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FAMILY LIFE

Robo-Mom Belongs to Future That Wasn't

March 18, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Remember the future? The one all the experts postulated about 25 years ago? That clean, efficient world in which we'd all be running around in polyester jumpsuits and plastic boots, swallowing nutrition pills instead of savoring meals, visiting Grandma via TV phone and zipping at light speed through a universe populated almost exclusively by English-speaking humanoids?

We wouldn't have to work anymore, except for pushing a few buttons, because all the real work would be done by sophisticated machines.

Well, the future hit our household like a wave a couple of years ago, although the reality turned out to be quite a departure from the advance publicity, which is just as well because those polyester jumpsuits looked awfully silly.

There we were, cooking greasy hamburgers in cast-iron skillets and getting up to change the channel on the TV set when suddenly the door opened and in whooshed a microwave, a video recorder, an Atari game, a home computer, an answering machine and an electronic pager.

Presto! (Remember when we used words like that?) We were plugged in, booted up, on line and state-of-the-art. The best part was that if the kids wanted a hot dog, they could fix it themselves. If they wanted to see a movie, I didn't have to take them to a theater. And if I had to be gone for an hour or so, they didn't have to tell callers I was in the shower. The machine would handle it, and if it was an emergency, they could call me on the beeper.

Before long, I found myself wondering how my mother's generation managed without all those high-tech helpers.

But in the Buck Rogers spirit of the early '80s, I soon began dreaming of still another gadget.

I would call it Robo-Mom, a computerized, automated marvel that could handle many of the repetitive responsibilities of motherhood. It would dispense drinks of water and cartoon-character bandages.

In case of spills, it would carry one of those little hand-held vacuum cleaners, and for safety's sake, a smoke detector. It would have a built-in pencil sharpener, and a cassette player so that it could tell a story or sing a song. And it would roll through the house, randomly playing back the phrases I found myself repeating day after day:

"Do you have any homework? Then do it."

"Please pick up your socks."

"Who left the milk out?"

"No, you can't spend the night at your friend's house if your room isn't clean."

"Where did you put the scissors?"

"Did you brush your teeth?"

"Forget it. I'm not buying you one of those."

"Don't leave the door open."

"Stop fighting now or you'll go to your room!"

Of course, those weren't my only recurring phrases. But I wanted to save the other kind for myself:

"What a nice picture. I really like the way you did that."

"Could I have a hug?"

"You are the best (son or daughter) any mom could ever have."

Nor would the mechanical mother have a receptacle for accepting grubby handfuls of dandelions. I wanted to keep that responsibility, as well.

One day over dinner I told the kids about my idea, somewhat apprehensive because I expected them to be so excited they'd insist we rush right out to the store and get one. I left out the part about the random phrases, of course, but I was sure they'd go for the other features, especially the bandages. They were 6 and 8 then, and kids that age can go through a box of adhesive bandages a week--each.

"Mo-om," my son said sternly.

"That's a stupid idea," said my daughter.

"It's the worst thing I ever heard of," my son added.

"We don't want a machine to do those things for us," he said.

"We want you, " said my daughter, shooting me a look of utter adoration.

"But it would be nice to have one of those refrigerators where you can get a drink of water through the door," my son said, seizing an opportunity when he saw it.

"Forget it. I'm not buying you one of those," I said.

I was serious about Robo-Mom--a friend and I were all ready to buy one of those do-it-yourself robot kits and adapt it to build a prototype. But after the kids' reaction, I lost interest.

Those days are ancient history now. The kids are 13 and 11, too old for story time, able to get their own drinks of water and cook more than microwave hot dogs. They've both long since kicked the adhesive bandage habit. The VCR is shot and we're going to have to buy a new one--at about one-fourth the price of the first. The Atari died long ago, and nobody seemed to notice. And nobody brings me dandelions anymore.

But I still feel like a recording, even more so now that I'm no longer needed for so many of those other mothering chores. And I still wish I had a machine to recite those phrases for me.

For one thing, I wonder sometimes if they even hear me. One of these days instead of my usual lines I'm going to go around saying, "The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only" or, "Please keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times" just to see if the reaction is any different.

My childless friends think it's funny--if somewhat irritating--that I must interrupt our conversations to repeat the same admonitions over and over to the kids. My friends who are parents commiserate with me about it, and they don't even seem to notice the interruptions.

Why can't kids learn after the first 10 times we tell them something? The first 100? OK, then, the first 1,000? How is it, we ask each other, that a kid can have total recall when it comes to TV theme songs, but no memory of what the rules are on going to the park? And how do I know how to run a household if I didn't listen to my mother, either?

But that's just it--I did hear her, whether or not I showed any sign of it at the time. How else could I be so sure now about the things that Mom always said? Because she said them more than once. More than a 100 times. More than 1,000. And if she had been a recording, it wouldn't have had the same effect.

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