March 10, 2010

NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action

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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 that I had naively accepted. 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 parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How absurd we were in so many ways. But we were so cto combatting sexist stereotypes.
Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. With one exception, our playgroup child was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the only one from a large family. 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 in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.
None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise 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.
Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. 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 every day, Michelle developed 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 probably possibly could not have existed in the two other places I raised children--Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents.
The Chelsea playgroup 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.

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