I have a friend who moved to back to Memphis a decade ago, after many years away. She rented a house instead of buying, unsure of how long she might stay. The neighborhood she choose was a “good” neighborhood by neighborhood standards, meaning it was relatively stable, a combination of starter homes and rentals that were occupied mostly by people connected in some way with nearby schools and large businesses.
Yes, I’m being intentionally vague; this isn’t entirely my story to tell, so I’m being careful. Yes, I understand the weight of “good” neighborhood; that’s part of this story.
In the house next door to my friend’s house there was a family: two parents, two children, a boy and a girl who were, respectively, late elementary and early middle school ages at the time. One late afternoon, when my friend was sitting on her front porch, the girl walked over to ask if my friend had a sheet of paper. She was doing her homework, the girl, and they’d run out of paper, and her parents weren’t home and wouldn’t be home any time soon.
Over the following weeks there were similar afternoon encounters, for more paper, a pencil sharpener, a snack. The little brother started coming over too, and the children stayed with my friend on the porch, doing homework and talking.
The parents both worked. The mother, who took the children to school in the mornings, worked a day job at a restaurant and a night job at a hospital. The father, who brought the children home from school in the afternoons, worked three jobs, each with varying hours. He was usually home on Sundays, but not always.
My friend learned of the parents’ work schedules after the girl asked for help getting organized with her school work. She was falling behind in a couple of subjects because she was tired, and she was tired because her brother got scared at night when it was just the two of them at home while their parents were at work. So the girl stayed up until her mother got home around 2 or 3 a.m. so the boy would go to bed.
I’ll note that this story happened long enough ago that there’s no point writing a comment about involving child protective services. These children are both well over 18 now, but even if they weren’t, there isn’t a law in Tennessee that sets an age requirement for children to be home alone without parental supervision.
(Yes; you read that correctly.)
Understand, though, that this story wasn’t then and isn’t an unusual story, even if the pandemic has reshaped some of the landscape. The parents were working around the clock to pay the rent to live in a “good” neighborhood, with access to “good” schools so their children could have a chance at doing better, even if they children had to be home, most of the time, without parents around.
I’ll add a detail now that will likely shape your feelings about this story, even if you want to believe it won’t: My friend is Black. She thought long and hard about what neighborhood she chose to live in when she moved back to Memphis, because she had grown up here and knew Memphis was, and still is, complicated when it comes to race, neighborhoods, housing, neighbors, parenting, and safety.
Note here that if we were going to oversimplify and categorize in binary fashion, then this story of my friend and the children next door would be one of the “good” stories of all the stories that could be written or told about the realities of many working parents, especially parents who work hourly jobs.
Does that, perhaps, make it easier to understand why working parents might ditch the $15/hour dishwashing gigs to stay home and try making money on Only Fans? (NOTE: that link goes to a business newsletter article and is perfectly fine for clicking from a work computer, in case you’re worried about the Only Fans reference.)
While the conversation about paid parental leave during infancy and early childhood care subsidies for preschoolers is an important one, it’s just one piece of a ridiculously complicated parenting puzzle. And there’s no single, comprehensive solution.
One thought (and this might be expected, from previous posts) would be to work harder at changing the conversation about parenting — not about children, but about parenting, about what parents need in order to care for their children, about what workplaces can do better to support the needs of parents and children.
What if we took the words from the child advocacy center’s sign (“Child safety is an adult responsibility.”) and moved the idea upstream, stripped it of judgment, and instead of talking about “bad” or “good” parents, just talked first (and more honestly) about parents and parenting, taking the thought to heart before children were in danger.
What if we got more curious and asked the people we see regularly in our daily lives how their families are doing?
Here’s an overly simple, easy example:
One of the baristas at a coffee shop I frequent (though less frequently over the past year) has four children, the oldest of whom turned 16 in the middle of the pandemic. I asked her about her kids one day, maybe a year ago, and she gave me a general update and said something about how she was going to need to figure out how to buy a car for the oldest, who would soon be able to drive the younger ones around, and wouldn’t that be such a big help for her.
A few weeks later I asked if the 16-year-old had passed the driver’s test. “Yes!” the woman said. “And do you know what? Someone else asked me about my kids right after you did, and I told the same story about needing a car, and they were selling one, and I bought it. How about that!”
If we ask people what’s going on in their lives, sometimes they will tell us. And sometimes we can actually help. In my personal experience, people who have children are both more likely to tell and more likely to ask for what they need.
It’s a start.
More on this general theme to come.
Huzzah! You made it this far. Recipes follow, as promised.
See you tomorrow. (It’s just before midnight; I’m sure there are typos. All will be well.)
This morning the thermostat in my kitchen read 64 degrees. Bbrrrr! (See: Here’s Why a 50-degree Day Feels Colder in Fall Than in Spring). If you are getting accustomed to the lower temperatures and thinking about things that warm you up, then perhaps it’s the perfect time for some hearty stew for dinner.
Any of these stews would pair well with a simple green salad and some good bread.
I love to cook: If you have the time, try Jacques Pépin’s beef stew (wisdom from the comments: boil the stew, uncovered, on the stovetop long enough for the alcohol to evaporate before covering and placing in the oven). For a vegetarian (could easily be vegan) version, how about a stew of giant lima beans (the Rancho Gordo beans are always worth trying to find, or ordering online).
I’m pressed for time: This relatively quick version of green chile pork stew (45 minutes) is good – and even better the next day wrapped up in a burrito. Another option might be Martha Stewart’s wine-braised chicken, which takes more time than a weeknight might allow, but it’s easy prep (and you can easily use a good spoonful of Herbes de Provence instead of tying a fresh bouquet garni).
I’m not really a cook, but I want to play like I could be: Have an Instant Pot? This spaghetti is foolproof, warm, and delicious. No Instant Pot? No problem: Make some couscous, and while it’s steaming, shred a rotisserie chicken (the go-to miracle dinner). Brown some butter (more than you think you’ll want) in a skillet, toss the chicken to coat; spoon the chicken and brown butter over the couscous to serve, stirring in a generous amount of chopped parsley or cilantro (or a mix of the two) on top. It’s not stew, but it’s warm and tasty.
It’s all about paying attention, isn’t it? Truly thinking about what the other (neighbor, barista…) might be going through and connecting in even a small way, because you never know when you might make a difference. I’m sure those children will always remember your friend and I hope she knows the impact she had on them.
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Yes, at heart it is all about paying attention. And the busyness of life can easily get in the way of doing that.
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