Monday, June 18, 2012

Becoming the Mother We Sought


At some point in our lives, most of us have believed ourselves to be a victim of our parents. Sometimes children feel victimized by their parents’ dorky taste in clothing. Sometimes their parents’ quirky behaviors induce embarrassment. Most of the time, children of all ages resent their parents when parents say “no.”

This is what happened in one episode of Enlightened, an HBO series starring Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, and Luke Wilson. The female protagonist, Amy, is a woman whose marriage failed when she and her husband could not overcome their grief after losing a child. Her ex-husband remains her friend, but he uses drugs in order to forget his sorrows. Amy re-married her work, only to lose her career after an ugly, public affair with her married boss. He dumps and demotes her, leading to a screaming, stalking episode and a long rehabilitation at an expensive spa. Finally, Amy returns to her mother’s home, determined to be a good person.

Each episode reveals Amy taking one step forward in her quest to become worthy and loving, only to be driven back two or three steps after some complication, including her mother’s distrust of her. Amy’s mother does not understand her daughter or her motives, and she seems to disapprove of Amy and her quest. Mom says “no” and “no, thank you” often, leading Amy to observe that she has:

lived in a world full of not-good-enough mothers. Imperfect, bad mothers. But the mother is a child, too. She is a child. [And] I [Amy] will stop waiting for … [her] to be the perfect mother. I will be patient with ... [her]. I will be tender. I will be the mother I wanted … [her] to be.

And that really is the vow every child makes, isn’t it? We vow not to become the adults that surrounded us when we were younger. We believe we will be better, cooler, better looking, better dressed, and more enlightened. Yet we always inherit some of the same imperfections, and once we recognize that truth, we learn to be tender and possess greater degrees of humility.

This blog has been both reflection and vow. It has acknowledged some of what Mother did well. It has offered snippets of who she was, including some of her imperfections. Posts have also looked beyond my mother’s generation, into my own parenting and recently, my granddaughter’s future. With the passage of time, from past to present to future, the blog seems to have come full circle.

So farewell, Readers. Please tell your own stories, making sure to share them in the living years. Look for me at http://livinglikeatticus.blogspot.com and http://mywritingandeditingcoach.blogspot.com. Please join these blogs, and please comment often.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Women, Love Yourselves!

Dear Granddaughter, 

Being a woman is more than a biological distinction, so much more than filling in the space beside the letter “F” on the form provided at the gynecologist’s office. We are so much more than the sum of our unique parts—breasts and vaginas. We are more than beauty. We possess fine minds, capable of discerning truths and imagining brilliant futures. We make the nests, weaving together the moral fiber of a nation, transforming selfish creatures into selfless ones, nudging them over the edge, teaching them to soar. We give comfort, nurture, entertain, inspire, and lead. We may also be the noblest of the noble creatures. Yet we often do not love ourselves enough, sometimes not at all.

Some of us are artifacts from an earlier age when women were cultivated to be pretty and coy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, women had little value if they were not pretty. Even a loving, intelligent grandmother, Lady Mary Montagu, recognizing that her own granddaughter was plain, suggested that she should be taught to love reading because as a plain girl, especially one whose parents could not provide an attractive dowry, she should not hope for marriage. She should steel herself for the life of a spinster, living at the mercy of a relative, with little more than books to comfort her through longs days and nights. Lady Montagu asserted that “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting. She [her granddaughter] will not want new fashions nor regret the loss of expensive diversions or variety of company if she can be amused with an author in her closet [sitting room/bedroom].”

Surely we have evolved over the course of several hundred years, but girls in the twenty-first century still compensate. They may put on weight, finding reassurance in food and confirming what they believe to be their destinies. They may let their hair hang in order to mask break-outs and acne. They may bear stooped shoulders if they happen to be taller than the tallest boy. They may resign themselves to their role as a plain girl, choosing modest, unflattering clothing that masks shapes and sometimes even gender. Others may choose outrageous outfits, defying convention and fashion in an effort to prove that being girly and pretty does not interest them. How Do I Look, a program on the Style network, exists to transform these women and prove to them that they too can attract the approval of both men and women.

