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Fear and Silence

By Rosanne Weston

When Ellen announced that her son walked to school alone that morning, the ten women in our Mothers’ Center group sat up and took notice. She had been resisting his push for independence since the start of first grade; that day, he won the gentle struggle.

“He insisted he knew the rules about looking both ways and not talking to strangers and that all the other kids in his class did it,” she said, a pink blush spreading across her cheeks. “So I tucked his lunch into his backpack, kissed him goodbye at the front door, and ran out the back door to hide behind my neighbor’s hedges until I saw him turn the corner. Then I slunk along the hedges until he passed her house; then I peeked my head out of the bushes and watched until he just about reached the crossing guard two blocks down. When I couldn’t separate him from the other kids, I went inside.” She paused and twisted her wedding band. “I feel like an idiot,” she said.

“Oh, God,” said Sarah. “I remember driving to the school that first time, parking around the corner and lurking alongside the building until I saw my daughter get through the door. It’s lucky I wasn’t arrested.”

“I crouched in the rhododendron,” said Laura.

“And I used the rose bush,” said Natalie. “Those shrubs get pretty crowded in the suburbs.”

We looked into each other’s eyes and laughed, then looked away and stopped. There was a small silence, and someone changed the subject.

I remembered this when reading an interview with Janna Malamud Smith, author of A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, on The Mothers Movement Online. The exchange happened more than twenty years ago, when we were women with young children and could not bear to talk about what we were talking about. Ordinarily we relished our discussions about anger, sexuality, confusion and the need for wholeness in our increasingly fragmented lives. But this topic -- our fear of loss -- was almost untouchable.

Of all the challenges of parenthood, the vulnerability to sorrow coupled with the enormous responsibility for another’s life is perhaps the most difficult to incorporate. Too much denial and we risk closing down the entire range of emotions, from terror to bliss, and avoiding our caretaking tasks. Too intent a focus leads to crushing anxiety and inflexibility. Babies may enter our lives “trailing clouds of glory”, but they also arrive bearing the storyline of every folktale that ever kept us company at bedtime.

It’s one thing to read about wicked queens and wily snakes when we are nestled beneath our comforters or leaning against our mother’s side. It’s quite another to face the meanings of these tales in the clearer light of adulthood. Now it was our children who could be fooled by wolves dressed in grandmother’s gingham, by witches offering up shiny, red apples filled with poison. Even a king and queen could not guard their sleeping baby from harm. Leave the wrong fairy off your christening guest list, the story told us, and she scales the stone castle walls to land her curse on the innocent newborn. An intervention by a kinder member of her species may modify the curse, but it can’t get rid of it completely. A new child brings home the lessons well: we cannot keep out all danger, and we cannot make everything all right.

When an elementary school principal told a group of mothers that we were the best people to decide when our kids were ready for greater independence, I wanted to stand up and shout, “How the hell should I know?” How should I know when to say “yes” to the first solo bike ride, the keys to the car, the backpacking trip cross country? Enormous consequences always seemed to be at stake, and all I had to bring to the situation were a basic intelligence, an intense love, a thin intuition and a best guess. My husband participated in the decisions, of course, but he traveled a lot and was often at work when the questions arose. The choices also rested lighter on his shoulders; I envied his confidence. Someone suggested that our different reactions were part of a parental choreography; the more one partner worries, the less the other does. And for a complicated mix of historical, cultural, societal, psychological, perhaps even physiological reasons, the heaviest weight of worrying generally lands on the mothers.

That burden was bad enough, but it was the silence about this worry and fear that got me. I said nothing at that school meeting, of course, not wanting to be labeled overanxious, overprotective, a worry wart, neurotic. I did not want to appear unwilling to let my kids soar. I had read Portnoy's Complaint, after all, and knew all about the damage the clutching, clinging, hovering mother could inflict. In social work school I had been taught that children with body tics were the products of anxious mothers and that for many the cause of a young person’s schizophrenia still lay squarely at the feet of his infamous schizophrenogenic mother. I shuddered at our power to harm. Even “Dear Abby” weighed in many years ago in a reply to a letterwriter who complained about an astronaut’s being pictured with his mother after an historic flight. His mother! Wasn’t he over that?

Yes, agreed the advice columnist, there is too much “Momism” going around in America. It keeps children from becoming adults. It especially keeps boys from becoming men. Mothers, it appeared, were something to disentangle from. Our forebears, after all, did not let motherfear stop them from following their manifest destiny across oceans and deserts and plains. The pioneer Moms were never depicted as worriers, just straight-backed women who stared unblinkingly into the horizon as their husbands and sons rode off to danger. Our national myth of optimism and rugged individualism made hesitancy in the face of the unknown seem downright un-American. With a mother’s overarching love and fear set up as the hurdles to jump on the way to self actualization, it is no wonder that shame attached itself to these feelings. I shared my worries only with my closest friends, and then not always. To anyone else I was a cool Mom, just as I assumed they were. And by making that assumption, we all cut ourselves off from the support and solace that comes with sharing what’s true about ourselves with others.

It takes a great deal of emotional and mental energy to shut down our deepest and most complex feelings. It can be exhausting. Sharing them holds the possibility of release, of accessing that energy for intelligent decision making and thoughtful action. We now know that the anxiety of mothers whose children have a chronic disorder may very well be the result of the child’s condition, not the cause. And the schizophrenogenic mother has pretty much been set alongside demonic possession as another wrongheaded view of mental illness. Even the diaries of frontier women are filled with poignant descriptions of loneliness, worry and deep concern for their families, feelings not so different from ours. Acknowledging our motherfear is useful. Hidden, it seeps out in uncontrollable ways. Out in the open it can be evaluated and used as a pathway into our intuition and subconscious knowledge.

Maybe our Mothers’ Center group of women could not take the discussion of our fears very far that day. But Ellen was relieved of feeling like, in her words, an idiot. Over the past decades the women’s liberation, women’s health and mothers’ movements have encouraged honest emotional sharing as a means to inner growth and outer personal and social change. Our anxieties and fears and concerns are not to be patronized and exploited. They are not some girly thing. They provide important information and are part and parcel of what makes us human. The work of mothering is difficult enough without an overlay of guilt and shame for what are real and common feelings. Mothers forge across oceans and deserts every day, often with joy and hope and courage, even while the shadows of fear and pain and sorrow dance just behind our backs. And when life brings those moments when the metallic taste of fear fills my mouth, I don’t want to be embarrassed and cool and brave. I want to tell you that I need comfort and support. And I want you to tell me.

mmo : august 2003

Rosanne Weston, MSW, has recently retired from her psychotherapy practice in New York. She has been involved with the Mothers' Center movement for 25 years, first as one of the founders of the Mothers' Center in Bellmore, New York, and currently as the Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Association of Mothers' Centers. She is also the President of The Jerry Weston Foundation, Inc., which supports youth programs in the South Bronx. Rosanne and her husband, Hy Varon, a sculptor, divide their time between Manhattan and Woodstock, New York, where she gardens, practices yoga, reads, writes and, on occasion, has been known to cook. She has two grown sons and is happily awaiting the birth of her first grandchild in November.

Related articles:

The MMO interview with Janna Malamud Smith

The dark matter of motherhood
MMO reviews A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear

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© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


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