By Elisabeth De Vos
I am teetering on the edge of the Abyss of Maternal Guilt. My extroverted, twenty-one-month-old daughter is repeating her daily litany: “Grammy. Grammy come soon? Want Grammy come see Mari. Jenni. Jenni come soon? Want Jenni come see Mari.” Her list includes all our family and friends, the ones she hears me talking to via speakerphone while she scribbles on recycled paper with beeswax crayons—but who she sees only on rare visits.
Her social isolation is the result of various realities my husband Steve and I must deal with, including, but not limited to, living a continent away from most of our extended family and a minimum of forty-five minutes away from that precious resource, friends with same-age offspring.
However, distant relatives and relative distance don’t matter when your daughter is using the W word: want. I am her mother. Since her conception, the sole purpose of my existence has been to meet her needs. Mari wants social interaction. Mari is not getting it. Therefore, I must remedy this situation or plunge into maternal guilt.
I am cowering at the brink of the blackness when I have an idea. There is, a mere five blocks from our home, a small strip mall containing a natural pet-care store we used to frequent. I remember sitting in the car while Steve loaded our trunk with forty-pound bags of chemical-free dog chow made from people-quality ingredients and watching moms with young children in tow entering and exiting an adjacent business. Equally significant, those moms were removing their shoes upon arrival. And the name of the place frequented by these shoe-removing moms was Kindermusik.
This memory lights up in my mind, a beacon of hope at the edge of the abyss. A Kindermusik class would provide social interaction for Mari. It would enable us to meet friends with same-age offspring who live nearby. It would give me a chance to work on taking my daughter in the car without her dad accompanying us to serve as Toucher of All Things Unclean, including the steering wheel.
Later that day, I balance my daughter on my hip with one hand while manipulating my computer’s mouse with the other. There it is—Kindermusik International’s website. Mari’s tolerance for being in my office (where, despite the reassuring presence of my medical-grade air purifier, I won’t let her touch anything because of the flame-retardant-contaminated dust emitted from my laptop) is very short. I have just enough time to glance over the website and get the phone number for the school in our neighborhood before her patience expires.
But I am elated. It appears, from my brief perusal, that Kindermusik originated in the 1960s in Germany. This bodes well. The 1960s produced my husband, me, and the values that we adhere to. Germany, we’ve learned since becoming parents, seems to be about the only country producing toys, clothing, educational philosophies, and floor finishes that are consistent with those values.
We are eco-conscious global citizens. Reducing, reusing, and recycling, television-less, back-to-basics and back-to-nature eco-conscious global citizens who try, through our personal and purchasing choices, to bring about what Steve has dubbed The Organic Future: a world where people live in harmony with nature and each other. Hence, our enthusiasm for all-natural pet food, air purification, and European enlightenment.
All of this, of course, puts us on the distant left shore of mainstream America and its raging torrent of trendy consumer products and programs, including kiddie enrichment curriculum. So despite Kindermusik’s pedigree, despite the fact that encouraging words like “joyful,” “natural” and “multicultural” leapt out at me from the website, I harbor some doubt as to whether it will be right for our child. Because in addition to those happy-hippie words, there were an awful lot of little trademark symbols. Whisking Mari out of my office and into the bathroom where I can wash any toxic dust off my hands, I decide I’m not going to let those â„¢s rain on my idealism parade. Not yet.
I call the Kindermusik in our neighborhood. I have some questions, and am hopeful that the answers will confirm that yes, my daughter soon will be basking in joyful, natural social interaction set to a multicultural music soundtrack. The owner is pleasant. She is helpful. I learn that we are welcome to attend a free trial class prior to registering for the next term.
I ask her about the shoe removal. Oh yes, she assures me, they do their best to keep the carpet clean for the kids. Green light. Is it vacuumed regularly? Indeed, she answers. And it’s new, as well. Oops, yellow light.
