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Love Thy Neighbor, Mama

By Jackie Regales

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? How can we expect social attitudes to change when our own are so paradoxical?

The doorbell 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

Jackie Regales lives, works and writes in Baltimore with her partner, twin girls, and cat. She teaches fine arts and popular culture at a community college, and is working on a book about motherhood and activism.
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