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Time with Mother Ungoing

HOURGLASS ON A BEACH OF THE RED SEA, EILAT

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There has been a certain velocity to my life.  A lot of going and going and going.  I was on an anti-anxiety med a while back and finally went off of it simply because I missed the going.  But it’s been a tortured relationship, me and going.  I have a very hard time ungoing, or even slowing down.  This characteristic is helpful when it comes to professional accomplishment, and even in some aspects of house and home accomplishment, but it is rather an affliction if one wishes to avoid burnout or stress, or to live life more fully. (I don’t say anything about “balance” here largely because I believe it to be an elaborate hoax, a sham manufactured for purposes of blaming individuals for the high-intensity, over-stressed lives in which we must function, and for selling ostensibly balancing products and services, rather than taking a serious look at how social forces shape our lives and could very well shape them differently if we would quit dumping responsibility for social problems in the laps of individuals and families.)

This going is something I acquired from my mother in large part I think, and I’ve been reflecting on this fact the past week after we spent some time together at the beach. I think my acquisition of it is not simply about her having modeled a life of movement but also about genetics too a bit.  I’m rather wired toward movement, as she is; she seems to have acquired this wiring from her father. We were sitting one morning down at the beach, having coffee in aqua adirondock chairs and coffee mugs that matched them, and I was making some list of something—lists of somethings being an anchor for my life—and she made a comment to the effect of “You are always thinking.  It’s no wonder you accomplish so many things. And then you do the things you were thinking about. I can’t think and do that much.”  I replied, “Well, now, maybe.  But you’ve lived most of your life going and going.  Where do you think I got this from?  I learned this directly from you.”

That conversation made me think about her life as having historically been perpetually in motion. And about how sometimes she was hard to be with, given all that motion.  And about how one of the advantages of her slowing down some at this point in her life is that there is more stillness and more opportunity to be near, and tranquil, and in deeper communion with her.  I thought too that it must be hard for my own children to be with their mother, given all my motion.  About the very real possibility that there is little opportunity for them to be still and tranquil with me.  And I’m wondering if I should be doing something about that, or if it is a matter of life stages and transitions that evolve on their own.  I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between.

I do have very vivid memories, despite my mother’s inclination toward movement, of time when we’ve been still together.  I remember a period of time just before kindergarten, when we were home together; me playing and her near, and she made my lunch in my new lunchbox and thermos because I insisted on practicing with it before I went “off” to school. I remember too the times, I suppose around the same period, that we got “up in the bed” for a nap in the afternoons (I realized recently that in our family one gets “in the bed” at night but “up in the bed” during the day) and she would read to me from our red hardcover book of childrens’ stories.  I loved the sound of her voice, there with those stories, and too when she sang hymns at church.  I get misty-eyed thinking about how her voice soothed me so.  Those hot south Florida days on our screened back patio and up in the bed are placid in my memories.  I remember fondly too the times, when I was in elementary school and she would drive on field trips.  She didn’t do them all the time and maybe not even often, but I liked having here there, much more than she liked me volunteering her for the job, I learned.  Ours was a time when parents did not feel compelled to attend en masse their children’s every activity like field trips.  (Oh for the days.)  I remember a day of errands when we bought donuts and ended up eating the whole dozen by the end of the day, just the two of us.  A ridiculous indulgence that we still talk about in mild disbelief. I remember a time when she would go jogging and I got up with her a couple of times to jog with her in the early dawn.  When I was fourteen she took me to a fancy restaurant and we had cold daiquiris and hot popovers on pink tablecloths.  I remember too that she took me to my first gynecology appointment and to get contraception, and that she drove me to my college orientation and we stayed in the dorm room together.  And now I add to that list, which gets longer as I tap my memory, our recent trip to the beach, where we talked all the way down there and back as my son slept in the back seat with his iPod. Or maybe it was mostly me talking.  And we ate hard boiled eggs and PB&J and grapes and apples and cheese.   And we laughed and we laughed as we always do.  I hope my own children can build a list from their memories of unruffled time with me.  I suspect it won’t be a long list but I hope it doesn’t leave them pining after time with their mother, ungoing.

