There is no excellence in mothering -- only adequacy.
The best thing my daughter ever told me: "Mom, you are one of the most adequate people I know." She tells me this again now, laughing over the phone, and it lightens my heart and grounds me where a gusty, "You are so wonderful," would have left me heavy and shaking still.
We disagree though whether adequacy and excellence are different things. She tells me it's like long distance running, that it's the stubborn adequacies that get you there. She says my idea of excellence is a sprinter's idea.
Later I'm telling my own mom how things go these days, approaching a full year of adoption. How I think I've got it figured out and then I know I don't. My Youngest is full of certainty and vehemence. I recognize this vehemence as one of his superpowers. But like invisibility and infinite elasticity, vehemence can be hard to live with.
In all of us I hear a ratcheted stridency, ready and waiting the moment he begins to insist and insist. In me, I hear it most of all, a rising argumentativeness. "I know, I know," says my mom when I tell her over the phone. "I know too well. I was never able to just step back and say, So why does it seem that way to you? Why don't you tell me about that."
"But that's the thing. I thought I had learned to do that. I had been proud that I didn't feel I had to argue with the older children," which makes us both sigh and laugh. "But this time, it doesn't work. All those techniques I learned, do nothing. I step back. He just says the same thing over and over, in a kind of frenzy, louder and louder. And insisting on things he knows almost nothing about. Things he has just asked explanations for."
And sigh and laugh again.
So I took him aside and said, "Look I'm concerned about all this argumentative stuff. What can we do? I can't think of anything that will fix it, can you?"
My Youngest, who has liked and latched onto the idea of code words, suggests immediately, "We'll say Peaches!"
"Beaches?" I ask.
"Well, let's think about it." I'm a little reluctant to have Oreos be the code word for polite behavior since that's a word used already to color-code certain societal norms disparagingly by skin color. While the kind of peace and cooperation I'm hoping for has got to come in every color under the sky.
The next day I have a story for him, "Here's the thing. When one of us realizes that it's turning into an argument, we just need to go back to the safe place where we're going to keep our love, okay? We're at the beach and you and I have spent all day there ... building sandcastles ... flying kites ... collecting sand dollars ..."
"Where's Young?" my Youngest asks about his older brother whose acceptance he seems to prize more than anything I can offer.
"Young has his own place with you and with me. But this place is just for you and me, where we keep our love safe. And now we're sitting down to a huge picnic. Everything we want. Fried chicken. Watermelon. And I'm going to say, I like peaches. Because that's what I'm bringing to the picnic. You don't have to say anything. Or you can say, I like Oreos, because that's what you're going to bring, or I like peaches, too, or I like pizza, or raspberries or anything."
"What if I say, I don't like peaches?"
"Hmm. I don't think that will work. Because we don't want to keep anything delicious out of our picnic, do we? So it can be anything but it has to be something you like."
He thinks this is brilliant. I think I am brilliant because all that day it works. And our home feels warm and joyous. Like I realize it often used to feel in the years before without me ever being aware of that wonder.
"Because you used imagination, which is your powerful gift," says my mother.
"Until the evening," I tell her, when after we look at pictures together it is time for bed and I nudge him up with my fingertips lightly on his back. But he budges not. He leans back against the nudging. I say, "Come on, now. It's time to go," and nudge more consciously. He weighs his whole, not inconsiderable, weight on my hand and, as I would with any of the older children, I push with real briskness so that he has to lean the other way and stumble forward onto his bed. He swirls around, his face full of rage, his fists balled up and swinging.
"What? Are you going to hit me?" I ask him. This grievous fierceness hitting me like lightning out of a blue sky.
He shouts. His face works with anger. "Right," he yells. "Just play volleyball with the Stupid Boy Ball."
I say, "It's time for bed. Get your pajamas on." I walk away. And go sit in my own room, feeling again inadequate. And tired. And inadequate. Again.
And then I hear bare feet pattering down the hallway. There he is, in his pajamas, "I think I need to make peace with you," he says and burrows in for a hug.
"I think you do," I say and feel comforted, despite our inadequacies. This is the first time he's initiated this kind of peace-making, instead of simply responding to mine.
I still don't know what I'm doing as a mother.
But then I never really have known what I'm doing as a mother. It hasn't stopped me yet.
I take heart in my unknowing from one of my favorite poets, Wislawa Szymborska, who said in her Nobel acceptance speech, (though probably she said it in Polish) (and certainly she said it of poetry and not mothering) that the seat of inspiration is not knowing:
I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself.When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
I am in that continuous "I don't know." I will probably never get out of it.
And inspiration keeps cropping up in unexpected places: the safe-place/storymaking idea from something I heard Leonard Cohen did to calm a riot at the Isle of Wight. Speaking to the oversized crowd who had already tried to burn the stage beneath Jimi Hendrix, Cohen climbed up to the microphone, still rumpled from sleep, two o'clock in the morning, while the embers were still glowing, and began, in his halting apologetic way,
It's the pansy in the lapel that captures me and pulls me into the story. This story that taps into that necessary sense of wonder to seize the imaginations of the wild children in his unruly audience. That little poem that channels their desire to play with fire. That identifies a spot of safety in a scary world.When I was seven years old, my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, a gray vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did. But there was one thing that happened at the circus that I used to wait for. I don’t want to impose upon you … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, Would someone light a match so we can locate one another? and could I ask you, each person, to light a match so I can see you all?
I can do that much. Tell stories. Keep asking for enough light just to see where we all are out there in the dark.
My Youngest, like all his older siblings, keeps surprising me with his sweetness. Surprises me with the generosity of his responses. I can't pat myself on the back for his sweetnesses and unlooked-for graces. And if I can't congratulate myself for the way he keeps trying to get it right, his readiness to love and to respond and to forgive, if I'm not to blame for his goodness, neither can I take credit for his stumbles. Only for mine.
And even then, so much in me, in both of us, is rooted in earth deeper than I can ever know, lit by invisible energies. No wonder sometimes we get it wrong. So wonderful that sometimes we get it right.