three year old son’s friend is coming over to play. His mother, who I only know from brief encounters at preschool,
is bringing him. I clean the house: put away toys, vacuum and mop,
remove the clutter from the kitchen counters. I’m acutely
aware that our living room furniture is frayed, dust balls tumble
out from underneath the chairs whenever the kids run by, that there’s
a towel on the sofa hiding the place where the cat puked a hairball
and we can’t get it clean. Please God, I beg, don’t
let the mother go into the living room. I swear the next time the
Pottery Barn catalog comes in the mail I’ll spend $1000 on
the fringe jute rug and the whicker étagère, solving
my storage problems, color coordinating and proving myself to be
a stylish, multi-dimensional woman/mother, all at the same time.
Meanwhile, do I have time to make homemade cookies and fresh fruit
salad for snack?
Another day, another
preschool friend comes over. His father brings him. Maybe, if there
is time, I straighten up some toys. That’s it. I don’t
care what rooms he walks into, and as for snack, Goldfish and hastily
sliced apple are just fine.
Why? Why do I obsessively
clean for the other mothers, fret about the furniture, think I should
present an image so at odds with the reality of my life? Why don’t
I do this for the other fathers?
neurotic and insecure. Let’s take that for granted —I
feel like a failure and have a paranoid belief that other women
are exactly like my mother, judging me while politely saying “how
nice.” If I feel inadequate in front of other mothers for
such superficial reasons as snacks and old furniture, there is something
wrong with me.
But there’s something
else going on here too.
Last winter, before the
flu scare hit America, I got flu shots for my kids. The day after
the shots, when dropping off my son at preschool, I mentioned to
the teacher that he had the shot and might be sore that day. It
was a conversation solely between the teacher and me, but not in
a private setting. Next to us, a group of mothers, all pregnant,
were talking. And, it turns out, listening.
As I finished talking,
one of the mothers said quite loudly, in a voice meant to carry
over to me: “I don’t see any reason for getting a child
this small a flu shot. I would never do it.”
I whipped around as fast
as I could, thought about the four pregnant bellies in that group
and said, “My newborn baby was in the hospital twice last
winter from illnesses my son brought home. I’m not taking
chances this year.”
mother stammered. “I understand.”
said another woman, whose baby was due in just a few weeks. “I
hope that doesn’t happen to my baby.” She looked frightened.
Indeed, all the mothers in that group seemed collectively to surround
their bellies with their arms, the universal pregnant woman gesture
I felt so ashamed. It’s
true that my daughter had to be hospitalized twice the winter of
her birth because of complications from colds my son brought home.
It’s true that’s why I got them both the flu shot this
year, a case of closing the barn after the horse has fled, but still,
I felt temporarily better (my son got the flu anyway this year and
my daughter didn’t). But the reason I told that pregnant mother
that story was quite simply to scare her into not criticizing my
choice, to strengthen my case through her fears for her unborn child.
It was not my finest
Why do we do this to
each other? Why did that mother need to make sure that I overheard
her saying she would not have done what I did? Why did I retaliate
by striking her where she was most vulnerable?
There are some obvious
answers, but none of them make sense. Maybe she had strong beliefs
about vaccinations. Maybe she felt guilty or somehow judged because
she hadn’t gotten the vaccination. Maybe something else perfectly
reasonable was going on in her when she overheard me. But why take
it to the next step, why criticize me for doing my own, different,
mothering thing? And why did I, knowing how tender pregnant women
are, why did I see attacking her and all the other mothers in her
group as the most viable way of defending my own choice. I had been
terribly ambivalent about getting the flu shot and she was voicing
my own internal guilt, but that’s no excuse for my being deliberately cruel.
We are all so vulnerable
when it comes to our children. We feel so judged.
With other mothers who
are also my friends, none of this happens: they know me, I know
them, my messy house and parenting decisions are part of who I am,
and vice-versa. Love and friendship make for acceptance, even when
we make different parenting choices.
But with the mothers
who I don’t really know, the acceptance disappears and I feel
constantly scrutinized and judged. The truth is, the other mothers
at my son’s preschool are probably perfectly friendly, hard-working
women, struggling with motherhood and life just like I am. They
aren’t card-carrying members of the judgment police, enacting
the Wrath of God and marking my name down in a large black book
of crimes against children and style. I only think they are, just
as many of them may very well assume the same about me. There’s
too much in middle class, white America parenting culture that tells
us there is only one way to be and no matter how much I try to ignore
it—I walk past the parenting magazines, throw the catalogs
in the trash, give talks on the rhetorical constructs of motherhood
that divide women and invalidate our decisions—no matter how
much I know better, that is, I still find myself, over and over,
in the pit of mother-judgment, condemning myself, feeling condemned
I hate it here. It’s
lonely, exhausting, filled with despair. As a parent, this dark
place is just part of the territory: sometimes I make choices I’m
not always comfortable with, sometimes I yell at my kids, sometimes
I’m scared I’m really messing up. Every mother I know
well lives with these things, right alongside the joy, the tenderness,
the fierce pride. I know that all this means is that I’m human,
doing the best I can. And when my friends and I can talk about this
darkness, it lightens. Love, acceptance and companionship are the
strongest response to the messiness of human life.
But we’re mothers.
We’re not supposed to be human. And so this is another of
my tasks as a woman who mothers: to consistently allow myself my
humanity and to see the humanity in the actions of other mothers,
even when I feel threatened. Until that happens I’m going
to be too often alone here, in this dark, difficult, lonely place.
: mmo :