You Are NOT my Mother

I must first confess that I find picture books, of the sort foisted on kids in their earliest years, inherently creepy. The concepts are boiled to the sort of level where they raise more questions than they answer.

Of these books - rivaling with the seriously disturbing Animal Kisses - possibly the creepiest is "Are you my mother?" where some exceedingly stupid little animal (is it a duck?) goes from unlikely creature to unlikely creature and asks "Are you my mother?" When forced to read picture books to the boys (being young gentlemen of taste, they preferred Ray Bradbury, even at six months of age) I used to insert my own commentary into the performance, including but not limited to, "Oh, for heavens sake, we're not even in the same Phylum." (Okay, there were wittier comments, but my husband forbade me from saying anything even vaguely related to sexual innuendo or that implied/asserted these characters were on various drugs.)

The sheer stupidity of this defenseless small creature going around to carnivores who could devour it in a single bite asking if this might be his mother seemed to betray something wrong with the author of the book.

Little did I know this was considered a blueprint for society.

I was going along in the blissful belief that while our government has got bloated and overstretched and sticks its nose into everything it possibly can, at least in our every day contacts in society we were ... well, normal people. Normal people who are NOT the old ladies in the village where I grew up. In fact, ever since leaving the village I have stayed as far away as possible from the kind of small community that might encourage neighborhood busybodies.

I find it very amusing that a certain type of mind romanticizes villages and the "closeness" therein, because to me - a mildly strange young person of artistic disposition - this translated into having busybodies creating the most interesting rumors about me and/or telling my mom their interpretation of things I'd done.

Little did I know that this sort of mind had now taken charge of our society.

What do I mean by that? Oh... Let me tell it as a tale. It was Friday afternoon. My husband had just got home from work and my younger son - the only one at home, this summer - came into the my office to tweak my husband and I about something or other. Don't remember what, but it might have been the music I was listening to at the time - no, don't ask. Current novel demands eighties dance tunes. - Kid is sprawled in my research chair, laughing. My husband is leaning against the door. I'm at my desk, and we're in three-way banter. I LIVE for these moments. Even the kid's eyes are laughing.

And then we get a phone call.

From the local... ice cream parlor? From this unlikely location, a teacher at the school my son attended last year - but where he won't be next year. Not, not because of this -- is calling to inform us a student who was with my son in some classes last year thinks my son is suicidal. We're utterly puzzled by this. Son gets up and goes "Oh, for heaven's sake *Name*. He's so THICK. I'll deal with it." The teacher goes on to PRISSILY inform us it's her LEGAL obligation to call us, when a student tells her this. (I'm fairly sure this is wrong. Or at least I hope so. Please tell me Colorado hasn't gone off the deep end to the point of empowering teachers to bug me during summer vacation? I mean, during school, it might very well be her obligation, though even that I'd consider pushing it.)

My husband gets rid of the busy- old bid- uh... teacher Grundy as best he can, while I go to look at the boy's Facebook account, which occasioned this call. My son, apparently unaware that he's living under a microscope, has been posting... Jazz lyrics. He loves Jazz, he finds the lyrics funny/interesting, and he'd posted some depressive ones with "this makes no sense at all." And THIS is enough for us to get a call from someone who hasn't seen the kid in a month and a half and who hasn't read the kid's page, but who was told by another teen that he had posted something that MIGHT be suicidal.

This bothered me. It bothered me because number two son is at least as "odd" - outlier is the polite term - as I was at his age. In fact, he could be considered a male updating of my own adolescence, except he's much, much better behaved. (How was I? Well... black work boots, black jeans, black t-shirts. You get the picture. People routinely offered to sell me guns in the train station.) I fancied myself just as much of a tortured being... No, far more of a tortured being than he does. All an attempt to be interesting, of course, because I suspected I wasn't.

The best reaction any teacher ever had to my writing a suicidal poem on the blackboard before class was to correct my meter. Taught me two things - that my meter was wrong and that I was a self-important ass. Though correcting the second took several more years and I still occasionally have relapses. When I think of all the other things I did in the silly season of my life - say between 12 and 25 - and I think of the society we live in today, I don't think I would survive now. They would have me medicated, intervened, observed or whatever till I really wanted to kill myself just to escape them.

I had to friend the kid on facebook and actually look at his page periodically to make sure he's not giving Mrs. Grundy the wrong idea, because - what's next? They'll decide he's abused? They'll decide he needs psychological intervention? What?

