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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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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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