Other women make war with the plain or unattractive label, relying upon gyms, trainers, diet fads, Spanx, hair dyes, highlights, Botox, collagen, make-up, lotions, tanning booths, and plastic surgery to transform themselves into something they like when they look in the mirror. These women sometimes become so gaunt that we can map veins under a thin layer of skin or count their ribs through thin, gauzy tees. Some of these woman sport lips that enter a room before their noses—lips so enormous that they parody Marilyn Monroe’s pout. Others have eyebrows arched so high up their foreheads that we whip our own heads left and right, looking for the interloper who just frightened them, only to find there is no one else, just a woman who has become a cartoon of her former self.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am not a woman familiar with gyms. I joined one for a time. I even reached the thirty-minute mark on a recumbent bike, but each of my muscle groups lacks definition. I have Crow’s feet although I prefer laugh lines, a much prettier term for what exists at the outer edges of my eyes. My neck is crepey, or as some younger folk might say, creepy; consequently, I love autumn and winter when turtle necks and scarves may be worn with little comment. Around my lips are wrinkles, the ones that I abhorred on older women when I was young, the ones I dreaded to see in a mirror. I am also overweight, a state I cannot recommend, and I have struggled to find clothes that are comfortable and fashionable, clothes in which I feel attractive. Thus, I have often stepped into the demands of the universe feeling everything except pretty.

I have known others like me, and I have known women who are cute, adorable, pretty, and gorgeous. Without exception, these women are self-deprecating Joan-Rivers. One hates the shape of her nose. Another thinks her ankles are just too thick. Many despise their hair; it’s too flat or curly, too dull or frizzy. We are all part Goldilocks, looking for hair that’s just right. We envy each other, too: the blond next door, the gal with big blue eyes, a colleague with long, graceful fingers, and a sister with Audrey Hepburn’s neck. Our envy rarely looks good on us either.

Lady Mary Montagu also observed, in one of her finer moments, that “A face is too slight a foundation for happiness.” Few of us would disagree. Happiness is what we build within ourselves through our good works, through love. Neither books for our lonely days nor looks for all our days, often bought at great cost, grant happiness. So please, love yourselves so much that you create happiness for yourself. Cultivate more than a pretty face and a lovely form. Let go of self-deprecation and envy. Embrace your nobility by loving yourselves, warts, weight, worries, and all.

(This essay was written for and first published at www.enableher.com, but now, just days after my granddaughter's birth, I wish to share it with her so that one day, when she doubts herself, she can read this and love herself.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Welcome, Granddaughter


She loves to rest her head upon the chest of her family. Beating hearts comfort her; the steady movement of breathing reassures her.

She loves to pull her head up in order to see the face of the person who holds her. When she lies in our arms and Sleep looses its hold upon her, she studies the faces above her, evaluating them, perhaps memorizing them. She has not yet found a face that fails to fascinate.

She also studies the colors and shapes in her world, the light and shadow. She sees and learns: red stripes upon her nursery wall mesmerize; shades of orange against ocean blue around her play pad fascinate; her mommy’s original photographs captivate.

At her first photo session, when she was but eleven days old, she held her own head up so long that staff asked, “How old is she?” With this confirmation from outsiders, we believe she is as strong as we suspected and a step or two ahead of her peers.

She trusts the arms that reach for her and has not felt insecure or frightened yet. I only hope that she will always believe she is a good judge of character. More important, I hope she will always trust her instincts so that she may avoid people whose intentions are not good.

She protests new experiences as well she might, but having tested the newness, she reflects and relaxes. Her first shampoo was fraught with cries and complaints. Her second, in her mommy's, was tranquil. She enjoyed having her head gently massaged.

She dwells in love.

Her parents are nervous. They fret and hover.

Grandparents, having passed beyond the nervous state with their own children, simply enjoy this greatest wonder of this world, oft repeated, never dull, always personal, inspirational, and humbling.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Go Boldly On, Little One



She’s six days old, making her debut May 22, 2012. She is my only daughter’s daughter, my one and only grandchild. I adore her without reservation, and my love has no boundaries.

What a joy to see my daughter transfixed by the expressions on her baby’s face. How well I understand her fears, spoken and unspoken, each time her newborn snuffles, sighs, or cries. How proud I am when my daughter reports that her greatest happiness is holding her daughter.

Every adult hovers, reciprocating each little smile as some pleasant dream skips across my granddaughter's mind. We also mirror every frown, pout, and gesture. Everyone wants to hold her.

