Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Mother's Day

I generally dislike talking about or even thinking about parenting.  It's more than just boring; it's a painful reminder of the tediousness of the experience.  To talk about what a tedious time people are having just adds to the grating irritation of all those repetitive tasks.  Even funny mom-stories aren't usually funny to me.

But I feel like talking about Mother's Day today to weigh in on some books newly released.  Two reviews were in the New York Times this morning.  I have no intention of reading the books, so the reviews will have to suffice.  And I want to think a bit about the day - not in a Hallmark-bashing way, but as a day to contemplate motherhood.

This is my first Mother's Day, in 18 years of them, that I actually got to sleep in.  But, of course, I don't sleep in any more.  That mechanism that allows my teenagers to sleep past noon has been destroyed long ago.  My youngest's dad took my 7-year-old last night until Monday.  But instead of feeling elated to have a day off to do my own thing, I feel guilty.  I had to stop myself from calling to offer to take her swimming this morning.  On Mother's Day, moms generally spend time playing with their kids.  On Father's Day, by contrast, dads often do their own thing sans children: golfing, fishing, drinking.  Curious.  And they don't seem to feel a pang of guilt for it.  Lucky, bloody them!

My son once explained the difference between moms and dads like this:  Moms are like trees, and the kids are all branches that come out of the tree.  Dads are totally separate trees.  And that just is, and I'm not sure it's worth it any longer to try to shift that further than we have.  New-fangled dads diaper and bottle feed and get up in the night, but somehow it's still different.

My own mother's been gone for 16 years now.  She died while I was in the middle of figuring out how to take care of children.  I hate that I couldn't call her for advice on every little thing in those early years.  My dad knows nothing of parenting little ones.  That wasn't his job back in the 50s and 60s.  So I was left to figure it all out by myself.  And that's just it, really.  My dad's still going strong at 89, but once my mom died, I was on my own.

How to Parent

The one bit of advice I did get from my mom before she succumbed, was the same advice she gave about schoolwork and cycling and painting:  Just do the best you can.  Don't try to be THE best, just do YOUR best all the time, and be satisfied that that's all you can do.  D.W. Winnicott, a student of Freud's, said the same thing, and coined the term: the "good enough mother" in 1955.  Yet people keep churning out books on how to be even better.

About those books:  Judith Warner reviewed The Conflict by Elisabeth Badinter.  This one is getting a lot of press for the controversy it's causing.  Badinter suggests a non-chalant approach to motherhood that puts the mother first, but it sounds like it's really about putting the father first as she's concerned that,  "...a nursing mother is not necessarily an object of desire for the father watching her...[which may] endanger the couple." Motherhood is "women's greatest enemy." She wants women to stop breastfeeding and co-sleeping, and get those kids in daycare if you must have kids at all.

Warner disagrees with Badinter's premise and sites other works that suggest combining nurturing a family and attention to the self is the most satisfying type of life.  Then she goes down a different path explaining that motherhood doesn't need to be fixed, but, instead, our work world needs to be more accommodating for parents to do their best at both aspects of their lives.  Oddly, Warner suggests we need a revolution to change our employment laws and practices headed by a "21st-century Gloria Steinem, a multitasking, minivan-driving, media-savv soccer mom..."  It's too easy to dismiss this last argument since, the fact that Steinem never had kids, that she's expressedly NOT a soccer mom, might have something to do with her ability to provoke a revolution.  She had time and energy.  Yet there are a plethora of moms out there who have made change in this world, and any one of them would have been a better image with which to end the review.  Whatever.

From my vantage point, I don't actually see nursing and co-sleeping as what unnecessarily ties women to their kids.  It's all the hovering.  It's the walking kids back and forth to school instead of sending them out the door on their own.  It's the driving them to all their practices and play dates instead of teaching them how to get there themselves.  It's the insane, abject fear of abduction that keeps moms hopping.  Back in the day when moms didn't work (except for mine), nobody's mom ever walked their kids to school, much less actually hung around on the playground until they were ushered in, and showed up again before the ending bell to collect their charges.  Now moms scramble to get their kids safely in the school doors before they can go to work.  And, if you're the mom that drops-off and dashes, you can't escape the looks of scorn from the good moms waiting until it's perfectly safe to leave.

It's getting a little nutty.  Stranger abductions are really rare.  They're horrific, and media reports make them seem common, but they're highly unlikely.  And they're less likely than 40 years ago.  And it makes me wonder if Germaine Greer is right, that this Culture of Fear was created as just another way to keep women away from the workforce and politics.  If we want to mix motherhood with being independent women, we need to let our kids become more independent of us, not as infants, but as kids.  Get through those infant years in whatever way works best for you, then let them play and explore without hovering.  Then you've got time to read a book and drink a martini!

Why Parent

Judith Newman reviewed Anne Enright's book, Making Babies.  I love this one line in her review that sums it up:  "To write well in the mother-child arena, a person must understand that the essential condition of absurdity."  Enright suggests that parenting is 95% pain for 5% pleasure, and it makes little sense that we continue to do it, yet here we are.  Newman likes the book because it's unsentimental and all-encompassing.

Most reasons for parenting are largely selfish, which doesn't make them bad reasons.  Much of parenting is truly absurd - the types of choices we suddenly decide are pivotally important, or the kinds of conversations we find ourselves in that devolve into nonsense.  But the decision to parent is not entirely absurd.  I think Newman and Enright should give Thinking Fast and Slow a read to better grasp how our memory works - specifically, that we have a poor memory for duration compared to intensity.  This first few minutes of this video on predictable irrationality explains it well:

So, a crying baby is unpleasant, but it's really the hours and hours of crying that's crazy-making.  But that first split-second smile that we catch that makes us all teary-eyed is held in our minds as counting for much more.  The intensity sticks; the duration doesn't.  So after a while, the crying for hours causes less pain in our memory than the pleasure caused by the smile.  Even if, minute by minute, there's more painful moments than pleasurable, the intensity of those pleasurable moments cause them to weigh more.  So it doesn't seems as painful in hindsight.

And children have some selfish benefits for parents:  It's a personal learning experience - a way to learn about yourself.  As my children copy my words and actions, I better realize what I'm really like.  I can foster fewer illusions about myself - for better or worse.  I remember my oldest daughter, at about 5 or so, spilling juice on the floor.  She wanted to clean it herself, so she tossed the washcloth on the floor and used her foot to move the cloth around a bit, and I realized my cavalier attitude to cleanliness was not going unnoticed.

But is it absurd to care about people who don't return the level of care equitably?  Why would we willingly put ourselves in the losing end of this personal economic dynamic?  For some people it's not a one-sided relationship; they expect a pay-back at some point.  But for those of us who give without expectation, we get a payback through the pleasure we get to take a little credit for this creature we've helped thrive.   I'm a lazy gardener, and every year around this time, I'm amazed at the plants that survived another year.  It's more in spite of me than because of me, but it's still a total joy to watch the sprouts poke through dirt again.  They made it!  Amazing!

I think we continue to parent because we love to watch life evolve.  It's exciting.  And it's even better when it's somehow ours - pets, plants, or kids.   So, on this Mother's Day, congratulations if you were lucky enough to keep the little buggers alive yet another year!  It's unbelievable.

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