Reading New York Magazine in Phnom Penh
Jennifer Senior’s recent New York magazine article about parenting and its discontents (an article that The Sisterhood weighed in on here) made it to Cambodia — or at least to the terrace of the apartment that my family and I rented during our recent month-long stay in Phnom Penh. (Read my previous dispatches here and here.)
Surrounded by lush greenery, orchids, and the remains of a puzzle that my daughter had begun, I read the article eagerly and agreed with much of it. Children, it turns out, are challenging. And that is before you take two of them, ages 2 and 4, to Cambodia during the rainy season. I am not sure whether Senior’s article would have resonated with me at home in New York, but it sure felt true in Phnom Penh.
One of the oft-quoted lines from Senior’s article is that children are “a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” For me, the usual joys of travel were not transformed in such an extreme way, but they were certainly different from pre-kid travel. This trip to Cambodia was very much about being the mother of two young, Jewish children who otherwise inhabit Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In particular, this meant a greater than usual vigilance towards health and safety issues. It also meant lots of swimming and ice cream outings, dealing with jet-lagged children — and their tantrums, and their complaints about the slight changes to their diet. Not too much ferreting out of local markets or investigation of interesting cultural phenomena.
Making matters more challenging, our kids (naturally) responded to their new environment by being much more demanding of my time and attention. While I would have found this annoying anywhere, their demands seemed even more so in Cambodia, of course, because of the poverty that is so endemic. My husband, Jeremy, kept saying, “Our kids are so spoiled.” In the global scheme, this is true. And yet, compared to the kids around us in 10024, this is not true. Of course, both of these contexts are realities in their own ways; and they are both insane in their own ways.
Highlighting this insanity were my visits to A New Day Cambodia, where I spent a few lovely afternoons teaching English songs to the children who live there. These are children whose families are so poor that they send their children to scavenge in the garbage dump from the time they can walk. The children’s scavenging brings in $10-12 per month, necessary income for the family to afford the barest of essentials. The Cambodian government’s response to this problem has been to relocate the garbage dump to a remote location outside of the Phnom Penh, ironically near the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and to close it off to “visitors.”
A New Day Cambodia provides a weekday home for 100 of these children, sends them to school (which they were not attending prior), teaches them English and gives them access to medical care — not a small need for children who have spent years of their childhood in a toxic garbage dump. The organization pays each child’s family $12 per month, to make up the income lost by the children no longer scavenging.
A New Day Cambodia feels like a summer camp — with lots of informal soccer games, giggling and jack-playing on a cement slab in front of the building. But the learning is serious. These children — most of them are between the ages of 8 and 12 — had never before been to school, but are now excelling in their studies. After the school day is over, they spend three hours learning English with two terrific Cambodian teachers. The children are so committed to their learning, that when I asked them to teach me a song in Khmer, they shook their heads vigorously and told me they are not allowed to speak Khmer during English time.
The children at A New Day Cambodia already knew almost every English-language children’s song that I had planned to teach them — and they taught me a few as new songs, as well. But the favorite song, the only one that was new to them, was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” We must have sung it about 35 times in total. One of my lasting memories of this Cambodian adventure will be the expression on these children’s faces as they tried to reach the high note in Weeeeeee-ma-way” and then cracked themselves up, laughing so hard they could not finish the song.
Why did I spend my time with these children, in the few hours off I had each week from my own children? Because, if, in fact, parenting diminishes some parts of my life, it has enhanced my sense of responsibility to other people’s children. A lot. I am blessed beyond compare to have the resources I need to raise my children — and I feel sorrow, compassion and rage when I think about what it is like for parents who do not have those resources.
So, in response to Jennifer Senior’s piece, I would say, yes, some really great things recede when you are a parent, but some even greater and more profound things emerge, if you let them. The problem is not that parenting is so hard; the problem is that we let that the dramas of our own relationships be the whole story. What a transformed world we would live in if we harnessed one tiny piece of the soul-crushing love we feel for our own children, or one small percentage of our own satisfaction in watching our children eat well, sleep soundly and play happily — and with that helped some other parent or some other child, who can only dream of what we have. What if, in some part of our hearts, we understood that parenting is a global responsibility, and acted accordingly?
Rabbi Joanna Samuels, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.