Mothers are, no more or less than anyone else, flawed human beings. We move through life, sometimes at a clip, sometimes more mindfully and cautiously, and sometimes we slog through life junctures and phases. And, not less but probably more than many, we are positioned to make decisions that affect other people, often profoundly, even though we rarely have all the information we need before we make those decisions, since so much of it unfolds slowly through time, becoming most readily available only in retrospect.
I am reminded of a theme that comes up again and again in my writing, that is, how we are never only parenting in any given moment but simultaneously are working with and through a host of other identities and relationships. Trying to rework some old problem, rewrite some moment in our ‘personal’ history, revise some perception born out of youthful naiveté, reconnect to some faded or stolen memory. Each maternal act is always also about something else. Whether we’re wanting to recreate some moment from our own experience (my own parent did X and that worked for me so I want to model that good deed for my kids) or revise it for a more beneficial spin (my own parent did X and that didn’t work for me so I want to model something else for my kids), we’re still moving among multiple identities in any given mothering moment. It’s very difficult to pinpoint precisely what drove a particular choice; clarity about our motivations tends to only emerge after the fact, and only sometimes at that.
When I did or didn’t engage my kids in various activities, when I responded to school work or grades, when I gave advice about girl/boyfriends, when I got invested in what they ate or didn’t, when I reacted to the shape their room was in or what they were wearing—even though my pattern was to have little to say about these, when I felt competent as a mother or didn’t, when I gave general motherly advice, I was always also attending with all these responses to some other aspect of my identity and not just to my maternal connection with my kids. What they wore sometimes tapped into my class issues; girlfriend and boyfriend stuff tapped into my own youthful memories of being loved or taken advantage of; what they ate or didn’t commented on my adequacy as a “from scratch” cook like my mother and whether I was good at anything besides work; flowing conversation at the dinner table (a rarity at our house) meant I’d fixed the problem from my childhood of rendering children invisible, and stilted conversation felt like I was back at the white dining table on 34th Terrace, being invisible and having fixed nothing. My children’s various insecurities indicated that I had been unsuccessful in saving them from what plagued me as a kid and brought me back to 3rd grade, 6th grade, 9th grade and whether or not I was smart enough, attractive enough (yes, in 3rd grade), bold enough. Discussions about purchases were and still are always interwoven with how much money we didn’t have in my family growing up and how much I didn’t have as a college student and my decision to buy or not buy something was always tied up with all this at some level. Spending more time on something with or for my children meant spending less time on something with or for my partner. Leaving work to go to a school or sports event challenged my identity as an employee, or proved that I wasn’t wholly defined by work.
There have been innumerable times when I made maternal decisions that ended up being little connected to the kids because they were interconnected with these other things (and for that matter teaching decisions that weren’t about the students, partner decisions that weren’t about the partnership, nutritional decisions that weren’t about nutrition, daughter decisions that weren’t about me and mom). And I think this is just the way of human relationships. But it does make for choices that often enough don’t prove optimal for the people involved, this fact only becoming clear years later when the information we could have used back then begins to reveal itself.