Thus far, she welcomes others into her tiny circle. She has nothing to fear, but fears will come, we know. We also know that we’ll empathize and assure her that everything will be okay.

For now, she needs her mommy, the nurturer and nourisher, more than anyone else. She knows her mommy’s voice best, but her daddy’s voice comforts her as well. She’s tuning her ear to all those other friends, well-wishers, grandparents, aunts, and cousins. She’s tuned out the dog and cat; having heard so much from them during her time in the womb, they do not intrude upon her dreams now. She sleeps peacefully in the knowledge that love is hers, and she will never lack for it nor need to work for it. She has mine, theirs, ours.

The world lies before her, so precious, so new. Go boldly on, little one. We are right behind you.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dear Granddaughter,


As the unknown birthday for my first grandchild, a little girl, comes near, I find myself thinking about Phillip Booth’s wonderful poem, “First Lesson:”

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you
.

A parent cradles his child, holding her up upon the great seas, directing her to look up, hopefully, always. He wants her to know that she will certainly become expert in time. She will have both the skill and strength to endure, to reach her destination if she trusts the sea to hold her.

Booth’s lesson is the only one we need to teach. It is:

swaddled by loving parents,
            we go forth upon the sea,
                        buoyed by a faith that will carry us home.

May I be wise and humble enough to impart this lesson.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Primeval Mothers and Ripley, the Archetypal Mother Figures


A former colleague confessed on Facebook that a small bird harassed her after a hideous storm, forcing her to flee and duck inside her back door. The bird’s nest had been blown out of a nearby, broken tree so the bird redefined its territory from a branch to my friend’s entire backyard, expanding its maternal instincts accordingly and transforming a small bird into an avenging, protective Fury with feathers.

A convicted animal advocate, my friend found the nest and returned it to the tree, safe from many predators, including the two-legged kind. Mama-bird relaxed and ceased flying directly at my friend or her Pitbull, the backyard a pastoral haven once again.

My friend’s experience with that small bird is, on a much smaller scale, a testament to mothers, one told through the science fiction films Alien and its first sequel, Aliens. Both focus upon a single woman, who is nevertheless a Mother figure, fighting for her family, be they the crew aboard the deep-space mining ship, Nostromo, or a small, motherless child alone on a desolate planet, the sole survivor after hideous monsters destroy every other human and turn them into breeding grounds for more aliens.

The films develop suspense well, in part by manipulating eerie, hostile environments, shadowy realms where dust and dark confuse the humans and lead them to judge their situations poorly. They endure for a time, trapped inside cumbersome space suits or metallic, man-made dwellings that they cannot escape without extensive forethought. The life outside will not support them; they need oxygen delivered through tubes and air ducts while the aliens move easily inside and out without any other support or planning. The monstrous creatures even move through the life-giving air ducts with stealth and intelligence, undetected until they rise, two sets of razor-sharp teeth unleashed to destroy mere mortals.

Not only are the aliens perfect, killing machines, they are remorseless, driven by instinct alone, to thrive, even adapting to use the gut of man as a breeding ground, and like that tiny bird, they attack anything that approaches their nurseries, adhering to a cold code, a biological imperative to protect the next generations even if they must die for their queen and her young.

What Ripley learns through the course of two movies is that she has the right stuff to fight for her own next generation. She sees what others miss, the first to realize the signal from desolate places is not an SOS, but a warning to stay away. She refuses to let her judgment lapse and disregard the quarantine protocol because her first priority is to protect her home and family, in this case, the ship and its crew. When Ash ignores the quarantine protocol and admits the alien attached to her crew mate, Ripley pursues her suspicion about his motives until she learns the horrible truth: the android, Ash, has orders to protect the alien at all costs, even at the expense of the human race. Armed with this knowledge, Ripley begins a journey to destroy the alien and preserve the human race in spite of being overmatched by an android’s strength and the alien’s biological imperative to survive at all costs.

In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley returns to fight for much more than her ship and crew; she fights for a little girl, Newt, becoming the classic, archetypal mother, fiercely protective of her young just as the Alien Queen is. Ripley dares the elements, including fire, trusts few, and pushes her physical strength to its limits and beyond. She is the consummate Mother-figure, fighting to the death, if required, for the next generation.

