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Get Real by Abby Arnold

An ongoing series of unflinching commentary

April 2004

Only Human

My 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?

Obviously, I’m 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.”

“Oh,” the mother stammered. “I understand.”

“Oh no,” 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 of protection.

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 moment.

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 by others.

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 :

Get Real is an ongoing series of original essays and commentary by Abby Arnold. She is a teacher, writer and the mother of a 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter. She lives with her family in North Carolina.

Feel like getting real? Send your comments to Abby Arnold at getreal@mothersmovement.org

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