Thursday, June 18, 2009

Girl Trouble

When Isaac came home today from his fourth day of a summer kindergarten prep program provided by his school, he looked tired and reserved. Given the long ride he'd just had on a crowded school bus without air conditioning on a day with a heat index of 105, I figured he was just overheated. So I brought him inside and let him rest on the couch while I got him a drink of water.

Then I opened his backpack to find a note stapled shut, my last name written on it in careful schoolteacher script. My son's very first Handwritten Note Home from the Teacher. Uh oh. What had he done?

I pulled out the staple and opened it up. It read:

Mrs. J,

I just wanted to let you know Isaac had a bit of a sad day at school today. After some comforting and a drink of water he seemed to be OK. Have a great weekend!

-Mrs. H.

Well, that was a kind note.

And vexatiously cryptic.

Had he been overcome by a sudden bout of homesickness? That seemed unlikely. He'd never been seriously homesick during preschool. In fact he'd been rather upset when his preschool term ended that he would not get to see his friends on a thrice-weekly basis anymore, and then thrilled to discover that his best friend from preschool would in fact be in his class in the summer program.

Had he experienced a sensory-disorder-related meltdown? Had he been suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of fingerpaint and unable to wash his hands? Had there been a loud sound, like a floor buffer or a vacuum, echoing in the hallway? He's gotten so much better lately at coping with such things. I hoped it wasn't that.

Had another child teased him? Hit him? Taken a toy from him? Had he somehow bothered or hurt another child? I didn't think it could be that last one. I figured he must not have broken any rules in the midst of whatever event had triggered the note, or the teacher would have outlined a specific infraction.

So I asked him. I said, "Your teacher sent me a note today saying that you were sad. Could you tell me what happened?"

"But I wasn't on red!" he protested. "I wasn't even on yellow! I was green."

"Do you mean there is a chart at school where kids who get in trouble get a yellow card or a red card?"

"Yes," he said. "If you get a red card you get a note home."

"I don't think you were in trouble," I said. "I think your teacher just sent this note home because she wanted to be nice and let me know you'd had a hard day."

"Oh," he sighed in relief.

"So what happened to make you sad today?"

"I'm too tired to tell you."

"Oh," I said. "Let me get you some more water. Maybe you can tell me later."

In a few minutes I asked him again, "What happened today to make you sad? Do you feel like talking about it?"

"It happened at the writing center," he said. "I cried and they gave me water."

Oh, so that's it, I thought. Isaac's motor skills delay, a product of his sensory disorder, makes writing hard for him. He can read at the third grade level, and yet he struggles to write his own name. This was starting to make sense to me.

"Why did you cry? Did the teacher ask you to write something that was hard for you to write?"

"No," he scoffed, as though that were a ridiculous question. "It was free writing time. I could write whatever I wanted to." He doesn't like to admit he has trouble writing. Was he holding out on me?

"So what happened, then?" I said. "Did another kid take your crayon?"

"We were using pencils." He folded his arms and looked away.

"Did you punch through your paper by accident?"


"Did you get frustrated trying to write what you wanted to?"

"No. I don't remember," he said. "I'm too tired to remember what happened."

"Was there an earthquake at the school that caused you to drop your paper?"

That disarmed him. He relaxed his defensive pose and started giggling. "We haven't even had an earthquake drill yet, Mommy. Only fire drills. And I know all about those."

"So, what happened. Did a kid say something mean to you?"


He paused. Then he said, "She wouldn't take it."

"Who wouldn't take what?"

"The girl. I made a card for her. It was a thank you card, but she wouldn't take it. She thought it was a Valentine. She said it wasn't Valentine's Day." He turned his face toward mine and his wide, chocolate-brown eyes brimmed with tears. "I made it for her, and she didn't want it."

"Ohhhhhhh." I said. "So, you like this girl? And you wanted to do something nice for her? And then she said no?"

"Yes," he said, despondent. His lip quivered. He was trying not to cry.

"Oh, sweetheart," I said, throwing my arms around him. "I think that would have made me cry, too."

