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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Riots in England. Cheesecake in Versailles
August 24, 2011 - 8:59pm

I took my daughter Katie to England and France for her 16th birthday last week, paid for by my summer teaching income. I have a sister who lives outside of Oxford, so my family kept close tabs on the recent riots in the U.K., both to avoid them and (the journalist in me) -- to investigate them a bit.

Since it was Katie’s trip, my investigation of the riots did not extend beyond my querying family and the British cab drivers. The general response from locals was one of embarrassment and mystification. The causes for the riots seemed impossible to name. As soon as people found out that I came from Chicago, though, they would ask me -- “Isn’t there a lot more shooting in the streets there?” I would laugh and give my own defensive response — “It’s not as bad as you see in the media.”

The UK media and Prime Minister Cameron spoke of a “sick society” and were shocked by the ignorance of the looters — e.g., an arrested 11-year-old who stole a trash can; a wealthy, 19-year-old Exeter student facing five counts of burglary. Media played and replayed the moral outrage of adult business owners and the “ungrateful” teenagers. Pundits were at a loss to explain why the initially peaceful protests around a police shooting descended into looting and burning by youth across the country. Unemployment, frustration, the cutting of social services, poor education, absent parents, boredom, racial and economic tensions — all of these issues were to blame somehow.

The mystery of youthful anger is a familiar experience for many parents of teenagers. Children who resent advice and ignore parental concern are part of the package. Parents either care too much or not enough, it seems. But the signs of a brewing existential crisis as well as disgust at financial inequities are growing around the world, and not just from unemployed teenagers. We see these signs in the classroom too.

A different kind of rebellion was on my mind during most of our European trip. If you’ve read my column before, then you are familiar with the tensions I’ve had with Katie — my studious daughter who greatly resents her mother’s long distance commute during the week — and Nick — my creative son who seems determined not to finish any homework for the remainder of his high school career. The European trip with Katie was a "coming of age" gift, as well as a "thank you" for tutoring her older brother in Algebra II. Primarily, though, our trip was an effort to get to know each other better.

Katie is interested in the sciences and loves to be with family. She prefers taking photographs and being outside to staring at art on walls. She was not interested in the British riots or the potential violence connected with them. We avoided museums on our trip and my attempts to discuss history with her were quickly dismissed. That’s why I was surprised when Katie expressed a desire to go to the palace at Versailles.

On the train ride from Paris, I wanted to make sure that Katie was familiar with the history of Versailles as well as the French Revolution, but my educational instincts were not needed. The exorbitance of the palace makes the French revolution seem like the inevitable narrative ending to the monarchy’s architectural and aesthetic parade. Katie and I laughed about these contradictions together. We were used to counting our dollars for basic school supplies much more than decorating our "estate."

France’s 18th century impulses toward excessive wealth along with the country's simultaneous support for Enlightenment philosophy help to explain some of the U.S.’s own contradictions with money and politics. Americans also admire the drive for wealth, just as we are proud of our incorruptible, judicial system. Yet these two instincts inevitably collide.

I was not spouting any of these revolutionary thoughts as Katie and I photographed and ate our way through Versailles. Katie may not be interested in history, but she certainly loves taking photographs — a legal method for taking away a piece of the palace. I found myself recording Katie taking photographs. I was so proud of her picture-taking instincts that I couldn’t help but document the process. I may never be the kind of accessible mother that Katie wants me to be, but at least we’re building up some positive, shared memories. After sharing a few secrets and some of our anxieties about the future, we sat down at a Versailles café. One bite of the café’s exquisite cheesecake left us almost speechless.

We looked at each other and smiled — no revolution today…


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