by Vicki Larson
“It’s not fair!” I heard one of my boys scream to the other one day.
From where I was in the house, I couldn’t tell what wasn’t fair and which one wanted to make an issue out of it, but it didn’t really make much difference. Each had at some point embraced the phrase as his own, along with “You can’t make me,” “I’m going to run away!” and the ever-popular, “I hate you.”
“It’s not fair!” is an equal opportunity phrase, unconcerned with gender and where you are in the birth pecking order among your siblings, or even if have siblings or not.
Kids are preoccupied with fairness. It always seems to them as if someone’s getting more than they are — more time, more attention, more stuff. They feel it in sports, too, when it wasn’t fair that their team — clearly the better team — didn’t win. They feel it on the schoolyard, when they don’t get picked for a game of Four Square but Johnny, who can’t thrown a ball to save his life, does. They feel it when they don’t get invited to “the” party. Then, at some point, kids realize that their quest for fairness is like the quest for the Holy Grail. They’re never going to find it because, just like Mom and Dad told them, the world isn’t fair. Deal!
Now that my boys are both six-foot-plus teenagers and have pretty much the same freedoms, “It’s not fair!” has all but disappeared from their vocabulary. Sadly, it’s been replaced — “Duh,” “Whatever” and “Omigod, Mom!” appear to have risen in popularity; “I hate you” still seems to be holding its own. Thankfully, we moms have our own counterattack phrases — the “Because I said so” of years past has morphed into “Weren’t you wanting to borrow my car this weekend?”
So I was surprised when, out of nowhere, “It’s not fair!” crept back into my life, once again from my family. Oh, no, not from my kids, but from my 50-something sister.
As is often the case at our advanced age, when who got the beauty and who got the brains has long ago been decided, fairness between siblings is basically about money; specifically, our parents’ money. And so when our mother mentioned that she wanted to leave some money to my kids in her will, my sister had a fit.
“I want my 50 percent!” she declared to me in an e-mail. “Why should I be penalized because of your choices?”
My choices? Let’s see, I got married, raised two kids as a mostly stay-at-home mom and then got divorced at 40-something; my sister, three years older than I, is a never-married single who is happily childfree. Those are her choices.
Is in unfair that she may get less than half of our parents’ inheritance because I’m a breeder?
Whatever illusions I had about life’s fairness or the lack of it have been shattered; still, so many of us are still hung up on it. The workplace is rife with such fairness issues. In fact, groups like Child Free and No Kidding! are pushing to have the same rights that we parents, after a long, hard battle, finally have — equal employee benefits. Childfree workers hate having to pick up the slack when their co-workers take family leave to have a baby or when they have to end their day early, come in late or ask for time off to deal with typical parenting needs — doctor and dental visits, piano recitals and All-star games, chicken pox and swine flu.
Ah, but I have paid a price, too. Working moms “suffer” in the work place just for being moms — we’re perceived as being less competent and less committed, and that shows up in how much we make. Childfree women like my sister may earn less than their male counterparts, but moms earn even less than childfree women and single moms — hello! — earn even less than mothers. Is that fair?
But, then again, there are tax benefits for parents. Not for the childfree, though, who must pay for services they’ll never use, such as schools, not to mention having to put up with the barrage of places and products that are constantly being prompted as family-friendly and offering deals, as well as those obnoxious helicopter parents. It’s a child-centric world — maybe that’s not fair to those who aren’t interested in having kids, either.
Even though I’m a mom, I get it; women who decide they don’t want kids get harassed as often as stay-at-home moms, who are obviously “wasting” their talents and education, and working moms, who are obviously misplacing their priorities and neglecting their children.
It just isn’t fair!
Plus, families themselves come in so many configurations that who’s to say what’s a family and what isn’t anymore?
As historian and author Stephanie Coontz says, “We can no longer design work schedules, leave policies, and housing complexes on the assumption that every worker has a wife at home to take care of ‘life.’ Unmarried people increasingly are likely to have care-giving obligations, whether for children, aging relatives, or a live-in partner.”
All of which reminds me of when my boys were younger and they looked me in the eyes with their sweet, dimply faces demanding to know which of them I loved more. “I love you both the same” didn’t cut it because, well, they weren’t the same, and they still aren’t. Their needs were different, too.
After years of repeating myself — a talent my boys still don’t quite appreciate — they learned that while I love them both, one or the other often got more from me, whether it was my time, energy or stuff, according to his needs, not his wants, at a particular time.
What could be fairer than that?
So, I don’t know what’s fair when it comes to divvying up a family’s assets. I tend to believe it’s up to the parents to decide who gets what, and maybe we should be thankful our parents aren’t going to pull a Leona Helmsley on us and leave millions to the dog.
I did attempt some logic with my sister — if my kids each get X amount out of the pie, and she and I split the rest in half then, actually I would be getting no more or less than she would. I gain nothing by my kids’ inheritance; I get less, too. She wasn’t impressed.
Logic can be a tough sell sometimes.
But what I’d really like to see is my elderly parents, who worked so hard and scrimped and saved so they could give my sister and me the best, use their savings to make whatever years they have left as comfortable and pleasure-filled as they’d like.
Now, that seems fair!