 

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If Looks Could Kill

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I’ve always talked to my kids like they were fellow human beings first.  I do not now, nor have I ever—well OK maybe briefly when they were infants but briefly…and they were infants—talked to them like they were some kind of bizarre species that needed specialized communication deployments in order to connect with adults.    I have met only a few other parents who talk with their children like I do, I’m afraid, and as a consequence, my children have been frequently caught in a tightly woven web of adult perceptions about what kids need to make sense of their world; suspended in uncomfortable moments from which neither they nor I can escape.  I have no history to speak of of talking with them in a high-pitched voice, bent down toward them so our faces are on the same level, my legs bent, my knees together  and cupped by my palms, eyebrows raised to show my supreme intensity and total immersion in each momentary interaction, the likes of which are typically characterized by lots of questions lobbed at them by one ostensible grownup or another, who I guess believe that everything, everything, everything in adult worlds must be restructured, refitted, rephrased, and reshaped to within an inch of its life because bless their hearts the little darlings must be catered to, catered to, catered to in order to have the slightest hope of functioning. I have vivid memories of both my children when they were younger suspended in such a web, trapped in an interaction with one of those ostensible grownups who sound anything but grown up to their little ears, trying to dart their eyes over to me in a desperate appeal for rescue.  I remember the first time my daughter had someone talk to her in this way which, I would imagine, felt not on-the-same-level at all but quite condescending.  I remember the mix of fear and confusion in her expression as she shot that look at me…what is this bending over thing she is doing? And why is she doing those hyper-communicative facial expressions so close to my own face? And why is she smiling so hugely at me and acting so enamored with me when a) I don’t even know her and b) I haven’t even done anything to be enamored with? And why-oh-why is she talking to me in that high-pitched voice, for the love of pete?  It’s weird. Creepy even.  Now you might think, upon reading this post, that a single look from a small child can’t say all that at once.  But I suspect that, if you care for children in most any capacity, you know for a fact that it can and I suspect that you’ve even seen some version of this very pregnant-with-meaning look.  Actually, when I saw the look I thought it was astounding that my daughter could say all that with a glance.  And also I was hoping with all my might that her wholly dismissive ‘tone’ didn’t get picked up by the woman bent in half singing questions in my daughter’s face because I think the woman might well have come completely unraveled.  But really, I thought this was a one-time deal, until I saw her shoot that look at me other times—a look that sometimes appeared to be more about terror than confusion or dismissiveness. And then I saw the same dang look in my son, years later.  I realized that my children aren’t afraid of the dark or being left alone; they’re afraid of scary interactions like these when adults treat them like freaks or incompetents.  They’re afraid of not being taken seriously as thinking, sentient beings.  They’re afraid that the adults who should be taking charge of the world are bent in half smiling inane questions at them instead of standing tall, articulating meaningful ideas with them.  And all I can offer is yes, of that you should be afraid.  Be very afraid.

 

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Fine. I’m Flawed. (Whatever.)

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OK so fine.  I’m a flawed human being.  I don’t always act in my own best interests.  I don’t always act in my children’s best interests.  Sometimes this mother in me comes out who is more like what I think my own mother was like.  Resolute. Directed. Consistent. Grownup.  And other times, well.  Let’s just say less so.

I’ll grant, for example, that shooting whipped cream into my mouth directly from the can is one of those things you do when you’re, say, nine.  And I’ll grant that teaching my children this uncouth habit by poor example, to my partner’s complete and total dismay and probably disgust, is something that…well something my mother wouldn’t do for one thing.  And OK yes, me walking through the grocery store with my two children when they were younger, all of us trying to not be seen spraying whipped cream into our mouths is, it could be argued, less than stellar mothering practice. But I’d like to say in my own defense that . . . well I don’t actually have a defense for that one.

But I do have a defense for the time that I walked with my children when they were younger through a pitch dark campground, quite scared myself, but trying to convince all of us that we were on an adventure.  We had set up camp and needed some things in town, so while we were there and because it was dark by now and they were hungry, we got some dinner so we could just get to the s’mores already once we got back to camp.  Except whoops the gate closes at whatever time that was so we couldn’t get in.  We had to park outside the gate, climb over it, and walk into the campground, down what seemed to be an interminably long road in some very serious darkness. My son was a very little boy who was in charge of holding up the light, mostly because it served to distract him from fear, only that made things even more eery.  I was pretty rattled by the whole thing but had to fake my way through it, believing not much of the this-is-a-perfectly-safe-campground narrative I was feeding them.  They didn’t buy it either, I don’t think, but they were trying.  Now that I’m writing it, I realize I actually don’t have any kind of vindicating defense for this mishap either.

And then of course there’s the time, which I’ve written about before, when I forgot to tell my children that their Grammy and Papaw’s dog had died.  Now this wouldn’t have been so terrible I guess except that we were about two blocks from their house when one of them said something about “can’t wait to see Sally” and that was the point at which I was prompted to tell them about Sally’s demise.  And none too delicately, I’m afraid.  And unfortunately for all of us this memory is emblazoned in their skulls so that, every trip since, they recount it right around that same point in the bend of Piney Grove Road where I originally relayed the devastating news, something to the tune of  “Oh. Um.  Sally died.”  I don’t have a defense for that one either.

