February 8, 2009

NYC, 1975, Nonsexist Childrearing



My oldest daughter Anne belonged to a Chelsea playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later. I thought you might be amused by mothering, Manhattan style, 1974. How absurd we were in so many ways.

Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village.. With one exception, our child in playgroup was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the one with the most siblings. We all were college educated, with serious careers before we had children. There was an editor of psychiatric books, a writer, a teacher, an artist, an art therapist, two social workers, one vocational counselor, two psychology graduate students, and and a psychiatric nurse.

Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work during the life of the playgroup."

Few of us had friends who were raising young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.

Many mother who weren't on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren't playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children's personalities. Six of the 10 core members are now mental health professionals. Remarkably, none of our children are currently in jails, mental hospitals, or rehab centers.

We were an extremely self-conscious group. The simplest decision was carefully scrutinized for its optimal effect on our children's intellectual and emotional development. The latest child development books and theories were eagerly shared and discussed. Husbands' participating in child care and housework was the norm. One couple was not married, and no one made anything of it. Everyone eagerly welcomed fathers' participation.

No one wanted to push early academics on our kids. Creativity and exploration were the predominant values. No child was ever pressured to participate in any activity. If he didn't want to draw, paste, paint, sing, snack, his autonomy was respected. We had reasonable expectations about toddlers' capacity to share. A great deal of mess was tolerated, and children were not pressured to clean up. "No" was a word seldom heard--from the adults.

We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960's. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Anne saying, "I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?" At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children's questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds, Michelle develop prodigious social skills.

Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others turn turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.

Such a playgroup could not possibly have existed in the two other places I raised children--Bangor, Maine, and Baldwin, Long Island. It could not exist now in Manhattan. It was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children's unique personalities.

What an interesting peek into a specific time, place and social context! I would have loved to have heard even more about how it felt to you, and also if your children reflect back on it in any way now and how it affected them?
I will write more on your question at length. My oldest daughter and I would gladly send her 21 month old to such a playgroup a few days a week, but none seem to exist. Parents, not nannies and babysitters, are the backbones of playgroups. I have even had trouble arranging playdates with children cared for by nannies. Their employers who don't know me seem uncomfortable with the idea. Lots of toddlers are in daycare.

The apartment complex has a wonderful playroom for children under 5 that serves some of the same functions as playgroup, but much less formally. Michael and I have used it frequently in the winter.

My five month old granddaughter attends an excellent day care center a block from my daughter's office, which makes nursing much easier. The baby commutes with my daughter, so that is less separation as well. I think onsite daycare is an excellent idea.

I am sad what my daughters are missing.
My much beloved , professor daughter in-law is the product of such a philosophical upbringing , albeit from small town, woodsy Northern California, and as her first and probably only child is about to be born, (a daughter) the edict has been issued that there are to be "NO pink clothes, etc." I seriously thought all was in vain as I looked in store after store and tired of all the yellow and mint green polka dots and duckies...at last I found a avant garde site with yes! mini-Mom styles for babies..the ubiquitous charcoal grey and black hoodies and tees and leggings...the little female will still scream "girl" from her clothing but will have a hip New York accent!
I have plans for the sabotage gift of an American Girl "Bitty Baby" doll , complete with layette , possibly even the stroller if I can swing a bank loan, for my grandchild's third birthday...just let them try to pry it out of her delirious with joy hands! HA!
Baby boys and girls look great in red. Try to buy a baby something red without a sports logo. When I walk into a toy store or baby clothing department, I feel sick to my stomach.

By about two girls start to make their clothing decisions anyway. One of the wisest decisions I made as a mother was to let them. My only clothing rule was no long dresses and patent leather shows on the climbing structure in the sandbox playground. My first insisted on wearing several different outfits at once. My third daughter wore purple for three years, indulged by her single aunts. My second wore frilly dresses for 5 years, getting a constant supply from a friend who never wore the dresses her grandma hopefully bought. She started to wear pants the day her sister received her First Communion and then never wore dresses for five years.
I might have wished for a sign: "I take no responsibility for these clothing decisions."

My shopping trips for teen clothes consisted of an comfortable corner, a good book, a spending limit, and admiration of the outfits selected. I felt smug as I watched all the mother/daughter fights.

