Back in the days when my becoming a mother seemed as improbable as my becoming a millionaire, I could conjure up only one image of myself in the maternal role: I'm sitting at a low white table. Beside me are two ringlet-topped cherubs straight out of a Victorian storybook. We share a pot of white paste and a pile of construction paper, and are cutting pictures out of magazines with blunt-edged scissors. It's very quiet. Flash-forward to reality. My two preschoolers and I never sit around cutting up magazines. Instead, I struggle to read them while Henry and Eleanor spill their watercolor water and argue over who peeled the paper wrapper off the pink crayon. I guiltily flip past articles that describe how children can transform Popsicle sticks into birdhouses, bandannas into portable checkerboards, felt scraps into family heirlooms. I glance over at my own kids, who are now diligently peeling the paper off every crayon.
You might say I lack the arts-and-crafts gene. My idea of providing creative stimulation for my children is springing for a 96-count box of Crayolas. That adorable clay sculpture perched on the windowsill? Made in preschool. The button-trimmed picture frame gracing the mantel? Ditto. No doubt all across America there are millions of clever parents who really do have felt scraps and glue guns lying around the house, who clamor for books with titles like 101 Enriching and Exciting Projects You and Your Children Can Attack on a Rainy Day. I, alas, am not one of them.
Rainy-day fun for my children ranges from crayons to watercolors and back to crayons. We watch Barney and his friends whipping up hats out of newspaper and rolling peanut butter-slathered pinecones in birdseed, and I pray Eleanor and Henry won't want to try it themselves.
My friend Nancy, on the other hand, brings plastic bags on hikes so her kids can collect leaves to later make into leaf rubbings and decoupage. Anne whips up heart-shaped soaps with her daughters that are pretty enough to give as gifts. (I know. I've gotten some -- and thought they came from some swank spa.) For Ellen, glitter and pipe cleaners are fun toys. She can get Henry and her son, Frank, to drop their weapons long enough to construct really cool snow globes with their pictures inside.
So can the mom of Henry's friend Hannah. Only yesterday I picked Henry up at her house. He eagerly showed off an impressive pair of binoculars rigged from toilet-paper tubes, tape, string, and wire, painted camouflage green. I did a double take, they looked so realistic. "Oh, we were just messing around," she said as she casually twirled a roll of duct tape, from which she was cutting off tiny pieces to help solder the kids' paper airplanes together. Oh, indeed.
Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth.
Not quite DIYIt's not just mother-and-child crafts that my kids are missing. Our house is void of most any kind of do-it-yourself project. No stenciled bunnies on our nursery walls or stepstools painted like watermelons. No candy-roofed gingerbread mansions at Christmas, no spider-shaped treats at Halloween. I applaud and marvel at such handmade concoctions, but I simply can't concoct them myself. When I try one, the result is an unsatisfying mess. Mostly, though, I have no interest in trying, or in thinking about trying.
Still, it nags at me. Buried somewhere in my ingrained definition of Good Motherhood is the belief that turning shriveled apples into dolls ranks right up there with being able to change a diaper in the dark. I wonder: Does a kid with a crafty mom have more fun than one born to an all-thumbs parent? Will he wind up more creative? More intelligent? Am I thwarting my own future Calder and O'Keeffe? Dwell too much, and my guilt grows longer than a construction-paper chain.
I also wonder what being artsy-deficient says about me. Probably that I'm too impatient to follow all ten steps involved in transforming seashells into magnets. That I'm too klutzy to sew on a button, let alone design sock puppets. That -- sigh, the deepest truth of the matter -- I'd rather sit down and read a magazine all by myself than join my child in dissecting it with blunt-edged scissors.
One afternoon I broke down and thumbed through one of those things-for-children-to-make-and-do books. Every project seemed to have too many instructions or require materials we didn't have on hand. Finally I settled on macaroni necklaces. No matter that we were out of macaroni; flush with creativity, I improvised. I spread newspaper on the kitchen table and turned the kids loose with paint and penne. And it was great fun -- for ten minutes. Then they'd had enough of creating colored pasta. The next day when the "jewels" were dry, I announced to Henry and Eleanor that they could string them together. Well, we had no string, so we used colored ribbon instead. (Inventive, yes?) That step lasted seven minutes. Then, "Can we go outside now?"
As I watched them play, I tried to conjure up projects from my own childhood. I remembered inventing pot-holder patterns on my metal loom. My Barbies drove shoe boxes and sat on wooden spools decorated with bits of fabric from my grandmother's scrap box. And every week for two years, my sister and I published our own newspaper, The Thursday Journal. Typical headline: "Squirrel Disrupts 11 O'clock Mass!" Then it struck me. Few of my artistic endeavors had involved my mother. She didn't initiate them, nor even suggest them. Still, I had fun, and her lack of involvement in no way tarnished how I felt about her.
Love, of course, doesn't come in a paste pot. Good for my glue-gun toting friends, but I no longer feel compelled to compete. I'm just not the art-table type. Like my own mom, I can find lots of other ways to give my cherubs attention. In a rainy-day pinch, though, I sure can color a terrific 96-hue rainbow.