How new? Installed last spring, which is now three seasons back. I sigh, relieved. The owner is confused by my reaction, so I explain that strong chemical odors can trigger migraines for me, but the carpet should have finished the worst of its off-gassing by now. (I forego the opportunity to enlighten her about the evils of conventional wall-to-wall, knowing from long experience that she’ll be far more sympathetic to my moderate chemical sensitivities than to my extreme environmental sensibilities.) Green light again.
On to the issue of germs. I am again relieved when she readily launches into a description of their infection-control measures: instruments wiped off between classes, instruments that get inserted into mouths (whether intended for that purpose or not) set aside for special cleaning, “gallons” of hand sanitizer available at all times and parents encouraged to use it, as well as free disinfectant wipes. Green light, even though her sanitizer and disinfectants are probably not environmentally friendly.
What about the ceiling, I ask. This one stumps her. I explain that I am familiar with the pet-care store next door, and that the strip mall her school inhabits is obviously older and has a textured “popcorn” ceiling, which can contain asbestos. Does she disturb that ceiling? Does she, like the pet-care place that only my husband enters, hang decorations from it? She sounds perplexed, but assures me the ceiling is left alone.
And the paint? Is it in good condition? Yes, and bright red. Green light, green light.
I get off the phone. The Abyss of Maternal Guilt is receding into the distance as my daughter and I zoom toward the Musical Garden of Extrovert Delights. The natural, joyful, multicultural garden. The environmental-contaminant-tracking-shoes-free, undisturbed-popcorn-ceilinged, disinfected-instrument garden.
* * *
I am more than just an ultra-progressive mom. I am also a mom who has Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD). Where other people see some parking-lot grime on a pair of shoes, I see petrochemical toxins leaching toward my child. Where other people see an old textured ceiling, I see asbestos particles showering into the air she breathes. Where other people see a stranger’s hand picking up a Kindermusik instrument, I see a threat of incurable disease. All of this makes me an ultra-protective mom. The kind of mom that calls Kindermusik schools with queries that don’t appear on their website’s FAQ list.
Being ultra-progressive and having OCD means that I continually struggle to sort out which of my concerns stem from my values and which from my illness. Most people, members of my family included, tend to assume that I am ultra-progressive because of my OCD, and that without it, I’d drift happily back toward the middle of the road. What they don’t understand is that I have passionately held beliefs and I have a mental illness that causes obsessive fears around those same beliefs. In other words, I am obsessed with environmental hazards because I care deeply about environmental health, and not the other way around.
But there’s another catch: OCD has been called a “disease of doubt” because it involves a malfunction in the part of the brain that generates the sense of being certain. So when I make decisions, I can never be sure whether I am honoring my values or caving in to my sickness. This is a critical fact which very few people comprehend. OCD is not about whether you have germs on your hands; it’s about an inability to generate the internal sense of certainty that your hands are “clean.” Normal brains do this so automatically and effectively that their owners are not even aware it happens. When it doesn’t happen, you notice. You notice that you have OCD.
I first noticed symptoms of this disorder when I was nine. I started seeking help at age twenty. The medical community didn’t figure out that OCD is a neurological disease and not a Freudian complex until I was almost thirty. The three different psychiatrists I went to apparently never heard the news. I didn’t get valid information about or treatment for my problem (which I ultimately found on the Internet and in bookstores) until I’d given up on the counseling and medical professionals. By then my condition had been complicated by pregnancy and childbirth, an experience so psychiatrically profound it can induce OCD in those previously unaffected.
OCD causes intense, often unbearable, anxiety. So does being a mom. Especially being an ultra-progressive mom in suburban America. Which means that when I’m not fearing that my child’s body is being assaulted by mutated microbes and toxic residues, I worry that her soul is being assaulted by mutated dinosaurs and talking sea sponges.
My mother knows about my values and about my OCD. She is still coming to terms with both of them. Since I am a mother myself, and I suffer from a genetically based disorder, I can understand how painful it must be for my own mom that I have this problem.
