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
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