Thursday, December 17, 2009

one or the other: Being the Mother One

I keep trying not to write this particular post. 

But my  event-horizon seems to be resolving itself into an unavoidable singularity and rather than choosing from a range of possible choices it appears I may only choose to
  1. write no post
  2. write with the M-word dribbling out of the corner of my mouth in every other sentence.
And yes, we are talking the real M-word here, the one that will get me a for mature audiences only rating.  Not merely that lesser m-word - the one that makes the  commitment-allergic squirm (with its vows and veils and well-rehearsed formalities).  But the big ol' M of an M-word that really gives people hives, that we prefer to call by euphemistic and belittling endearments, that has to be wrapped up in maudlin sentimentality, masked by noble stances or hidden behind a screen of cutesy clip-art in either pastel or primary colors.  Or blamed for all the evil in the world.

One or the other. 

Because that's the other thing about the way we deal in this day and age with this M of all M-word --  it seems the issues always have to be one or the other.

(And no, MORTALITY, today it is not YOU I mean - go back to sleep, no one wants you right now.)

"Shame on them," my fierce friend is almost spitting.  "Shame on them!"  She had been watching until I'd finished reading the article thrust into my hands, an article by Susan Klebold whose son killed 12 students and a teacher and then himself ten years ago. 

My friend's vehemence is not aimed at this other mother or even primarily at the magazine selling copies by trotting out private pain, but for the angry blamers some rival media had dug up from under a rock to spout how outraged they are and to repeat and repeat what a bad mother Susan Klebold must have been.

Between my friend and me sits my own son, glasses slipping down his nose, hair flat against his familiar scalp and bangs cut a little crooked over his brow. 

He sits between us, apparently oblivious, deep in his book - Eragon this week.  We are sitting on the sides at a swim meet - at which none of our children are likely to come in first, or even second.  She has raised three sons to adulthood and across the pool her last one, shaking the water off his arms, is finally starting high school. 

We are both what people call "good mothers."

We both know how dangerous it is to believe it.

Perilous treasure to set your heart on the happiness and success of your children.  Because what matters more?  and into what else do you have such limited vision?  over what else do you have so little real control?

I have been greeted by new cousins, with engagement rings bright on their hands, "Oh, you're the one that's such a great mother!"

There have been, from time to time, younger mothers who have pulled up a chair and settled in -  "Now I want to pick your brain and find out your secret.  What did you do to have such great children?" 

Because a mother is only as good as her children appear to be.

And there has not been one of those young mothers who has not at last shot me that look of half-resentful disappointment.  As if I were mocking them, making fun of them, withholding the great secret.

"I don't think there is a secret.  Except maybe just liking your children . . ."  but that of course suggests that they don't already like their children.

"I don't know that it's so much the parents, as what the children bring with them.  You really just have to reinvent with each child . . . "  which suggests that parenting is an exercise in futility.  (Well?) But what I meant was rather than remake the child, it's better to remake your mothering -- that all you can do is try to provide channels where their particular energy can flow most effectively without harming themselves or others. 

Was it tactless to suggest that quiet studiousness was not so much a virtue arrived at through flash-cards and interesting combinations of vitamins, but what you might expect when you cross a deliberate math-geek with an introspective bookworm? . . . as if I were suggesting that the outrageous hilarity and vivid stubbornness of their own child had not fallen too far from the tree? . . . though if I had suggested such a thing I ought to have also made it clear that those qualities were treasures of their own, to be made the most of.  And I ought to know, having a hilarion of my own despite all those geeky genes in the background.

"Actually, I think probably the most useful thing is to realize we are as powerless as we are powerful.  All we really have to give them is our attention and a witness.  All we can really do is just be company to them while they go through what they have to go through . . . ," which was brushed off as facile Zen-mumble - and thank you, but they were also returning the book lent them - Whole Child, Whole Parent - which was a little dense, a little "fringey," and not after all "the only useful childrearing guide I've ever read," but in fact, not really what they were looking for at all.


I'm not sure what they wanted to hear.  Something more practical?  more concrete?

But even that gives no satisfaction.

"I would never speak to my daughter like she was a dog!?"  at the suggestion that the secret was to be the Pack Leader.  Which is not what I had meant to suggest. Rather that there is a certain attitude of responsive, consistent, cheerful authority that kids seem to respond to well.

"Running laps around the outside of the house?  hmm . . . " - that one they tend to like a little better - at least it's something other than spanking or time-outs, a way to mark behavior as inappropriate and to give everyone some breathing space to start over, a style of discipline more corrective than punitive.

But, darlings,  that's all that's hidden behind the curtain.

I remember the op-ed pages ten years ago after the Columbine shootings.  It seemed important to many to point out that the mothers both worked away from home.  "Ah, that's what it was!  The mother of course!" 

"Shame on them!"  This fierce friend of mine can do just about anything - she completely wired her house; she laid the stone tile in the front hall; she held her finger in place driving herself to the ER - it's healed quite nicely and is only a little stiff now. 

But we both know as we sit here on the sides - my young and for-now innocent son sitting between us, her son on the other side of the pool - how powerfully powerless we are.

As mothers.


Neighbor Jane Payne said...

At first I thought you were going to write about mammograms. I, too, read that article by Susan Klebold. I was glad she broke her silence. And it made me think a hundred things.

I appreciated the thoughts you suggested in this post. I especially found mirth in this sentence, "Was it tactless to suggest that quiet studiousness was not so much a virtue arrived at through flash-cards and interesting combinations of vitamins, but what you might expect when you cross a deliberate math-geek with an introspective bookworm?"

Lisa B. said...

Thank you for saying this. Thank you.

And, for the record, I agree with you that the most important thing you can do is pay attention, and be there, and really, really, really enjoy them. And even then, you have no guarantees.

One of my friends once said, when I was in the middle of a divorce that I brought about myself, and was in agony about what in the world I was doing and what kind of suffering I was bringing upon my children--this friend said, "When you feel this way, you should meditate upon your own death." Which is exactly right. You are a piece of their world--and for a time, a very big piece--but only a piece. You cannot control everything. I think being a mother is one long meditation upon nonattachment. Counterintuitive, but true. I am crazy about my children, but:

They are not me and I am not them.

Mrs. Organic said...

I sometimes wish I were more introspective and less...well, less loud. My poor ears are desperate for peace. Great post!

Emma J said...

Neighbor Jane - okay almost a year later I get your joke! one or the other? - sheesh!

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