rang, and I brazenly ignored it. Today was my day off—
a rainy Saturday, perfect for staying in, my partner and kids off
to visit my mother-in-law, a day for pajamas and leftover pizza
and novels with absolutely no redeeming qualities. It was not a
day for socializing, but then someone knocked loudly, and that meant
it might be someone worthwhile, or at least persistent. A peek out
the window showed four-year-old Katie grinning on her tricycle,
and the opening door revealed Jennifer, a playground acquaintance
who lived a few blocks away.
“Hi!” she said, perky in the gray damp of the newly
arrived autumn. “I’ve got some clothes here that Kate’s
outgrown, and I thought you all could put them to good use now.”
In her hands were two massive plastic bags, threatening to burst
at the seams, full of multicolored cotton clothing. I almost had
to clench my hands into fists to prevent myself from snatching them
away ruthlessly without the requisite chat and thanks.
Upstairs, I sorted through my booty with a Scrooge-like greed.
Pants! Turtlenecks! Tights! Fuzzy blanket sleepers with feet! A
treasure trove of 2T goodies, in coral and lavender, red and turquoise,
with a soupcon of 3T for good measure. My twin daughters, who turned
two in May, now had the foundations of a winter wardrobe, thanks
to the goddesses of mamahood.
Some of the happiest accidents of my life have happened since the
birth of my daughters, that most accidental of happinesses, and
all courtesy of the network of mama solidarity. It’s the impulse
that led Jennifer to sort out the cream of her clothing crop, lauder
it, pack it up and drop it at my door (after two failed attempts,
I later learned), all instead of simply depositing it at the nearest
Goodwill. It’s the instinct that leads me to bring boxes of
cookies or crackers to the playground, knowing that they’ll
be decimated by the rampaging hordes as soon as the boxes emerge
from my tote bag. It’s my friend Megan, gladly making jelly
sandwiches for my girls while I rummage hungrily through her bookshelves,
and her laughter as they smear jelly over every possible surface.
Equally amazing to me is how cruel we mothers can be to one another.
There’s a certain scene from Tom Perrotta’s haunting
and hilarious Little Children, the one where Sarah is humiliated
at the playground because she has produced only empty hands at snack
time, even though the merciless Mary Ann has perfectly calibrated
the dispersal of snacks at the same time every day. Who among us
hasn’t been Sarah, well-meaning, yet hapless and disorganized?
Who among us can face the prospect of becoming Mary Ann, omniscient
arbitrator of parent-toddler standards of behavior? But then my
friend L tells me how amid the constant vomiting and dehydration
of hyperemesis during her pregnancy, the mother for whom she was
nannying decided not to give her a Christmas bonus because “she
really hadn’t earned it that year.” “I was with
them for five years!” she says, still in disbelief. “They
dropped their kids off at a moment’s notice to go running
or out to dinner! I brought them videos and ice cream when the kids
had the flu!”
I see it in my playgroup, when women cluck and sigh when another
mother considers a scheduled Caesarian section. I see it when a
friend is stopped in Starbucks by another mother and told that nursing
mothers shouldn’t drink caffeine, and that she should be somewhere
educational anyway, like the zoo or a museum, instead of lazing
around drinking lattes. I see it when a former friend tells me that
I could be like her, “hyperintuitive” to my child’s
needs, if only I had breastfed much (much) longer than I had. We
mothers are the only ones who can truly know how lonely, tedious,
wearing, and draining the work of motherhood can be, how invisible
and underappreciated. How can we attack each other, our sisters
in the struggle, those beside us in the trenches? How can we expect
social attitudes to change when our own are so paradoxical?
We make deposits in the bank of maternal solidarity every time
we watch someone’s kids for an afternoon, or send a new mother
a present for herself, not the baby, or drop off chocolate chip
cookies just because, or send those hand-me-downs to another kid
after ours have gotten a season or two out of them. Every time we
bite out tongue, and rein in our judgments, and smile instead of
sigh, we sow a seed that will bloom for us someday, when we are
wrestling with the grocery cart, or the car seat, with screaming
kids attached to each limb, and a stranger gives us a helping hand.
It’s a new kind of gift economy, a revived system of emotional
bartering, a secular version of the Golden Rule, a reminder to treat
other women the way we want to be treated.
By no means am I the patron saint of motherhood, believe me. My
halo is well-tarnished and my tongue can be bitter, but I try to
keep that voice whispering in my ear every day, every time I see
a mother who may need my help, but certainly doesn’t need
my opinions or the side effects of my own complexes.
In the final analysis, don’t we have enough enemies? We mothers
are the easiest target in history for disasters of any and every
kind. No blame is too great to lay on our doorstep, no tragic flaw
in humankind too great to be laid on our shoulders. Why attack the
only people who will ever know how difficult it is to be in the
child-rearing wars, soldiers in the battles of potty-training,,
adolescence, and puberty? It may not get us Social Security credits,
tax credits, or retirement funds, but I believe that we can make
our own lives just a little bit easier, day by day, one gently used
sandal at a time.
mmo : May 2005