And when they forget something that I wanted them to remember but is of little true consequence, I say things like “You were supposed to check to see if the dishes in the washer were clean before you put dirty ones in there,” which alone isn’t so problematic but when followed with some tender pedagogical prompt like “you big loser,”  might be construed as such.  I suppose. And when they are coming unglued over nothing, or are acting obsessively about this or that, I’ve been known to say something helpful and motivating like “Hey.  Re-LAX!  You big freak.” And sometimes when they’re telling a story I cut them off mid-narrative to say “Wait, before I forget…” and then continue with whatever it is that I’m terrified I’m not going to remember—which is a well-grounded and well-evidenced terror, let me just say—something urgent along the lines of “Did I show you that YouTube video of the dog rolling himself down the stairs?”  And while I hardly ever flick them on the forehead as a mild disciplinary measure, I do frequently have my hand poised in the ready-to-flick position when they are heading toward an infraction.  I don’t have a defense for that one either.   There are more examples, but luckily I am at the end of my post.  ( I do want to say to my mom at this point that I do actually act with dignity sometimes.  I mean I’m not really as good at it as you but I’m working at it.  Love, Amber).

 

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On Memory and Motherhood

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This post is about memory.  About how critical it is to understanding family life, about how “wrong” it is, about how it differs so sharply from family member to family member.  I use to put great stock in my recollections of my childhood.  I used to recite narratives about what happened and what people said and who was responsible and even why people did what they did, as if I had any access whatsoever to the why’s of other people’s actions, especially as a child.  I used to tell these tales with fair confidence. They were true because I remembered them.  But I don’t do that so much anymore.  Even when I’m explaining moments form my past to my therapist, I usually mention something about a grain of salt and not quite a grain of faith in my recollections.  I don’t know if it’s feeling more and more like a grownup, or if it’s my exposure to my own kids’ narratives that occasion me to tell my tales with reservation, but I’m learning that family memories are a peculiar thing.

One of the harsh realities of mothering I think is that our children use this peculiarity of memory as a significant guiding force in how they understand who they are and who we are and the choices we made that shaped their lives, even though none of our memories may be particularly ‘accurate’ and few of them in synch with each others’ memories.  Our kids remember shared events differently than we do; sometimes these differences are stunningly absolute.  And yet their narratives of these events are what will guide their lives; not the ‘accuracy’ of the details or how well their version meshes with ours.  I remember falling asleep exhausted as I read picture books to my daughter, and wondering as I garbled the words in semi-consciousness whether she’d recall that we went through stacks of library books each summer, or that I lost consciousness halfway through them. The answer, as it turns out, is she seems to remember neither.  My son mentioned recently that we always say we’re going to get him a bike for his birthday in June and then never do.  I reminded him that it is HE who says he wants a bike in April and May practically every year, and then by June he’s decided he wants something else.  I suspect that his version of being annually denied the bike is the one that will stick in his narratives.  My daughter remembers walking home many times in the dark from karate class while in junior high; she actually walked home once, at dusk.  My son says we always say we’re going to go camping and never do.  I say we DID go camping, him and his sister and me, quite a lot in fact; but now his two weeks at summer camp knocks out 40% of his summer break given his year-round school, and he has made clear that he is in no mood for more camping.  And I’m in no mood for cajoling unwilling participants at the campground, I’ll tell you that.

In a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago,  I mentioned one my father’s evening rants, which included storming down the hallway, flicking on the light, shouting “and another thing!” and scolding us about that other thing, to be followed by another thing, and another thing, in sequence.  My sister read this post and swears that this script was performed by my mother, not my father, and confirmed this with our other sister. I have distinct memories of fearing my dad’s hallway rants so that’s the recollection that sticks for me, but I don’t make much ado about narrative accuracy any more. I do fear though, the more profound ways in which my children’s narratives of their lives with me implicate me in ways that go beyond picture book and birthday bicycle memories, venture into “you never” and “you always” memories, and move wholly out of synch with the memories I thought I was shaping for them.  How our children narrate their lives is an element of mothering over which we finally have no control.  And letting go of the desire for it is one the greatest challenges of motherhood for me.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting

 

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The Maternal Body and the Holiday Tree