I don't think I'm ready for this.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mother Mythology

My mother was a feminist activist. She was a liberated, liberal professor with a master's degree who taught Women's Studies courses at a local university. She was a card-carrying member of NOW. She dressed me in jean overalls and sensible shoes and allowed me to choose Little Boy Blue as the color of my bedroom and encouraged me to play with toy trucks in the mud and banned Barbies from our home. She took me to an Equal Rights Amendment march on Washington when I was eight years old.

My mother was an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. A troubled high-school dropout from a dysfunctional and abusive home who found escape from her alcoholic father and her Valium-and-electroshock-therapy-dazed mother in a marriage on her seventeenth birthday, and gave birth to me eleven months later, just before she turned eighteen. Who had another baby before she fully figured out that her charming knight in knight in dented armor was a pathological narcissist with an addiction to lies who was only really capable of the sort of love that is not love of another at all but instead a reflection of love for oneself. The sort of person who would give a homeless man the coat off his back in a show of virtue, but would also disappear for a weekend leaving his family with no money and nothing in the pantry but crackers and peanut butter.

My mother was an uneducated, unemployed, homeless divorcee living with two dirty, hungry kids and a new lover in a car.

My mother was neglectful. She was an ambitious working college student who dreamed of becoming a professor and was willing to put her education ahead of time with her kids. She was an essentially single parent who supported two kids on work-study wages, student loans and sometimes welfare (but never child support from their father, because at that time, she got none). She had no time to make real dinners. She forgot to do laundry. She did not throw elaborate birthday parties, or take her children to playgroups, or ballet lessons. She did not teach her children to swim, or even show them how to ride a bike. She did not help with homework; she had her own homework to do. She sometimes left her two young daughters to wander the university library unsupervised during her classes. At times she left her children for extended periods with unhappy, unbalanced relatives, or with their father despite the fact that she knew their father was selfish, inept at parenting, and incapable of keeping a clean, safe home. Sometimes she did this because she had to. Other times she did it because she was tired of us and wanted a break.

My mother was amazing. She once spent an entire weekend hand painting paper fish to decorate my little sister's room. Each fish was different. When she finished, walking into the room was like walking into an exotic aquarium. It took a moment to remember you could breathe. My mother once convinced my sister and me that chunks of asphalt she had painted gold were really dragons' eggs, and that if we cared for them enough and waited long enough, one day they would hatch. When she was home and we were home with her, my mother read to my sister and me for at least twenty minutes every night, without fail, no matter how tired she was, or how much work she had to do. She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Narnia series, and Lord of the Rings, and all of the books about the Boxcar Children, and everything she could get her hands on by Roald Dahl. She taught us how to make bread from scratch, and explained how trees made oxygen, and took us to poetry readings. When she was in school and her kids were in school, every once in a while, she would wake up and say, "Let's play hooky." And she would call in sick for everyone and we would spend an entire day at the zoo.

My mother was an advocate. When she moved to a new school district and the school her daughters wound up in turned out to be a crumbling building with screaming, overworked teachers, disintegrating textbooks, roaches in the lunchroom and classrooms so overcrowded the students had to climb over desks to cross a room, and an administration that refused to listen to her demands for reform, she went to every private school in town and demanded an audience with each school's admissions staff. Eventually she decided that the most expensive school in the city should give her children scholarships. So she made the school do it. (I am still not sure how.)

My mother was a Bad Mother.

She was not just a bad mother-- she was a stereotype of a bad mother. The kind of too-young, too-poor, too-selfish, dependent-on-the-state bad mother you hear politicians railing about on the evening news.

My mother was a Good Mother.

And I mean the saintly, archetypal Good Mother. A Holy Mary Mother of God sort of mother. A sacrifice-your-life-for-your-kids-and-don't-think-twice-or-expect-any-glory-or-thanks sort of mother.

My mother was a Bad-Ass Mutha.

A take-no-prisoners, fuck convention, down with the patriarchy, up with my kids, let's conquer the world while wearing sparkly purple face paint and then go out for ice cream sort of mother.