Her reaction to my values is a little harder to comprehend. Mom is a recovering starving artist and former hippie who has embraced her newfound middle-class, mainstream status with a convert’s zeal. Sure, she’s still a vegetarian with eclectic interests, but it’s become obvious, as I’ve taken her former beliefs to their idealistic extreme, that she’s disappointed I adhere to the very values she raised me with. Go figure.
I call my mother and tell her about Kindermusik. She is enthused. Since my daughter was a year old and I e-mailed digital clips of her bobbing to music by African pop star Angelique Kidjo, Mom has urged me to get Mari into a musical program. And since Mom came to visit months after my daughter’s birth and witnessed me in full-blown postpartum OCD paranoia, she has worried about the extent to which Mari will actually get to leave the house. I caution Mom that I have to check Kindermusik out, that there are still issues, but that it looks like a green light.
When I do get a chance to peruse the Kindermusik website more thoroughly, the light turns back to yellow. First, the requirements for being a “licensed Kindermusik educator” basically boil down to being able to carry a tune and promising you’ll make every parent buy the At Home materials kit. And second, Kindermusik has launched a new endeavor, home parties that offer “everything musical for a child’s world.” This trademarked service is a member of the Direct Selling Association.
Now not sure what to think, I call the ultimate authority on all things kid: my sister Debi—licensed mental health counselor, assistant professor of child psychology, certified play therapist, mother of six-year-old twins who are both gifted and special needs, coupon and two-for-one goddess, thrower of super-deluxe double birthday parties on shoestring budget, baker of Easter bunny cakes, maker of rainbow-unicorn Halloween costumes, and all-around glue-gun maniac. That sister.
She’s the one I call with questions ranging from “My eighteen-month-old is yanking at her hair. Is this developmentally appropriate or the early signs of trichotillomania?” to “How can I create a pink tail for a kitty cat costume in ten minutes without a glue gun?” If Debi doesn’t know about it, then it’s not worth knowing. She is my guide to the world of childhood beyond the Organic Now.
“I am confused. Is Kindermusik a legitimate music education curriculum or a mass-marketing scheme?” I ask.
“Yes,” she answers. Ah, that clarifies everything.
In her expert opinion, the curriculum is good, but only as good (and as free of purchasing pressure) as the Kindermusik educator. I tell her the local franchise (ugh!) has two certified music therapists on staff. She deems this a green light. I tell her of Mari’s recitation of wants, of my hopes for a Musical Garden of Contaminant-Free Extrovert Delights. “Go,” she responds.
And so, emboldened by finding myself on a route where all lights have turned green, I boldly advance toward the Garden: I send my husband, Toucher of All Things Unclean, to perform reconnaissance. Steve returns with a brochure for the upcoming semester and a report that although the facility appeared to be well maintained, there was no clearly delineated shoes-off area. We decide that the best course of action is for me to attend a Kindermusik class without Mari to determine if it is acceptable from the standpoint of our values and tolerable from the standpoint of my OCD.
* * *
A week later, on an icy January morning, I hurry across the parking lot of the strip mall and approach the Kindermusik franchise. From long-practiced resourcefulness, I have a paper napkin in my pocket that I discreetly use to open the front door without contaminating my hands.
It is as Steve described: a smallish rectangular space with the far end partitioned off. It is carpeted. The carpet extends to the front door, and while there are shoes and backpacks lined up along the walls, there is nothing to indicate where shoes may and may not go.
I have arrived, as planned, during the fifteen-minute interval between classes. I am observing, as planned, the shoe rituals of arriving and departing Kindermusik attendees. Moms holding babies are putting on shoes and jackets, picking up diaper bags and backpacks. One mom gets ready to go, then remembers she needs to ask Nancy, the owner/teacher, something ….
I have lived with this disorder long enough to know the truth of Murphy’s Law. The forgetful mom strides across the carpeted expanse, to the very center of the space, with her shoes on. Red light. Moms (and dads) leave. New moms (and a dad and a grandma) arrive. A little boy runs over to greet the teacher without remembering to remove his shoes. Sigh.