Maybe I'm more an outlier than I thought, but I don't believe so. I believe most teenagers go through a period of self-dramatization which often includes faking depression or at least deep thoughts and world-weariness. Yes, I do understand some children are truly depressed. Yes, I understand unlike my family, most households have two parents who work outside the house and not a parent who works at a real job and one who works AROUND the house, toting laptop and complaining about people who don't exist. Yes, I do understand that a life could be saved by this type of phone call.

However, I'll hazard a guess that in 99.9% of the cases - particularly cases like this, where the teacher was going on the word of an excitable, probably self-dramatizing, possibly low-reading-comprehension teenager - this is all nonsense. At best you bother a family going about its lawful occasions and annoy the mother who is - I grant you - by nature somewhat excitable. At worst you bother parents who do work outside the home and have no idea of their kid's mental state and worry them into sending the kid to a psychologist for being... a teenager.

In fact, I'll also hazard you're potentially endangering as many lives as you're saving. Do you remember being a teen? I do. You often think you're depressed but you're not sure. Being able to talk to friends or a group of friends or even to act out in a social medium like face book, is very often enough to get rid of morbid thoughts that, were they allowed to fester, could turn into suicide.

But if as a teen you suspect your buddy, your face book friends, your teacher, are all finks ready to turn you in to the authorities for insufficient happiness, which will then become a mark on your record, you will not talk.

The problem as I see it is that the soft paws of a "caring society" a lot of it either aided and abetted by intrusive social structures (Someone please tell me that teacher Grundy only imagines it to be her duty to report on teen gossip!) which empowers the inevitable percentage of little napoleons in the population, is trying to take on the functions of the family.

A properly functioning family is a pain in the behind. They ask you questions you'd rather not answer. They poke the insufficiently healed scabs of incidents you'd rather not recall. They make you clean your room and take medicine even if you don't want to. They also - if the family is properly functioning - know you better than anyone else and can use humor to cajole you and turn the situation around.

Society at large isn't your family. It is grossly unsuited to take on the duties of a family. It doesn't know you, not to that level. It thinks Jazz lyrics are a suicide note, even if you preface it with a mocking comment. It thinks reading or writing horror/vampires/science fiction/elves makes you a strange, dangerous being.

It seems to me we've got the public and private sphere all confused and tangled up. It seems to me we're trying to use the intrusive power of institutions and the more or less forced "compassion" of strangers to do what moms and dads should do.

What? After depriving these kids of climbing structures, of teeter totters, of the ability to go exploring in caves or just walking after dark around the neighborhood (any parent allowing their kid to do half the things in Tom Sawyer would be liable to prosecution under child neglect laws), we're depriving them even of dangers in their own minds? We're depriving them of the opportunity to try on depression? Doomed passion? Suicidal thoughts?

If we don't let them stretch their emotional and psychological muscles, what do we expect them to become? Oatmeal-neutral citizens, going through life with a smiley face plastered on their features? Or infantile children of the mother-society who continuously walks behind them to make sure they don't stumble?

Dear Mrs. Grundy, stop it. Just stop it. I am my kids' mother and I'm adult enough to take responsibility for looking after them. And if I fail it will be tragic but no one else's fault. Society at large has no skin in this game. Don't give me "we all feel it" or "we are all connected" or "every child is precious" or some such nonsense. You do not feel it. You don't know this kid. You do not know me.

Forget what you've seen on Oprah and Doctor Phil and whatever other "caring" show is on right now. We're not all decanted from some mold in the same factory. Some of us are born weird if "weird" is defined as not fitting the majority. Weird does not mean non functional. A healthy society needs outliers. We are the ones who think outside the box.

We reserve the right to be weird. Leave me and the other outliers alone. I'm not a myopic duckling. And you are NOT my mother.

posted by Sarah on 06.29.10 at 08:19 AM


Alas, you're preaching to the choir here. The Biddy-teacher received no negative feedback, and is therefore encouraged to (more precisely, not discouraged from) repeating the officiousness. Feedback, not only directly to the teacher, but to the principal, would be appropriate.

Let us know how it goes. I also was an "outlier", who had great parents and good teachers.

CBI   ·  June 29, 2010 9:47 AM

Move to a town with strong citizen input into things like school budgeting. It's amazing how considerate the education bureaucracy becomes when they depend on you for their salaries.

