I know clever

It can be exhausting to the average mom


Kristen Carson


Essays from moms I miss Dr. Laura. I’ve moved to another state where Dr. Laura seems to be persona non grata on the local radio stations.

So I visited her Web site recently to find out what her fans are talking about. The big topic was SAHMs. That’s stay-at-home moms, for you non-Dr.-Laura-Schlessinger fans.

Ah, yes. I remember her book on the subject, Parenthood by Proxy: Don’t Have Them If You Won’t Raise Them. In it, she calls motherhood a hands-on job. Putting kids in daycare while both parents work doesn’t cut it, she says.

Critics say that it takes two incomes to survive these days. But, Dr. Laura retorts, she gets stacks of letters and e-mails from families who survive with mom at home. She praises the “clever” ways they accomplish this.

I know “clever.” As long as potatoes have grown in the ground, moms have used “clever” to keep their families solvent. And while I believe that mothers should be on hand to dole out the Play-Doh, peanut butter and plain talk, what I have seen of “clever” tempts me to renounce those principles.

‘No time’ clever

One kind of clever is when moms and dads work separate shifts, covering for one another on the childcare front. Dr. Laura has done it. I have friends who do it.

Every morning when the mom pulls on her hose and heads for the freeway, the dad puts the kids on the school bus, then crawls into bed after a long night at the factory. It works out, in the Dr. Laura sense. Whenever the kids are home, there’s a mom or a dad on hand.

But when does mom see dad? When do they lock eyes and clasp hands under the dinner table? Well, maybe not that, but even working couples, after an evening of packing T-ball helmets into the Bronco, tossing chicken nuggets into the microwave and lifting children into the tub, sometimes manage to fall back on the same sofa and doze beside each other.

But when their evening quiets down, the dad half of the clever couple will have to pack his lunch pail and look for his coat while mom sets her alarm for an early wake-up. It’s like having a friend in Bangkok—when do you call somebody 82 time zones away?

I’d get tired of that kind of clever real fast. I’d put everybody on a daylight schedule, quit my job and promise myself we’d get by on thrift. Clipping coupons. Never buying what isn’t on sale. Saving oatmeal canisters to make into Christmas gifts.

It’s called tightwadding. It became chic not long ago, bringing Depression-era habits to a generation that thinks depression is treated by Prozac. One of its early purveyors was Amy Dacyczyn, a Maine woman raising six children in a roomy farmhouse she nabbed for a clever price. All solely on her husband’s income.

Dacyczyn claimed, in her now-defunct newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette, that if she saw apple juice for $XX, she walked on by. Why pay $XX when she knew she could get it for $XO elsewhere?

Even I can track the ups and downs of the apple juice market. The trouble is that apple juice is only one of 58 items on a typical grocery list. A brain that knows all the prices in town will have no room to remember how to operate the phone or the right temperature for washing new T-shirts.

‘Spare time’ clever

Then there’s the clever that involves making money in my spare time.

My mother tried it a dozen different ways. Once she sold lingerie. Another time it was wheat grinders.

Then there were the sugar eggs. Just before Easter, she dyed sugar pink, purple and green, packed it into half-shell molds and glued the pieces together with frosting. Through a porthole in the finished product, you could view a whimsical chick-and-bunny scene inside.

There were just a few problems. Colors faded. Sugar eggs, more fragile than the real thing, broke during transport. Was it worth it? Not by commonly accepted accounting rules.

Clever women go through a lot of these schemes, none of which lasts longer than a 30-pound weight loss. That’s because they soon find the jobs are: A) work no one wants to do, B) done at times no one wants to work, or C) goods no one wants.

I can’t help wondering if, long ago, after watching their mothers pant through the pains of cleverness, young girls saw real jobs as an escape. The world of manila folders and dry-clean-only clothes looked a lot calmer than the world of U-pick apples.

The trouble with real jobs is they demand a new kind of clever. You no longer have to scrape together the money to live. You just have to scrape together the time.

Anybody clipped coupons for that lately? 

Kristen Carson, who recently moved from Crystal Lake, now lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three of her four children. 


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