My mother was old-fashioned and before her time and a product of the times and a trendsetter and a trendbucker and trendy and all-out-of-style.

My mother was all of these things and more and which part of her you might encounter depended on what day it was and how much caffeine she'd had and which way the wind was blowing in Argentina.

Because above all else, my mother was a human being. Imperfect and devastatingly, unbelievably perfect, all at once, just like the rest of us.

It's the most obvious thing in the world that mothers are human, that each of our own mothers are human, and were human, were people, with their own lives and emotions and dreams and flaws and strengths before they were mothers. And yet somehow this incontrovertible, in-your-face fact that mothers are ordinary people is not always acknowledged when people in our society talk or think about mothers.

We place impossible expectations on mothers. And when I say we I do not just mean "21st century Western culture" or "North Americans" or "the media." In we I include myself, and I include you, and I include your hairdresser and the President of the United States (whose mother, incidentally, seems to have been a hell of a lot like mine) and street children in Africa and Angelina Jolie and the Pope. When I say we I mean all those who have had a mother, which is to say everyone.

I know that some thoughtful, intelligent people, some who are mothers themselves in fact, disagree with me. I know that some say they do not feel intense pressure put upon them by the people around them, or our culture itself, to be superhuman and meet impossible goals. When I first encountered this opinion I must admit I was partly convinced that people who hold this opinion must live in an alternate universe and must in fact be communicating with me through some warp in the time-space continuum (which really was a rather exciting scenario to contemplate). But I think that what people who say they feel no pressure to be perfect mothers actually mean is just that -- that they feel no pressure, not that it does not exist. I believe that on some level, they are aware that it exists but, consciously or unconsciously, they mostly ignore it.

Our own culture's particular history of holding mothers to impossible standards is well-documented. It has been downright fashionable in academic and medical circles for centuries to blame mothers when children develop social issues or mental problems or mysterious medical ailments that cannot otherwise be easily explained.

Autism was thought until just a few decades ago to be caused by "refrigerator mothers" who were too distant and cold; anorexia, to be the result of a mother who hovered too much.

Freud contended that if a mother nursed a child too often on demand, the child would become gullible and needy, but if a child was nursed too infrequently, he or she would turn into a bitter, sarcastic pessimist. And forget about bottle feeding. (As far as I know, the man never did provide a clear guideline for just precisely how many times a day a mother ought to nurse her baby to prevent it from growing into a totally neurotic wreck. But then again, he never nursed a baby himself, so how the hell would he know?)

Now we've relegated the term "refrigerator mother" to the linguistic dustbin and admitted that Freud's theories were perhaps somewhat negatively affected by his unhealthy obsession with his own mother and his habit of snorting coke.

But, if you read this century's news, you'll soon find that mothers who co-sleep are KILLING THEIR BABIES WITH SIDS, and mothers who don't co-sleep are CAUSING ATTACHMENT DISORDERS. Mothers who feed their child peanuts too early are causing peanut allergies and mothers who feed their children peanuts too late are also causing peanut allergies. And mothers who keep their houses too clean are causing seasonal allergies but mothers whose houses are dirty are subjecting their children to MRSA.

Mothers who work all day are causing their children to be more aggressive in school. Mothers who stay home are putting their kids at a disadvantage in math class and betraying their daughters and/or ruining sons that someone else's daughter will marry, by setting back the women's movement.

Mothers who breastfeed in public are either doing a beautiful, natural, environmentally friendly thing and bolstering their infant's IQ and immune system, or they are perverted exhibitionists who exploit their children and should be banned from restaurants and run out of grocery stores and kicked off of airplanes.

I myself was blamed by no fewer than five doctors for my own son's failure to thrive before he finally got a medical diagnosis. Of course, these doctors couldn't agree on precisely how I had caused it. I had caused it by nursing him too often (Ah, paging Dr. Freud!) or by feeding him solid foods too early (when he was six months old) or by helping him too much when he ate or by not helping him enough when he ate or by being too nervous around him when he ate or by letting him manipulate me. I was an overprotective mother or an underprotective mother or a clingy mother or a "refrigerator mother," by another name. (Until of course they discovered the actual medical problem. Then I was just unfortunate.)