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I am very tired as I write.  I sit with a cup of mango tea staring at my holiday tree, pulled into a nearly trance-like state by my exhaustion.  I am looking for inspiration about my blog post and I’m not finding it hanging from the branches on my tree.  Money isn’t the only thing that doesn’t grow on trees; ideas don’t either, as it turns out.  My feet still hurt from standing at the side of the bed last night for 2 or 3 hours wrapping presents to put under the tree.  I’m an excellent wrapper, if I do say so myself; my family has marveled at my skill.  I don’t do much in the way of ribbons and bows, any more than I do much in the way of side dishes; but on wrapping and entrees, I’ve cultivated quite the talent.  Pulling, tightening, and—most of all—creasing.  These are the tricks to impressively wrapped presents; it’s the stuff underneath all the accoutrements (if you have any, which I don’t) that distinguishes levels of wrapping expertise.  Plus standing.  Lots of standing.  (Either that or lots of bending, say if you’re wrapping on the floor, but I can’t take hours of bending even more than I can’t take hours of standing at a tall bedside.)  So I’m thinking about all this as I stare at my tree and the presents it shelters.  And I’m thinking about the tension in my shoulders, a residual effect of driving over the mountain yesterday trying to get home to my kids after being delayed in my return by a snow storm.  The roads were technically not bad, but I was being hyper mindful of the seemingly melted snow—I once drove into a snow-covered cornfield in Indiana after a blizzard and I learned then that patches of road that are technically not that bad can in fact be that bad—so the roads yesterday might well have been covered with ice and snow for all the difference it made in my anxiety level then (though lowered slightly by a good two hours of Beatles CDs) and the tension in my shoulders now.  And all of this is making me think about how motherhood is so very embodied.  So much of carework and tenderness and sternness and affection is rooted in the body.  Motherhood does have its way with a woman’s body.

I asked my son last week if he had any tests; he said he did have one on the book he was reading.  I wanted to be sure he was on top of his game (I think that should actually be phrased ‘at the top of his game’ but whatever) so I asked him to talk with me as we drove home about his book.  And he did.  An hour later he was still talking, scene by scene, character detail by character detail.  By now we were home and I was chopping and measuring in the kitchen as he continued to narrate and then began acting out scenes. I was quite proud that he had connected so deeply with his schoolwork and so tapped at the end of my day that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it till we got to the last chapter. I thought I was being so clever in challenging him to prove that he was ready for his test; it didn’t occur to me that he might have ample evidence—like 90 minutes worth—of said proof.  The challenge to the physical limits of my body that evening—hearing, attending, manual preparation of our food, standing at the kitchen counter—offer up another example the bodily demands of mothering.  I sit here on the couch with my laptop looking at my tree, trying not to look past it out the window at the darkness on my front porch.  I’m trying not to notice the darkness on my front porch because it will remind me of how it should be lit but isn’t—only half of my lighted holiday garland seems to be working and it’s the half that can be seen from the room where I currently am not.  And I could fix it, I suppose, but I don’t think my body could take it, requiring as it does my removing the whole garland from the banister around my porch, hoping my Florida girl bones will survive the 15 minutes it would take to do so given that the temperature this morning was 5 degrees (please know that I am not even sure what the phrase “5 degrees” really even means, but I suspect that it has something to do with moving quickly and simultaneously being able to maneuver the garland up and over and around various poles and spindles in all the garb I’ll have to wear out there), lugging it inside, unwrapping the lights…blah blah blah, too horrible to think about right this exact second.

So I’m highly motivated to keep my attentions focused on my now even more lovely tree. And as I watch it I think about that ornament I made with my daughter when she was five.  And then I think about wheeling her in her wagon to preschool, and the French toast sticks I handed her in a paper cup with syrup for one of our trips to school and how guilty I felt then for all the hurriedness and non-nutritional value—guilt which remained with me until she wrote in junior high school about our trek that day as one of her favorite memories.  I’ve wasted more vital energy on guilt like that and surely wish I could have known earlier how to let myself off the hook.  But in any case, I was trying to get us outside a little bit and trying to get myself some exercise of some sort which I had such a hard time doing when I had young children in tow.  So hard to attend to my body’s needs.  Then and now.

And as I look at this tree, my eyelids drooping ever more as I move my eyeballs from the tree to the laptop screen and back again, I think about that “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament that I got in honor of my son those years ago, and several months before that the emergency C-section  two weeks early, and the trouble we had breastfeeding.  And the trouble I had lactating—in front of my class in my first weeks of school as a new professor—the milk let down when I called the house just before class and he started crying in the background and my body responded with milk.  Much like the time when my daughter was an infant and I went to the grocery store without her; a baby was crying several aisles over and my body responded with milk. We don’t have to feed ALL the crying babies, I thought, just our own! And now I’m at the end of post and the end of my day and the end of my ability to think anymore or keep my eyes open.  I need to go tell my son goodnight and that the electric guitar riffs will need to subside for tonight because this mama must sleep.   The maternal body, lived in and on and through, challenged and pulled from, filled up when I drink in my children’s smell, soothed when I touch and am touched by them, then challenged and pulled from again, lived in and on and through.  Maybe I’ll fix the garland tomorrow.

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Posted by on December 16, 2010 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting

 

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