All About My Mother

March 6, 2009

When my nephew, Zachary, was about four years old, my mother pulled a prank on him. This was not at all unusual – according to my mother, children only become fun once they’re of an age to be messed with, and her relationships with her grandchildren are guided by this rule – but this particular prank was pretty epic. She staged an alligator attack in one of the closets in her home – complete with stuffed alligator and screaming granny and arm pulled under sleeve to simulate dismemberment – and Zachary was, I do not exaggerate in saying, alarmed by the whole spectacle. Thrilled, too – he talked about it, delighted, for months – but in the moment, mostly alarmed. And mad, in that adorably outraged manner that only small children can effect.

You, he said, pointing at my mother, are BAD. She just laughed.

She is bad, I agreed. She is very bad. She’s your bad grandma.

No, he replied, stamping his foot and pointing an accusatory finger at me. She’s NOT my bad grandma. She is YOUR BAD MOTHER.

And with that, a parenting philosophy was born, and a blog predestined.

My mom has always been a bad mother. Not in the neglectful sense: she was, for most of my childhood, a stay-at-home mom who baked cookies and led Girl Guide troops and did crafts and told hour upon hour of bedtime stories (and lunchtime stories, and camptime stories, and going-for-a-walk stories, and riding-in-the-car stories…) It’s just that with everything that she did, she put her own enjoyment of the activity at the forefront. Childhood, as she understood it, was a time of fun and magic, and dammit if she wasn’t going to take advantage of that for herself. She’d waited a long time to throw herself into motherhood, and she wasn’t going to waste the opportunity by approaching the whole thing as work. Child-rearing, in her view, was just one long exercise in applied fun and amusement. So it was that the cookies were sometimes made in ridiculous shapes (don’t ask) and the crafts were more often reflections of her own interests and obsessions (during the tenure of Pierre Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister, who she loathed, we made something that she called TURD-ohs, which I’ll leave to your imagination) and the stories often took perverse but fascinating turns (it was a long time before I understood that my sister had not been found in a pickle patch and that my bum wouldn’t fall off if I unscrewed my belly-button.) She took delight in surprising us and startling us and making the world seem like an unpredictable and fascinating place, filled with benevolent but arm-nibbling monsters and tyrannical fairies and and friendly but overtaxed families of pickle-imps and tiny, turd-like goblins who carried placards decrying the rule of the Liberal Party of Canada.

It was awesome.

I knew, from childhood, that I wanted to be a mother just like her. And I knew from the moment that Zachary called her BAD that that meant being a bad mother.

Which is what I’m trying to be, with some success, I think. She, in the meantime, has moved on to fully embracing her role as a bad grandmother, as the New York Times reported yesterday. (Yeah, you read that right.) Which means that she’s still all about the fun and the games and the perversity, but also that she’s doing it on her terms. And those terms follow this principle: it is, in anything other than extraordinary circumstances (and she does, for the record, grandma-up if circumstances demand it), only about the fun. She’s not interested in being an on-call babysitter (she loves to spend time with her grandchildren, but refuses to regard it as a duty), she’s not interested in changing diapers (been there/done that) and she’s not interested in having her grandmahood defined according to any conventional, matronly terms. The great thing about being a grandmother, in her opinion, is getting to have all of the fun with little of the labour, and she takes full advantage of that.

Which, again, is awesome, but – as I told the New York Times – it’s also a little frustrating, sometimes. I love that my mom is something of an iconoclast, that she’s independent and contrary and entirely forthright about who she is and how she wants her relationships to work. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t wish, sometimes, that she was the type of grandma who swooped in and gathered babies to her chest and shooed me off to have a nap while she changed diapers and made lasagna (she makes awesome lasagna, by the way), that she were the type of grandma who demanded babysitting duty, who wanted to just move in and help – or, at least, fly out regularly to help. I have, at times during my pregnancies and my post-partums, just wanted my mommy to step in and make things all better, to just take over and be the apron-clad grandma who tutors her daughter in the ways of motherhood and offers free babysitting on the side. But she’s not that – she’s always been more of a hug-you-warmly-stroke-your-head-and-help-you-figure-out-how-fix-things-*yourself* kind of mom – and she’s always been clear about that and never made any apologies for that and I can’t help but think that she wouldn’t be the awesome bad grandma that she is if it weren’t for that.

My tutelage, at the knees of my mother, in the ways of motherhood has always been about this – this spirit of unconventionality, this emphasis on encouraging independence, this insistence upon doing things, whenever possible, out of joy rather than duty, this celebration of being, in some ways, bad – and I do that education an injustice if I demand that my mother be, as a grandmother, anything other her own bad self.

So I’ll manage without the free babysitting and the unsolicited domestic help and the demands for more time with her grandchildren, and let her get on with that bad self.

And I’ll get on with mine.

(Am leaving the family for an overnight trip to New York tonight, which is awesome, but, also, terrifying. I’ve never left Jasper for more than a few hours – and he’s never gone more than a few hours without the boob – but we figure that the break will be good for him and for me. We’re right about that, right? Right? Am freaking out a little bit.)

*Photo by Arantxa Cedillo (who so graciously overlooked all the mess in my house, and who sweetly exclaimed over my copy of the Todo Sobre Mi Madre film poster, thereby making me feel a little bit as though I’d made up for being a slob) for the New York Times

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    Anonymous March 9, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I have to ask how the overnighter went?

    Redstocking Grandma March 10, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I am the mother of four grown daughters and the grandma of a 22 month old, a 6 month old, and a 3 month old. Learning is be a grandma is a least as hard as learning to be a mother, especially since my mom has been dead for four years. Each daughter has very different needs and expectations.

    Beck March 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Wow thank you so much for writing about this. I call my parents the “me” generation. They love my son but it’s really about their reflection – how great they look in his eyes. And god forbid they miss happy hour or trips to France or outdoing each other on toys rather than say starting a college fund. My parents were alot of fun -dancing, laughing and throwing parties. But my brother and I spent many days eating bread, butter and sugar sandwiches. And if my brother got to the bread first, forget about it.

    Iheartfashion March 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

    My mom lives two doors down and I can count on two hands the number of times she’s babysat, and then only for 2 hours max. But she loves my kids fiercely, and is an artist who spends time with the kids drawing and painting and sculpting and building a treehouse and being a “fun” grandma when we visit. There are times I wish for a helicopter grandma who would swoop in and clean the house and make dinner, but I can’t imagine that I’ll be that type myself. Some people are better at being fun than being nurturing and traditionally motherly.

    Kris March 12, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    My mom thinks she is the big helper, and in reality, she is more the kind of grandma that is hands off. I wish she was like your mom and admitted it.

    Instead, I have memories of her telling how much she helped, while in reality she told me the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital, that she needed a nap, and then took off, while I struggled to get food.

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