The lyrics may have changed, but it's the same old tune.

Why do so many of us continue to sing along?

Any mother, every mother, is sometimes bad at mothering and sometimes good at mothering and most of the time something in between, and every mother makes mistakes and every mother feels uncertainty and every mother has moments of selfishness. And yet, somehow, by the grace of God or fate or the universe, humanity has survived. And in fact, not only has humanity survived, but most people raised by human, imperfect mothers are perfectly sane.

But a strong taboo lingers against mothers in our society actually, publicly admitting that not only do they fail, daily, at achieving the impossible, conflicted ideal of perfect motherhood, but they have no wish to meet that ideal. That in fact, they would prefer very much for that ideal to fuck off.

I see that taboo right now rearing its ugly head in a sudden moral panic about good mothers who are calling themselves Bad.

Brave women who have previously challenged the ideal of the Good Mother have been smacked down before. When scientist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy contended that the "maternal instinct" in primates could occasionally be overridden by a mother's desire to tend to her own needs, negative reaction to her affront to the ideal of motherhood was so strong that one of her male colleagues apparently thought he was actually being clever when he quipped, "My own view is that Sarah ought to devote more time and study and thought to raising a healthy daughter. That way misery won't keep traveling down the generations."

When bored, lonely, exhausted mothers began taking to the internet in droves and writing publicly about how motherhood made them exhausted and lonely and bored, the backlash was swift and intense. These women were exploiting their children for money and fame! They were putting photos of their kids on the internet, where any evil person might see those innocent cherubic faces and THINK BAD THINGS. (Never mind that, given the ubiquity of cameras in this day and age, that sort of logic can only lead to keeping children permanently locked in the house.)

And, perhaps worst of all, all these women who were writing about the dull side, about the drudgery of motherhood-- all these women openly discussing low-class, scataloglical, Women's Work, were presumptuously assuming that someone might actually want to read about such things. Which, obviously, no one would.

Except it turned out that a large number of people -- even in fact some of those people who are not themselves mothers -- did want to read about those things.

And suddenly visions of dollar signs spread like a tranquilizer and quelled the indignant roar.

But now Ayelet Waldman (yes, that woman, the one who issued that disturbing declaration that she loved her husband more than her children in The New York Times) has gone and published a book with the words "Bad Mother" right there on the cover. With the word "Good" crossed out, in fact. A book, not a blog? Written by a "real" author?

Now Certain People suddenly seem to be afraid that if mothers who are really rather decent parents despite the fact that they allow their children to eat Cheetos and watch More Than the Recommended Amount of TV go around calling themselves "Bad Mothers" in brazen defiance of the Good Mother ideal, then mothers who allow their children to play in meth labs will suddenly, somehow, be entitled to a free pass.

Though plenty of reasonable people have recently signed on to this argument, I fail to find the argument to be anything resembling reasonable.

If a writer published a book called "Bad Wife," in which she detailed her refusal to cook dinner, ever, for her husband, outlined her tendency to micromanage home improvement projects, and admitted that she forsakes sex in favor of blogging at least twice a week, would a rash of articles and op-eds appear warning that such a dangerous book might legitimize Bad Wivery, thereby causing a trend of Increasingly Irreponsible Wives, and ruining scores of marriages?

Sure there would!

If this were the year 1933.

Others argue that the good mothers who embrace the Bad Mother label only legitimize the criticism of those who are overly judgmental of mothers.

But the good mothers who call themselves Bad Mothers in unabashed tones are not capitulating to the ideal. They are flouting it. They are defying it. They are looking it full in the face and telling it that they do not care to be judged by it.

They will change it.

My mother was a feminist activist. My mother started motherhood as an impoverished, impulsive teenage mom. My mother was neglectful. My mother is amazing. My mother is an advocate. My mother is a sinner and a saint.

And if there had been blogs when I was a child, my mother would have had one.

And I'm pretty sure, if I asked her why she was blogging instead of cooking dinner, that she would have told me that Bad Mothers with blogs were saving the world.