They have all such good taste that I wouldn't dare buy clothes for them as gifts, but love the clothes they buy me.
Scared Grandma, I got my grandson a doll and a tea set for Christmas, a wonderful environmentally correct tea set. The tea set is his and his friend's favorite present. Getting a tea set for a girl would have been harder for me, but I would be absurd.
Mary...I know your article was about the era in which we raised our children..the seventies.. and urban child care cooperatives, etc. but this thing about "no pink" has been a preoccupation of mine recently....sorry.... it seems so prissy in its own right all the time not wanting a prissy "look" for a child...don't think I am making myself clear .....I think an avant garde trend would actually be some gender specific clothing and toys...but this couple seems to be following what was taught in college child development classes of the 60's... ( the maternal grandmother "field") so in that respect they are in truth "traditionalists" ...I think the demise of the "play groups" has to do with the mothers having full time jobs/careers, of course , there seems to be more hand on interaction from the fathers of these new little ones though and that's a good development!
I raised a child in Manhattan, too. Different experience from yours but equally rewarding. And I solved the stay-at-home issue by freelance writing from a home office. I'm afraid I really did say, "Go watch Sesame Street. Mommy is writing."
Scared Grandma,

I just don't like pastels of any shade; pale blue, green, and yellow are equally objectionable. . I have absolutely no pastels or prints in my wardrobe. I like deeper pink shades, but most baby girl dresses are pastels. Research shows babies love bright colors. Avante garde would be putting babies in bright primary colors, which are not sex-specific at all. Look at the range of men's polo shirts.

People's favorite colors have always fascinated me. Red has been my favorite color all my life. People wear red so infrequently in NYC that I am beginning to think red wearers are a secret cell. I always talk to children wearing red to congratulate them on their excellent taste and encourage them to stick to it.

Demise of play groups has everything to do with mothers and fathers working full-time. It is great that fathers are involved, but that was equally true, at least in NYC, when my children were little. What was different was that no one worked such long hours

I did free-lance editing the first three years of mothering. Yours is the perfect solution.

4 PM was always my low point. I claimed that Sesame Street being on at 4 was proof of the existence of God. We all liked Mr. Rogers even better.
One reason I KNOW my son will be a super "daddy"...he played with his older sister's cast off dolls and doll carriage, pushing the thing around our home on rainy days when he had to be indoors, calling them "my boys" and himself "the Daddy"...he also had a teddy bear with clothing my mother sewed up for him to dress and undress his little "son" as he referred to the bear and learn to button and zip and manage clothing at the same time...he always played with the tea set of his sister just as my brothers did in the fifties..one of my favorite toys was my Dale Evans two pistol holster set and matching white cowgirl hat!... yet I am so afraid of guns that I have never allowed a real one in my home ever! ....we put way too much of our own sociological stances and postures into child's play, I know I could do that at least. I think we should probably just let them have access to all kinds of things and have fun! I should add that I would also gladly take out a "bank loan" for a microscope for my grand-daughter when she is the right age and shows interest! Thanks for getting me thinking about this...rated
Scared grandma,

I need to apologize. I just looked at your bio and learned you are the grandma of four. I should not presume to impose my paltry 21 months of grandmothering on you. Since you referred to your daughter, I assumed you were a new grandmother. I have only been the grandmother of a girl for 5 months and 7 weeks. Sensibly the girls wear what people gave them as gifts, just as their mothers did.

When my kids were young, their aunts were supremely generous, and hand-me-downs were endless, I actually never bought clothes except underwear, sleepwear, socks and shoes for about four years.
"Proof of the existence of God" AMEN! You brought a sudden flood of a memory of me in my kitchen in 1975-79 sitting down to a cup of tea as the Sesame Street song floated down the hallway...what bliss, what solace! thanks again! I laughed out loud!
It sounds like a wonderful experience. I wish there were something equivalent now, but I don't know of anything.

In regards to the pink issue ... I swore my child would not be in pink often or at all. But, I got so many free clothes for that first year that I didn't buy her any clothes on my own (I didn't have to!) until she was 10 months old. Free triumphed over pink, I'm sad to say.

My friends and I have laughed in bemusement on the topic of the clothing line by Target that has little words in tiny print on the girls' clothes. "Sweet" and "Little Darling" and things like that. Bizarre.
I put my kids in anything they got. I am only talking about buying clothes, which i mostly escaped doing. Yay aunts. They didn't have to wear all the hand-me-downs. I vividly remember the dress girl wearing a lovely pink and white gingham check to the playground. It was only when she was six feet up on the climbing structure that I realized that she had decided her dress did not require underwear.
i love the very clear sense of group, of time....makes me wish i had that experience. makes me wish i could remember anything that seemed as charmed.

but am curious why this could not have existed in long island. bangor i could imagine in terms of sheer lack of population density. but long island? do tell.

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