Sunday, May 18, 2003

May, 2003: My life looks nothing like a Mother's Day ad

My life looks nothing like a Mother’s Day ad.
This time of year, the newspaper is brimming with glossy pages from local department stores showcasing beautiful mothers interacting quietly and peacefully with their beautiful children. The ads are often muted photographs with pastel backgrounds. Children and mothers frolic — hair flowing, sundresses blowing — amid fields of flowers. Immaculate children beam up at their mothers adoringly. Mothers throw back their heads in ecstatic laughter at the sheer joy of simply being in the presence of their obviously gifted children. And the father (fit, tan and back from his day at work as the president of a multinational corporation) is always looking on happily, as he grills, wearing a crisp sport shirt and khaki shorts.
            I’m not sure what I expect out of these ads. Realism? A picture of my own grape jelly-stained sons and me with bags under my eyes and a stringy ponytail? After all, these advertisers are trying to sell a product, and do they really want to remind people, on Mother’s Day, of all days, what mothering is truly about?
            It is no secret that motherhood suffers from romanticized images. From the time we are little girls, we have been fed a notion of motherhood that is sweet and serene and wrapped in a pink satin bow. No one mentioned to me before I became a mother, that between my own lactating and newborn Jacob’s spit up, I would likely smell like sour milk by the end of each day.
            It’s not that I don’t believe motherhood is a beautiful thing. Motherhood is filled with moments of beauty and grace. But mothers are beautiful in the way marathon runners are beautiful. They are beautiful for their power and strength and endurance.
A mother is beautiful because of the pain and effort you see etched on her face when she is working her hardest. Indeed, you might not even see her during those moments she’s working her hardest, because it’s very dark at 3 in the morning, and no one is up except her and the feverish infant.
            The images of perfect mothers and the pressed and starched children that we see in ads may actually undermine the very motherhood that they are trying to celebrate. They show mothering at its easiest — when everyone is well-dressed and having fun.
            I have always felt that the most important work of mothering is done when my children are at their worst, rather than when they are at their best. It is easy to love and guide children when they are smiling and sitting quietly. (Quick, take a picture while you can!) It is much more difficult when they are tantruming or rolling their eyes or pounding on a sibling. Yet, it is how a mother handles these times that defines and shapes her child’s character.
            When Liam, now 5, was 3 ½, we went through a difficult time with him. Whenever something didn’t go his way, he would scream. No cookies before dinner. Long scream. Time to turn off the TV. Longer scream. And now let’s put on your pajamas. Scream within a scream. That very loud period of parenting, which lasted about three or four months, taught me that you never know what you’re going to be called upon to teach your child. Those months, we had to teach Liam not to scream. We did it by carrying the screaming, writhing Liam to his room for a time-out every time he screamed. Sometimes we had to hold the door shut. We were pretty successful, though, and today Liam seldom screams.
Teaching children to go from horrible to acceptable is not exactly the most rewarding type of teaching. Starting at acceptable and heading toward outstanding is a lot more fun. It’s also rare. As a mom, often you’re simply teaching someone how to be a civilized human being. You’re just trying to bring them up to neutral. And if for some reason you think that everyone else’s kids are perfect — that other mothers don’t need to teach their children which words aren’t allowed, or how to put their laundry in the hamper, or not to scream incessantly — you could feel pretty bad about your own situation. My friend Carol is currently trying to teach her toddler not to lick all flat surfaces. Again, just up to neutral.
Our church sometimes adds to the myth of perfect mother, perfect child. Statues and paintings of Mary — our ultimate role model — never show her in the midst of dealing with toddler Jesus in a meltdown. Yet, Jesus, arguably the best share-er of all time, once had to be taught to share himself. And Mary, perhaps exasperated after an afternoon of watching little John the Baptist and Jesus together while her cousin ran errands, was his likeliest teacher.
It can be tempting to pretend to be that perfect mom with the perfect kids in the ad; to pretend to be that serene Mother Mary. With the right outfit and a pasted-on smile, no one has to know that your six-year-old lies and your ten-year-old swears. But I believe that when we look at a child struggling with a particular behavior, we need to keep in mind that there are adults with that same problem (in Liam’s case, I thought of temper-losing grown-ups). And if we can help our child move beyond lying or cheating at 6 or 10 or 15, we have given that child a gift much greater than we would have if we pretended everything was just fine.

Glossy ads and marble statues aside, this Mother’s Day, may we honor all not-perfect mothers and our not-perfect children. May we honor the marathon which is motherhood — often exhausting and frustrating, yet somehow exhilarating. And when we see a struggling mother, may we offer her a sip of cool water and a moment of rest. And remind her how far she’s come.