October 10, 2008

Who Is a Good Mother?


1976,1981, 1983

I have been a mother for 35 years. My daughters are 35, 33, 29, and 26. At the moment, they consider me a good mother, who needs to fight her judgmental nature, specifically about the right balance between mothering and careers. I am reluctant to criticize Palin's mothering, because I am not sure what good mothering means. When I had one child, I was much surer than I am now. Who decides whether you are a good mother? All of the following will demand a vote. Of course, I am not suggesting they should be allowed a vote.
  • You and your spouse
  • Your mother, grandmother, siblings, cousins, friends, or employers
  • Your babies, toddlers, preschoolers, teenagers, adult children
  • Your children's teachers, coaches, guidance counselors
  • Your children's psychiatrists and therapists
  • College admissions staffs
  • Your children's lovers, partners, spouses
  • Your church, the mass media, the USA, most other mothers
What are the criteria? Please, don't imagine I think these questions are reasonable. I just wanted to highlight the insane expectations of mothers, imposed by society and demanded of themselves. Given that none of us are divinely perfect, such crazy demands destroy our confidence and undermine our mothering.
  • Whether and how long you breastfed your children
  • How long you waited before returning to work
  • How often you screamed at your kids, how often you lowered their self-esteem, deservedly or not
  • Whether you ever spanked them
  • How many trips to the emergency room were necessary
  • How many bones they broke
  • How many times they got sick
  • How clean and orderly you kept your house
  • The nutritiousness of your meals
  • The amount of TV they watched
  • Their hours on the computer
  • How many books they read, how many you read to them
  • How many times you took them to the library
  • How many musical instruments they played
  • How many sports they excelled in
  • When they first had sex
  • How many sex partners they had, whether they got STDs
  • Whether you were rich enough to send them to good schools
  • What grades they got, what colleges they attended
  • Whether they became alcoholics, drug addicts, child abusers, criminals
  • Whether they had an abortion
  • Whether they chose public service careers
  • What candidates they supported
  • Whether they got married, became gay, had children of their own
  • What careers they pursued, how much money they made
  • How often they visit, call, email, share their lives with you?
  • Whether they accept your values and your faith
  • Whether they honor their grandparents, aunts, and uncles
  • Whether they attend family reunions
  • Whether they observe birthdays and anniversaries
  • Whether they can be relied upon during a family crisis
Can children evaluate your mothering before they become parents and realize what it is like? Can a good mother have rotten children? If you had a rotten childhood, do you get a handicap on motherhood? If your children turn out badly, can they evaluate your mothering fairly? If you remember a thousand instances of bad mothering, are you a good mother if everyone has been deceived or have more perspective?
There is a dark side of motherhood. When I volunteered to counsel parents suspected of child abuse, the volunteer coordinator asked me if I could imagine abusing my children. They refused anyone insufficiently honest or self aware to say yes. Every child at times is an unwanted child:) Raising children on the 20th floor in Manhattan tests your impulse control:) Often it is easier to be a good mother to one child than to another, but that doesn't mean the easy child is your favorite. Good or bad temperamental matches play a crucial role in mother-child relationships.

My mom was a good mother to her 6 children, absolutely there for us all our lives. But she and I had a conflicted relationship because we were so different temperamentally. Watching my mother care for her mother as she aged, I marveled how alike they were. How difficult it must have been to have a daughter who confronted and argued. Ultimately we did well with each other. I will always be grateful that she lived with me the last four years of her life, that she died at home.

Being a good mother, like being a good person, is something you need to work on every day of your life. I am finding the transition to grandmotherhood almost as perplexing. I desperately miss my mother, who knew me and my daughters equally well and could interpret for all of us. Many of us are probably better grandmothers than we were mothers.

Growing Up in the 50s and 60

When I compare my life with that of my parents, they were far more rooted in the community and virtually immune to the seductions of consumerism. Raising six kids and sending them to Catholic schools on one middle-class income, they had to make their own entertainment.We didn't get a TV until I was 14; we got a mediocre audio system at about the same time. The radio was our main entertainment source. I recall the thrill of my own radio as a birthday present when I was 10; I could listen to Dodger games whenever I wanted. Movies were a luxury; we ate out about twice a year, usually when someone graduated.

We entertained ourselves by visiting family and friends. On Sundays we often visited my nearby aunt and uncle and watched Disneyland. All of my 45 first cousins were an easy drive away. There were countless Christening, First Communion, Confirmation, Graduation parties. We had family picnics with terrific softball games for all ages. There were gangs of kids in the neighborhood to play baseball, shoot baskets, play badminton, volleyball. Someone's basement had ping pong or a pool table. There was no extra money for music or dance lessons or gymnastic lessons. Riding bikes was the way we got around. Summers we hung out at the high school swimming pool or went to Jones Beach by bus.

We learned how to take the bus by the time we were 8. We used our bicycles for transportation. My parents only had one car. My mom used to drop off and pick up my father at the railroad station, so she could have the car. My parents were too busy to play chauffeur. Because there was no neighborhood Catholic school when the first three of us were young, we took the bus. In high school I took two buses to get there, taking an hour for a 15-minute drive.

Card playing was the way adults socialized. Almost every adult was competent at cards, and many were excellent bridge players. My parents played bridge with friends once a week. We used to creep down the stairs to hear the kibbutzing. Every home had a card table. People almost always had a deck in their bag or their pocket if you had to wile away time. Periodically my family discovers there is no cheaper or more varied form of free entertainment than card playing.