In nature, the octopus is a paradigm for the archetypal mother. After mating, losing her mate, and laying eggs, the octopus-mother guards her young, never leaving to feed or meet its own needs. It follows a biological imperative to die for its young just as that little bird risked everything to push a human away from her young in the nest and just as Ripley takes up the cause against creatures better suited for survival in space than she is. The octopus, birds, and Ripleys value the next generation more than their own.

Whatever you may think of the Time magazine cover and article about Attachment Parenting or about Tiger Moms, you must surely recognize in them something primeval: an urge to protect and empower the next generation. You understand that these extreme models resemble the archetypal models: mothers who give their all, even their own lives, if necessary, so that their young may thrive.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mothers, on Mother's Day, Love Your Children Well



Classic Grimm’s fairy tales and countless Disney films portray the lonely world in which motherless children dwell. Snow White, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Bambi, and Simba grow with doubt and danger, sorrow and despair threatening to crush them. Still they are spunky, endowed with a faith that good thrives. And for their faith, they earn love.

How equally miserable are those children whose surviving parent remarries and abandons them while still on this earth. I recall two students in particular, their mothers alive and well, but devoted more to their new spouses than to their own children.

One young lady cut herself, tiny little slices up and down her arms. She slept through class whenever possible and grew less and less likely to complete homework. When I finally tugged the truth from her, she revealed that she didn’t sleep well at night because she was forced to share her bed with her half-brother, a toddler and bed-wetter. She lost sleep every night changing and washing sheets. She was also deeply depressed because her mother refused to cooperate in completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a necessary step in achieving a college degree. The completed application informs colleges and universities just how much parents can contribute, how much federal aid the student can expect, and how much more students will need. Unless a student has met the standards for emancipation or can prove that he is independent of his parents, the FAFSA is essential.

My student’s mother had advised her that she would not cooperate in completing the FAFSA because her second husband, the father of her youngest child, her one and only son, intended to use all the family money on his son and spend nothing on his step-daughters. He would not allow their mother to reveal anything about the financial state of her second marriage either. My student had no recourse because in many states, there are no laws to compel a biological, divorced father or stepfather to help support a child who is eighteen years of age, but the custodial parent must still complete the FAFSA before colleges or universities decide upon financial aid. So without her mother’s help, this young lady was out of options.

She thought this unfair. She felt disowned and orphaned even though her mother lives still. Her grief was so large that she took a razor blade to her arms and legs, and she gave up on graduating high school.

A young man faced similar challenges. As a sophomore, excited to become part of Youth and Government, he had to stand at attention and make a persuasive argument in order to earn the right to buy a suit, tie, and dress shoes, requirements for Youth and Government activities. His mother abdicated and left the decision about new clothes entirely to the stepfather.

As a junior, the young man dropped out of all extracurricular activities because he needed part-time work in order to pay for his clothes, school lunches, and social needs. As a senior, he had to find a somewhere else to live because his stepfather placed Draconian demands upon him, demands that he now had the spine to resist, but he soon dropped out of high school—a very common outcome for kids who lose parental support—and he joined the Marines. There he earned his GED and managed to survive basic, but when his months in training ended, he was still not welcome in his mother’s home because it wasn’t really her home. It was his stepfather’s to command, and his mother refused to stand up for her son or defend him against her second husband’s bitter resentments. She forsook her eighteen-year-old son and denied him a warm homecoming.

He tried to be brave. He tried to believe his mom loved him, and he did not break ties with her. But his future changed from a boy who aspired to learn the law and hold public office into a boy who served his country on the hot desert. The promise and hope of this child broke under the critical eye of his step-father and the negligent eye of his own mother.

The young girl was still working as a waitress six years after her high school graduation. She spent the first year establishing her independence and supporting herself. She spent the next five working full-time and attending college part-time. She was still one year away from a degree and a career. A counselor and several teachers mothered her until she grew tough enough to bear the cuts delivered by a thoughtless mother who favored her man and son over her girls. Still I wonder about long-term, permanent damages, and I wonder what she might have become if her mother had not betrayed her.

So, Children, on this Mother’s Day, I hope you don’t have to remember mothers who neither deserve nor earn a call from you. Children don’t deserve to be betrayed by their own mothers just because they found another man to lie beside at night. Mothers, remember that you bore those children. They are your responsibility all your days. Don’t make them fulfill their promises in spite of you. Help them fulfill their futures because of you. Love them unconditionally.