Trimegistus   ·  June 29, 2010 10:19 AM

Call Ms Grundy's principal and tell the principal that you fear that Ms. Grundy is suicidal. Explain that she called you claiming that your son -- who is happily adjusted -- might possibly be suicidal. After examining the "evidence" produced by Ms. Grundy you have concluded that it is so innocent that it seems to you that she might be projecting her own suicidal tendencies into your son.

Explain you are only doing this because of your sincere concern for Ms. Grundy's mental health and that you *simply* could not forgive yourself if you ignored her obvious symptoms and she later killed herself. Sound sincere and convincing. You are an author. You should be able to script a plausible scenario.

If you are lucky she will never call you again because she doesn't want the hassle that ensues -- or more meanly -- that she hopes you son really kills himself this time just to show you th error of your ways. Either way you win.

Mark L   ·  June 29, 2010 10:50 AM

I couldn't agree more. So, in fact, it DOESN'T take a village to raise a child just good parents.

By good parents I mean loving (not doting heliucopter nanny-state-like parents) who are willing to teach right from wrong, and more importantly, to allow their children to succeed and fail on their own in tasks that will not irreperably harm them.

T   ·  June 29, 2010 11:12 AM

I had a yellow polyester suit once. Matching color shirt, matching color tie. Black shoes, block socks.

But that was when I was working for a living.

My mate says she wishes she had taken a picture.

M. Simon   ·  June 29, 2010 12:36 PM

I lived in Canon city Colorado, which for me was a small town(village?) and the biddies were everywhere, half the reason we moved.
It takes a village to raise an idiot as long as the busy bodies are in charge.
hope your Colorado experience was better than mine (beautiful country though)

bobnormal   ·  June 29, 2010 2:29 PM

M Simon - I too wish your wife had taken a picture.

Another facet of this coin is that when parents actually are faced with a depressed or suicidal teenager, the 'village' again lets them down by investigating and/or shunning the entire family and making life even more difficult.

But don't think this mindset can be avoided by moving to a large city. That's where you'll find that being a busybody has a become a profession called "social work".

Donna B.   ·  June 29, 2010 7:12 PM


This kid WAS depressed in sixth grade. It was induced by bullying at school and the school responded by... blaming him. For not being "well adjusted." You see, he was being bullied by girls, some of which were children of the staff.

M. Simon -- I wish you had a picture. :)

Sarah   ·  June 29, 2010 7:29 PM

The teacher goes on to PRISSILY inform us it's her LEGAL obligation to call us, when a student tells her this. (I'm fairly sure this is wrong. ...)

From my experience as a former teacher in another state, I wouldn't bet on the teacher not being legally obligated.

There is a busybody tendency in a lot of educators these days. There was a recent NYT article about educators discouraging students having “best friends,” which to me is a clear example of educators sticking their noses where they have no business doing so.

In the last 30+ years, concurrent with much fewer children being raised in two-parent households, schools have taken on many tasks which were formerly allocated to the parents. An example is the number of schools that serve breakfast to students. For the most part, this tendency is not a case of schools taking over what parents are doing, but filling up a void that parents have abandoned. With the much lower prevalence of two-parent families than before, teachers find it more difficult to get parents to deal with poor behavior in the classroom. So, the teacher takes on more responsibility. One can say the same thing about student performance. Teachers today assume more responsibility relative to parents regarding student performance than previously, a position which is often backed up by law, as in test performance.

Gringo   ·  June 29, 2010 7:30 PM

The real question is why send a child you love to a gov school?

dr kill   ·  June 29, 2010 7:58 PM

Dr. Kill

The taxes we pay are too high to allow us any other option. Yes, that does include homeschooling. I homeschooled for a year while having six books under contract. The kid learned a lot. The books got written. It almost killed me.

Contrary to rumor, most novelists are not paid a great amount. And we do pay self-employment taxes and both sides of social security.

Sarah   ·  June 29, 2010 10:32 PM

Sarah, what a great post! I agree with you wholeheartedly, of course, and nothing could make me happier than to see such thoughts expressed here so eloquently and compassionately.

Yes, compassionately. In the name of "compascism," our rulers forget that compassion also includes leaving people alone. Almost makes me want to write a related post!


Eric Scheie   ·  June 30, 2010 10:43 AM

It's also astonishing how teachers seem to have time to bug harmless college-educated fantasy-writer parents, but never quite get around to the parents with the genuinely psycho kids.

Almost as if she knows who's going to react with a little good-natured grumbling, and who might actually come around to her house and break windows.

Trimegistus   ·  July 1, 2010 10:07 AM

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