Erin E. Bell is a brave woman. She’s a mother, wife, writer, and Part-time faculty member and current Humanities Center Fellow at Wayne State University. Braver still, she has graciously allowed me to use her as my first parent interview. I couldn’t ask for a better volunteer.
I knew Erin in college. We were part of a small community at Oakland University made up of a handful of artist/non-conformist (or ’90s term “alternative”) types. I liked Erin because she was smart and philosophical, and I related to her because she was a bit jaded like me. She was and perhaps still does a great impression of Courtney Love. It was great catching up with her and seeing how parenthood has altered the course of her life.
Erin currently lives in metro Detroit with her husband, Ernie, and their four children. They have a son who is 12, and three daughters ages 9, 6 and 2. She describes her children as being “Energetic, affectionate, and eccentric.”
Erin first reminisced about the ’90s, and how her passions and aspirations have changed. In college, she dreamed about writing for “Spin” or “Rolling Stone”, but after parenthood, she has changed her priorities.
“I wanted to be some ‘riot grrrl’ writer or something. I was pretty unfocused for a long time. Having my first child actually really brought clarity to my life. I started my MA program and then decided to pursue my PhD,” she said.
Sometimes parenting changes you, but sometimes you change your expectations of parenting. When thinking about how she expected her first child to be, Erin explained that she had romanticized things in her mind.
“I had this image of what my kid would be like, some little mini indie rocker that was going to listen to Yo La Tengo and where ironic t-shirts,” she explained, adding that he turned out “really different than I expected, but in a good way.”
Speaking of expectations, Erin said that she often makes big plans to spend the day with the kids and imagines it going really well, but it doesn’t always go as planned. “I have the best ideas in my mind, but then things don’t always turn out. We are ready to leave the house and someone poops their pants.” She added that sometimes once they get there, the kids complain that they are “bored.”
Like most parents, Erin has a difficult time balancing personal/career goals, household duties, and financial obligations, along with the ongoing needs of her four growing children. She said, “I often feel pulled in so many directions. Finding balance is something I really have to work on.”
As a part-time faculty member and fellow, when she is home, she is often preparing for class, grading papers, replying to emails, or working on her dissertation. Erin admits this was easier to do when her kids were babies, when she could accomplish these tasks while breastfeeding. Now that the kids are older, it’s harder to multitask.
Erin has a cabin up north that she likes to take the kids to. She finds that it helps her disconnect from all the distractions of normal life. There is no TV and no WiFi, so she is able to connect with her kids and her writing on a deeper level.
“I am trying to complete my dissertation (which is like writing a novel, at least in its length)… the subject is short fiction by women from the mid-century into the contemporary,” she said. Erin has also published articles in scholarly journals.
Upon first hearing about her cabin, I imagined Erin escaping alone up north and pulling a total Waldon, complete with a spiritual journey immersed in nature. But she admitted she hasn’t been up there alone yet.
Erin reported that she has, however, traveled to Berlin sans kiddos. While away, she stated that she started missing her kids and felt “disconnected,” so she tried to reconnect using FaceTime. Her take away from this was never to video chat with a two-year-old while away. “It totally confused my youngest daughter, and I guess she screamed for like two hours after she saw me.”
What has helped Erin the most to create balance in her life has been her mother’s help, and winning a grant from Wayne State University. “I am funded to work on my writing, so I can afford to pay my mom to watch my 2-year-old while I work on my dissertation,” she explained.
She currently works Monday through Friday, splitting her days between teaching, preparing and writing. She admits her mother is pivotal for her sanity and explained, “I would not be able to balance my life with my work schedule if it were not for my mother.”
Erin shared with me her secret pet peeve of parenting — She hates being the drill sergeant aka “taskmaster” of the household. She stated:
“I really dislike [being] the person that wakes everyone up, gets them dressed, makes sure their teeth are brushed, their hair is brushed, they’ve had breakfast, etc. I feel like this person just giving out orders, but all of these things need to be accomplished every day. I feel like I have to be really organized to keep track of everyone’s school events and extra-curricular things… My life feels a lot like the film ‘Groundhog Day’ some times.”
Erin disclosed that her son is gifted. She had him tested at WSU to find he has a genius level IQ. It turns out that this is both exciting and challenging. She went on to say that “bright kids have special needs, too,” and that gifted children often struggle socially to fit in.
She went on to explain some of the struggles her son has. “He had a pretty rough time in elementary school. He connects with adults really well, but his peers, not so much. Like, his interests right now are the Napoleonic Wars and Karl Marx and well, his classmates are just not that into that, you know? I try to do what I can to help him out,” she said.
Meal planning for Erin’s family is a bit of a struggle at times due to some picky eaters. They would eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets every night if they could. She makes her own homemade chicken nuggets, but hasn’t been able to get everyone on board for anything fancy.
“I always see people posting these awesome crock pot meals, and for the most part, my kids won’t touch any of that stuff,” Erin said.
Erin’s 12 year old son is going through typical preteen transitions, including a bit of moodiness. “I never imagined (when he was little) he would have it within him to ‘talk back’ or be nasty to me,” she explained, adding that she believes it usually has something to do with school.
In general, she is finding this transition challenging. “I try to be patient, but he also needs to know that he can’t take out things on others,” she said.
In order to overcome some of the obstacles related to the precocious preteen years, she advises keeping an open line of communication. She admits to being bullied as a kid but never confided in her parents. Sadly, she thought it was her own fault, a common occurrence in children being abused or bullied. “My parents had no idea what was going on and I really could have used some help,” Erin said.
Erin explained that because she is sensitive to bullying, she tries to get her kids to talk about their day, especially when they seem upset. She stated,“It can take hours to pull it out of my son… but I am always glad when he finally tells me, yeah, something went on today. I think it is important to get those feelings out.”
Final Thoughts on Parenting
Erin concluded that the root of most parenting struggles is matching our expectations with reality. She noted that many of us are setting ourselves up for failure.
“[T]here is a lot of pressure for kids and parents right now to be the best at everything. Like, it isn’t enough that you make your kids lunch, but you need to decorate a napkin with a postmodern piece of art and take a picture of it and post on Instagram or whatever. Can’t we just be happy that we got the kids to school on time, and their teeth are brushed and they have a lunch? I think as long as moms are doing their best that should be good enough.”