I’m Mothers’ Day conflicted. Well, actually, I’m conflicted and confused about mothering and discussions of motherhood, in general. Mother, mothering, motherhood – such loaded words for a biologic process aimed at species survival. It seems as though this generation of parents and non-parents has managed to attach such a monumental pile of baggage to the parenting, and particularly mothering, concept that it is amazing that the whole institution doesn’t just collapse in dusty, mismanaged exhaustion. Yet, here I am, adding my own superfluous two cents.
We have become as conflicted about the role of mothers and what constitutes a good mother in modern society as we are about our own mothers. Freud and friends would have had a field day.
Time magazine recently managed to turn what was supposed to be an article discussing a particular parenting style (attachment parenting) into yet another breastfeeding battleground with a deliberately provocative cover. Now, I’m all for provocation, so long as it is productive. But, how many times can we circle around the breast? As a veterinarian, I find all the hype about breastfeeding to be simultaneously inane and sensationalist. Humans are mammals. Some mammals nurse more successfully (I use this in the nutritional and biological sense, not to assign value.) than others. Some require nutritional replacement. Let’s move on.
I’m sitting here sipping tea at my computer on Mothers’ Day morning, with a totally self-indulgent day of painting and food planned. Yet, I can’t help identifying with many of the points writer Anne Lamott makes in this recent Salon.com essay titled “Why I Hate Mothers’ Day.” She’s right – on the face of it, it is weird and morally suspect to have holidays that essentially elevate parents above non-parents. As much as I love the special hugs, handmade cards, and school-crafted gifts from my kids on this day, receiving them feels awkward – as though I’m tacitly agreeing payment of some debt. Animals reproduce all the time; it’s hardly a medal-worthy process. And as much as I appreciate the upbringing my parents gave me, and as much as I thank them for said upbringing, I’ve never felt that children owe any debt of gratitude toward their parents. Especially in the modern age of birth control, the decision to have children is a conscious one, and the burden of responsibility falls upon those who make the choice. My kids don’t owe me. They didn’t ask to be born. Mike and I are the ones who owe them the best upbringing we can provide.
A friend recently emailed me a link to an article on “difficult mothers.” It was part of a larger conversation, not an indictment – I think. The article makes some valuable points on relationships, bonding, and security, but part of it left me feeling twitchy. For the record, I feel the same (or maybe the polar opposite) twitchiness when I read things or hear discussions about the glories of motherhood, the “natural wisdom” of mothers, etc. Yes, parents have a huge impact on their children; there is certainly enough research to prove that one statement. However, most of us are not demons, and precious few are saints. Discussions – overt or implied – of good vs bad parenting leave me feeling oppressed and discouraged, regardless of where I land in the balance of the discussion. The fact is, none of us gets a manual. (I’m still quite irritated with Kaiser about that. A manual would have been far more useful than a plastic diaper bag covered with purple bunnies.) None of us knows what we are doing until the end, and maybe not even then, so how can we, as individuals or as a society, pretend to have some sort of empirical scale for parenting? Breast, bottle, attachment, Ferber, working mother, stay-at-home, two-parent, single-parent, same-sex parents, private school, public school, day care, processed foods, whole foods – these things are all just words, and yet we throw them at each other like snowballs packed with the sharp rocks of judgment.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us: parents, former parents, non-parents would just come out and admit that we don’t have a freaking clue what we are doing on this rock and that we just make the choices that seem best to us at the time? How hard would that be?
We don’t, of course. Because admitting that there is no one “right” way means admitting the thing that we fear the most. We have no control beyond that which we possess over our own choices. Those of us who have chosen children realize deep in the scariest, dankest corners of our hearts that we have absolutely no control over what happens to our children or who they become. There is no choice that will protect us from the thing we most fear – loss.
I can’t contemplate Mothers’ Day without thinking of the mothers I know who have lost children or the people I know who have lost their mothers. These are the fears that I know I fight when I lock into judgments about good and bad families. And yet, these losses that are almost too much for the mind to view head-on teach us the key point. Loss happens, and it doesn’t care what parenting methods, lifestyles, or philosophies we choose. Loss doesn’t care whether we bring our mother flowers on the second Sunday in May, or call her on a Friday evening. Loss levels the playing field; it doesn’t care whether we are “good” or “bad.”
In the end, we are each responsible for living up to and embracing our own choices. We don’t need special days to celebrate those choices, but if the day gives us a talisman to focus, well, who am I to say whether that is right or wrong? There isn’t any special magic that gestated in my womb along with any of my children. Mothering hasn’t given me superpowers or eternal wisdom, damnit anyway. It is one of the experiences of my life, and like any other experience, it brings to me only what I am willing to put in and what I am willing to learn.