There’s nothing like being away from home and getting a text from your spouse that says call me as soon as you can.
It’s about Emilia, he says when I call.
What about Emilia? I don’t know what the right words are to express, here, how shrill my voice was. ‘Shrill’ works decently well, I suppose. My voice was shrill.
She came home from school with a note. It said that she hit Madeleine, and that L and C were involved, and…
At which point I tuned out, a little, because I needed to take a moment to exhale. Everything’s okay, nothing happened to her, everything’s okay, she just hit another child. And then I had to take another moment, because wait, what? My child hit another child.
Oh god, is she a bully?
The old saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ has always struck me as really misleading. Most pictures you can describe in, like, 140 characters, otherwise why would there be TwitPic and Instagram? And anyway, why ‘a thousand’? If that number is meant to signify ‘lots,’ it kind of misses the mark. A thousand words is not a lot of words. I can easily bang out a thousand words just on the topic of cat barf, about which I know much, having stepped in it three mornings in a row now. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to see a picture of that.
Anyway. I was thinking about the stories that pictures tell as I reviewed my Instagram stream from this weekend and realized that anyone scrolling through those pictures would think that I’m raising my children in the wild and letting them drive cars and possibly also putting them to work as psychics. Which is totally not true. I only keep them out of doors in daylight hours – they’re free range – and they only work as psychics when they want to.
I’m kind of a Mother’s Day curmudgeon. I’m one of those grumpy moms who says, when asked what I’d like for Mother’s Day, ‘a day off,’ because, seriously, isn’t spending a day not being a mom the very best way to spend the day on which motherhood is celebrated? The thing is, when I say this, I don’t really mean it. I don’t actually want a day off from being a mom. Sure, I’d love to have a day or an afternoon all to myself in which I get to lay on the sofa and eat chips and watch Buffy reruns (you are shocked, shocked to hear this, I know), but I wouldn’t really want my family to disappear for that day. I’d rather that they just, you know, mostly occupy themselves in some space adjacent to my relaxation space – go to the park, play in the yard, clean their rooms, that kind of thing – and make periodic appearances to give me hugs and tell me how awesome I am as I lay there in all of my chip-munching, Buffy-watching, slothful glory. Which, okay, is kind of like taking the day off from motherhood, but not entirely, because key to this whole scenario is that I still get to enjoy all of the awesome of being a mom (toddler kisses, general adoration) with none of the work.
Emilia likes to make cards. She has a basket filled with stickers and glue and ribbon and glitter and discarded Hallmark product and she draws upon the contents of that basket frequently to craft fancifully illustrated and elaborately decorated cartes de voeux for every occasion, including but not limited to birthdays, holidays, dinnertime, bedtime, breakfast and the weekend, and expressing sentiments ranging from thanks for the pancakes, congratulations on picking me up from school, condolences on having your Macbook scribbled upon with crayon, I’m sorry that I scribbled on your Macbook with crayon, I love you even though you got mad that I scribbled on your Macbook with crayon, to my favorite, ‘RJOV‘, which you might think is some obscure Latin acronym but actually means ‘I love you’ in the code of the five year old who lacks sufficient vowels in her alphabet sticker supply (‘the J looks like an L Mommy if you look at it backwards and also I didn’t have an E’. She didn’t say what the ‘R’ represents. I’m choosing to go with ROCKSTAR.)
“Parenting is the most selfless institution in the world.” The words jumped out at me from the screen. Most selfless? In the world? I sipped my coffee and considered the ethical calculation that would rank me as more selfless than, say, Mother Teresa.
Maybe, I thought. I can see that. Mother Teresa, after all, never went four years without sleep, nor, I’m pretty sure, did she ever suffer mastitis and have to stuff cabbage leaves down her shirt just keep another human being properly fed.
I read on.
“And it’s the parents’ job to put their children’s interests before their own. Forever.” Ah. Wow. I put my coffee down and adjusted my self-regard. Always? Forever? Really? Maybe I’m not more selfless than Mother Teresa. Maybe I’m – wait for it – actually selfish. Because I don’t think that I should always and forever put my children’s interests before my own, always and forever, no exceptions. Which probably means that my form of parenthood is not the most selfless institution in the world. And that’s fine, really, because I don’t – having thought about it over all of four cups of coffee now – think that it should be.
The other night, I was sitting in a restaurant in San Antonio, sipping a margarita the size of a baby’s head and chatting about balancing motherhood and work and travel with a writer from National Geographic. “It’s hard sometimes,” I said. “I know that my husband finds it challenging when I’m gone one weekend and then again the next weekend and then again the next. But we manage. He does a lot of his work from home.”
“And he doesn’t mind?” she asked.
Usually, when I say that I’m a bad mother, I have my tongue jammed pretty firmly into the fleshy innards of my cheek. Even when I insist that I am not making a tongue-in-cheek statement – when I state that we’re all bad mothers, according to someone (because someone, somewhere, always thinks that we are, every single one of us, doing it wrong) – I’m still flirting with being coy. I don’t really believe that I’m a bad mother, on any terms other than those set out by whatever paradigm happens to be dominating the cultural discourse around what constitutes ‘good’ motherhood. And I think that my judgment is pretty sound here: I’ve looked at good motherhood and bad motherhood from all sides now, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right when I say that the whole idea of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ motherhood is mostly a crock.
All of which is simply to say this: I’m not a bad mother, not really. Except when I am.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. More than anything, I wanted to be a ballerina. And so I asked to take ballet classes and I donned pink tights and black leotards and pranced my way through class after class after class. I practiced plies at home, and spent hours standing in front of the mirror, holding my arms aloft, trying to achieve the perfect arc. I read books, and listened to Tchaikovsky, and imagined that I was Margot Fonteyn or Suzanne Farrell or Karen Kain. For years I did this, dreaming of the day that I’d be able to put on toe shoes and do pirouettes and leap across a stage.
That day never came. By the time I was 12 or 13 my interests in musical theater (ask me some day about the time that I directed and starred in my own production of Annie) and writing had overtaken my interest in ballet and I hung up my dance slippers. I forgot, for the most part, about my early dream to be a ballerina until I decided to take classes again in university, at which point I discovered that I sucked at ballet. Badly. I mentioned this to my mother. She raised an eyebrow at me.
“I always knew that, honey.”
It was sometime early on in one of the first sessions of TEDWomen last week that the question occurred to me: are we saying to each other here – in this go go women go celebration of everything that women can do – that women are the new men? And if that’s the case, is the corollary that men are the new women? Or that less-advantaged women are the new (and old) women? Whither women qua women, if women are trying to escape themselves?