contemporary pop-psychology calls “issues.” The only overt incidents were a huffy-puffy display of indignation when one had the nerve to suggest that she and her parents slip out for Mexican food without taking along the entire crowd, and a tantrum accusing me of misrepresenting the coffee by blending decaf into it, at which her sister arched eyebrows to say, “Just what I expected.”

Fear of such flare-ups kept us on eggshells all week.

But good grief. It was get out food, cook, set tables, serve, clean up, then repeat. And repeat again. Up at 7, fall into bed at midnight, without pausing for breath. Column? Book review? Ha.

So now I have an “issue” of my own: guilt for not being in transports of matriarchal ecstasy like my friends. I love the kids, I love their parents and aunt and uncle, but I sure was glad to see the last one heading up the driveway at week’s end. I wonder if I’ll feel the same in 2024 when Samuel and Uriah (“U.J.”) are in that age group now.

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