I begin contemplating what decontamination measures will be necessary should I decide to bring Mari to Kindermusik despite the badly organized and poorly executed efforts at carpet cleanliness. Perhaps we could take the first class of the morning, or perhaps I can keep her on my lap so her clothes don’t touch the floor.
I introduce myself to Nancy, then take a seat against the wall, outside of the circle of parents and toddlers that has formed in the center of the space. The class begins its “greeting song.” I let my gaze wander around the room, to the plastic bins of instruments and supplies on shelves along one wall; the partitions in the back, with products for sale (sigh) on more shelves behind them; the dozen or so glittery silver snowflakes hanging by thumbtacks from the popcorn ceiling.
Holiday decorations. Suspended from the popcorn ceiling. The same popcorn ceiling, which, I was assured, does not get decorated.
I have been in treatment for this disorder long enough to not panic when I witness the true state of the Kindermusik ceiling, but I eye Nancy with newfound suspicion. Still, I have come this far. I have already sat down on the contaminated carpet. I have already breathed the contaminated air. I might as well stay and find out what Kindermusik is about because I know from the website that this is not the only franchise in my area.
What happens next: Singing of songs with accompanying gestures. Playing of simple instruments (pairs of wood sticks, bell shakers) in time to recorded Kindermusik music. Prancing around in circle while swishing squares of synthetic chiffon embroidered with Kindermusik logo, also in time to Kindermusik music. Starting and stopping on cue. Listening to recorded sounds. Reciting of rhyme with accompanying gestures. Performance of circle dance (parent-child pairs weaving in and out of circle, each in turn). Telling of “story” to toddlers seated on custom throw blanket woven with Kindermusik logo.
Also what happens next: Little girl sucks on bell shaker. Nancy promptly intervenes, explaining bell could hurt her mouth, but does not set aside the shaker for special cleaning. Bell goes back in basket, along with every other germ-infested instrument.
The “story” that’s told involves a ring binder containing pages that alternate between drawings of doors and pictures of kids in the class. Kids “knock” on door, then turn page to see who’s there. Cute—until page turn reveals Big Bird. And Cookie Monster. And Tigger. Could have been worse, could have been Barney and SpongeBob, but still evokes ultra-progressive mom’s nightmare of daughter innocently opening door to find consumerized kiddie culture lurking behind it.
Finally, singing of goodbye song accompanied by zither. Parents and children join hands for circle dance. Not enough gallons of hand sanitizer and free disinfectant wipes in the world to cope with Mari holding some adult stranger’s hand.
Class ends. Nancy announces brightly she has stamps. Confused, I think: stickers. But no, Nancy has a rubber stamp and an inkpad and she is stamping the children. She is creating blue snowflake imprints on their hands. Their cheeks. Their tummies. My horrified gaze flits from stamped snowflakes to snowflaked ceiling. Stamp ink is non-toxic and washes off, Nancy assures a parent. I do not bother to inform her that “non-toxic” is actually a designation given to substances that aren’t fatal when ingested unless more than a pint is consumed.
Class is over, and Nancy wants to touch base, find out if I’ll be enrolling my child. I am still reeling from the OCD gauntlet I’ve just run, but I try to disentangle my invasive, irrational thoughts from my authentic beliefs and feelings. I tell Nancy honestly that I have a much better understanding of what Kindermusik is all about, but I’m not sure how my daughter would respond. I explain that we frequently listen to world music at home, and that my daughter might not enjoy the toddler-oriented Kindermusik themes, as right now she’s requesting we play a lot of French Caribbean zouk. Nancy stares at me blankly, then offers that the next semester’s theme is “Fiddle-dee-dee,” which features lots of … fiddle.
