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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

We Help Grandma

A children’s book I used to love now just ticks me off.

The Country Bunny's children were remarkably adept at household chores.
Long before I had a family of my own, I loved The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. This 1939 children’s classic, written by DuBose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack, is now regarded as a feminist and anti-racist statement. I was a child before either of these were a concept, however. I’m sure I just liked the pictures.

The book tells the story of Cottontail, who is a small, fast brown rabbit who aspires to be an Easter Bunny. She applies, only to be scorned by the elite big white Easter bunnies, who tell her to “go back to the country and eat a carrot.”

One of my helpers, vacuuming.
She goes home and, “by and by she had a husband and then one day, much to her surprise there were twenty-one Cottontail babies to take care of.” (Her husband is noticeably absent in the baby bunnies’ lives.)

She teaches them to do all the gardening and housework, thereby freeing herself to pursue the brass ring of Easter Bunny-dom once more. Then, she goes back to the big city where she surprises Grandfather with her speed, gained by mothering. She aces the test and becomes one of the greatest Easter Bunnies of all time.

We Help Mommy featured kids working with their mother. It was much more realistic.
It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized how dismissive this book is of the work of mothering. It perpetuates the lie of my youth, that women can have it all. We can choose anything, but—like all mortals—are limited by time and energy.

Any mother can tell you that it’s more difficult to teach a kid to do chores than to do them yourself. Still, kids can do tasks and they can be managed. What they can’t do is run their lives unsupervised. Raising good children requires a high level of skill and talent, but also a lot of hard work.

More realistic were We Help Mommy and We Help Daddy, illustrated by Rochester, NY’s own Eloise Wilkin. First published in 1959 and 1962 respectively, they feature little Bobby and Martha helping their parents with various household chores. Kids love to help, but as Wilkin’s books make clear, they’re not able to do jobs without help.

Little Bobby and Martha also had a daddy, and he too was engaged in his kids' life.
This was the Golden Age of Little Golden Books, and Wilkin was their queen. Born in Rochester, she moved to New York City as a child, returning to attend the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology). In 1944, she signed a contract to produce three Golden Books per year. She illustrated 47 of these books over her long career.

I have two little helpers here this week. They’re my grandchildren. They’re reducing my productivity to zero, but I don’t mind. I’ve had a busy summer and this is my reward.

Parents (and grandparents) know that we give chores to babies not to clear our schedules, but to keep the kids busy while we do the dishes ourselves. Chores never hurt anyone, but it’s ridiculous to think that kids could manage a household themselves. Feminist and anti-racist the Country Bunny might be, but I’m never buying a copy for any grandchild of mine.

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