My parents were devout Catholics, genuine good people with a stalwart faith. When they moved to Long Island after my dad came home from the war, our home town was just potato fields. Schools, churches, community organizations had to be build. St. Martha's, the local Catholic parish, met in a nineteenth century building that became the volunteer library after the church was built. My parents and their friends worked tireless to raise money for a church, a school for 800 kids, a convent for the nuns, and a rectory for the priests.

My mom and dad were tremendously involved in social action outreach with the local Catholic Church. My dad was head of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which ministers to poor struggling families in the parish. He visited the local nursing home every Sunday without fail. They visited parish families in need once a week. Some evenings he was called out to visit a family experiencing a sudden emergency. When they moved to Long Island in 1947, our town lacked a church. They and their friends raised the money to build a church, a convent for the nuns, a rectory for the priest, a grade school for 800 kids. That represented tremendous dedication to fundraising for a working class community.

The local library was run by volunteers for the first ten years. I had been infected by my parents' community spirit. When the library was vandalized when I was 9, my best friend and I volunteered two times a week to sort it out. I remember the chief volunteer struggling to explain to us the difference between fiction and nonfiction. My best friend and I also established the first library in our grade school. I spent four summer working as the children's librarian in high school. There were not yet professional librarians, so I had a free rein to run the summer programs anyway I liked.

October 9, 2008

1971, Strident Feminist Has Pregnancy Scare

I wrote these appalling journal entries shortly after I dropped out of Columbia Law School in 1971. Who would have guessed that eventually I would become the stay-at-home mother of four? However, this was also the only time in my childbearing life before my husband's vasectomy that I forgot to use birth control.

When I first realized I’d forgotten to take the pill Saturday night, I was terrified, hysterical, uncontrollable. I was going to get pregnant; my life was ruined; I could never face anyone again. I was convinced that somehow I deliberately forgot to take the pill because subconsciously I wanted to be pregnant. That would justify my not having a job, my staying home, my sleeping late, the lazy pattern I’d fallen into the past few weeks since Columbia. Then I would have all the time in the world to read, to think, to learn, to write, and everyone would think any effort on my part was commendable.

I am still torn between two interpretations of my forgetfulness. After religiously remembering to take the pill for three and one half years, it could not be just by accident that I forgot. The other is that in three and one half years it was inevitable that at some time I would forget; no one’s memory is perfect. The actual circumstances are strange too. After I finished my sandwich Saturday evening, I went into the bedroom to take my pill. Instead I put the pills in my pocketbook, thinking Chris and I might spend the night on Long Island. But I remembered taking it, even now I half remember taking it. Often at two in the morning I’ve become convinced that I hadn’t taken the pill and gotten up to check. Always I had. This is the first time I remembered taking the pill when in fact I hadn't. Of course we left for Long Island early about 6:30. Usually I take it around 8 or 9. I must have put it in my bag, thinking I would take it later.

Later I calmed down, realizing how extremely unlikely it was that I would get pregnant by forgetting to take the pill once. But more strangely and more interesting, I also calmed down because I realized getting pregnant wouldn’’t necessarily be the end of my life. I don’t think I could ever reconcile myself to having an abortion. Although I may recognize that my reluctance is the result of Catholic teachings that on the whole I have rejected, that recognition does not vanquish my reluctance. While my Catholic training hasn’t given me certainty, it’s given my doubts--the worst kind of doubts. Can you go ahead and do something when you’re not sure whether it’s murder or not? Don’t some doubts have to be resolved before you can act?

In addition I somehow feel you have to have a better reason for an abortion than we have. We could afford it. Chris’s and my joint income is easily $16,000 or $17,000. In fact, if I built up my free-lancing just a little more, we could afford the two bedroom apartment in the new building. Once I found a full-time job, we could easily afford to hire someone to take care of the baby during the day. Before the crisis I never considered the advantages of having children now, rather than five or six years from now. I have always felt I should be firmly, absolutely, unshakably settled in a career before I could even consider having children. But once you decide you’re not going to stay home and take care of the child, having one now wouldn’t hinder my career much more than having one later. In fact, now my career, being relatively new, would probably demand less than it will five-six-seven years from now.

January 10, 1972
I don’t think I quite realized how suggestible I am. Merely seeing Miriam’s baby, talking to Richard and Kathy, learning Pat was pregnant and seeing her and Peter’s excitement have set my fantasies racing. Yet rationally I know this would be the worst possible time for me to get pregnant. I’m discouraged, depressed, uncertain about what I’m going to do, haunted by the feeling I’m wasting myself, that I am a failure. Having a baby would be the easy way out. On the other hand, this time I would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire for the rest of my life. You can change schools, quit jobs, cease to see friends, but you can’t cease to be a mother. That brief little crisis when I forgot the pill seems to have had serious results. Deciding that my life wouldn’t be ruined if I got pregnant seemed to have had an incredible impact on my thinking. I wonder if such fantasies are in any way related to the fact that it’s a week before my period.

I don’t think I’m in any serious danger of giving way to my fantasies. But somehow I thought I was immune to them. I didn’t realized that I was insulated because none of my friends, none of the women I could conceivably identify with, had children. Perhaps my greatest fear is that when you have a baby some mysterious change comes over you and you either are content to stay at home despite resolutions you made before the baby was born or you are powerless to return to work even thought you might want to. I hate to consider Pat my guinea pig, but I’m very curious to observe whether and how she changes. I can’t entirely identify with her; she’s six years older than I am, and she lacks ambition. Even so I cannot conceive of her fading into a devoted mother, interested in nothing but her precious child or guilty if she is interested in anything else.

Thank God my daughters are nothing like I was at age 26. I got pregnant 6 months after this last entry.