* * *
As I drive home, park our hybrid-engine vehicle, change out of my contaminated pants and socks, and repeatedly wash my hands, I wrestle with two questions: Is Kindermusik the right place for Mari? And if I answer “no,” is it because of its lack of depth and diversity, or the dirty shoes and holiday decorations?
I go to the kitchen to prepare my daughter’s organic vegetarian lunch. As I steam couscous and grate cheese, I worry that Mari will miss out by not attending Kindermusik. What if she won’t achieve her potential? What if the lack of developmentally appropriate, group musical education will cause her to fall short?
But humans have been making music a long time. A really long time. And 99.999 percent of that time, they didn’t have franchised classes available to them, but they somehow managed to pass on the knowledge and joy of vocal and instrumental self-expression to their offspring. Maybe instead of spending hundreds of dollars for weekly sessions at the strip mall, I should put that money toward a week-long trip to some primitive place where my child can experience music closer to its source, where she can hear percussion instruments the way they’ve been played for millennia. Thoughts of unsafe drinking water, exotic diseases, and political instability quickly deter me from this idea.
Left to her own devices, Mari already imitates the vocal stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. She insists we play the soca hit “Ice Cream” over and over. The first time I put on the Beatles, she started doing a waltz step, then dipped into a deep plié, swooping her arms upward in perfect coordination with her legs. She doesn’t really need us to pay for three minutes of swishing a nylon scarf in order to develop rhythm when she has yards of real silk (low-impact dyed, of course) and all of the Putumayo World Playground CDs available each day.
But what she doesn’t have is a room full of toddlers. If I take her to Kindermusik, she will get to participate in group activities with her peers. But after witnessing for the first time a franchised enrichment class, I worry that she will also get the subtle message that she’s not doing it “right” when the Kindermusik educator sings “Time to dance” and she thinks it means fly across the floor to the age-inappropriate music of Prince, inventing footwork as she goes. Or worse, she will get discouraged when she points imperiously at the boombox and commands, “Want different!” after being confronted with Kindermusik’s scientifically validated, emotionally tame melodies.
I might be able to fight my way past my obsessions if Kindermusik were really a joyful garden of multicultural delights, and I might be able to compromise on my values if it was truly germ- and dirt-free. But the double whammy of middle-of-the-road commercialism and aging strip-mall contamination is too much for me. I feel disappointed in our culture and ashamed of myself.
I also feel doubt as my mind starts its endless loop of “what ifs”: What if I’m exaggerating my objections to avoid the anxiety of my disorder? Or what if I’m stigmatizing myself for having a mental illness by not honoring my authentic responses to Kindermusik? But what if I’m using the mediocrity of the program as an excuse for not overcoming my obsessions? And what if I’m never able to find toddler activities that appear both safe and of value?
I need a normal brain to sort this out, and Steve has one. He listens patiently to my report on Kindermusik, laughing with me at the OCD ironies of the experience, and nodding as I talk about my other perceptions, then stopping me when I get on my self-doubt anxiety-go-round.
His response cuts to the heart of the matter: What we need is social interaction for our daughter. If that’s all we’re going to get out of Kindermusik, we might as well just take Mari to a bona fide playgroup and maximize our toddler-face-time-payoff for all the decorated-ceiling and mass-marketing exposure.
* * *
The next morning arrives bright, cold and guilt-free. Last week, Mari and I scheduled a precious playdate at our home. For this day, at least, I know my child’s voracious social appetite will be satiated, and maybe tomorrow I can commence my quest for ongoing sustenance.
While the toddlers amuse themselves with sustainably harvested wood toys and North African soukous plays in the background, I tell my friend with same-age offspring that I need to get Mari more peer contact. She responds that after having spent the better part of the last two years in the Void of Maternal Isolation, she would be happy to drive forty-five minutes each way for a Wednesday get-together at our organic oasis.
Elisabeth De Vos is the author of a science fiction novel and several short stories, as well as an essay included in the Smart Pop anthology series.
Brain, Child (Fall 2007)