Becoming My Own Mother

The cultural ambivalence we see every Mothers Day about whether to celebrate this made up holiday (aren’t they all?) is probably a good reflection of the inherent ambivalence we humans have about mothers, mothering, being a mother, relating to our mothers, the whole deal.

We have the profound polarization between the perfection of the Madonna, the sacred, beloved, cherished mother, and the mother who is hated and murdered by her child, usually a son, in a rage of paralyzed dependency. Most of us, thankfully, muddle along somewhere in the middle, in affection, love, resentment, guilt, longing, and existential emptiness. It’s not for nothing that we have come to think of our planet as Mother Earth – if our treatment of our home planet doesn’t reflect ambivalence if not outright violence, well, there it is.

Think about it – those of us who are women have an unbroken female lineage of female experience going back countless millennia. Those of us who are male have of course the same lineage but are now the “other” vis a vis their mothers. The disconnect /connection conundrum is built into the human species. But you have to wonder what that kind of disconnect that otherness is for males – again, probably covering the spectrum of relief (“Out of her clutches!”) to rejection (“why doesn’t she love/take care of/cherish? me?”). I’d love to hear thoughtful comments on this by any guy who resonates with this idea. Myself, I have four brothers and two sons, giving me a front row seat in this drama. Ok, I’ve been on the stage but some days I’d rather be in the audience…. It’s a real mixed bag.

Among women, there is probably no other experience that occupies more time, worry, joy and discussion than motherhood. For those who have raised our own biological children, what more powerful and disorienting experience can there be than carrying this little alien invader in our bodies for nine months, then devoting just about every waking hour to their sustenance for however long that initial period lasts. Mothering grown children is a combined comedy/drama/horror/suspense flick.

For those mothers raising adopted or foster children, the experience and accompanying internal and societal issues are even more complex. Not “a real mother” indeed. And don’t get me started on what we do to women who for whatever reasons do not mother.

In American culture, we attempt to mother in profound isolation compared to the rest of the world. Norwegians have a saying that roughly translated says that the community owes tremendous support to new families {sic, not mothers} because they are after all raising the next generation on behalf of the larger society. Conversely, Americans seem to have the fewest resources and the highest and most unrealistic standards for motherhood. Jane Price’s groundbreaking book, Motherhood, What it Does to Your Minds, is a terrific resource for anyone who is interested in these ideas.

My personal solution to this complex goo is twofold:

I’ll be darned if anyone else gets to define how I think and act as a mother. Male child psychologists, I’m talking to you. Most of you have not had the pleasure of the sleep deprivation that comes from taking care of an infant, yet the idealization and ridiculous standards that are held us as healthy or normal mothering dominate our shared psyches. Yuck.

We all do the best we can and I think it’s time for women to reclaim the authority to determine as individuals and as a class what constitutes decent mothering. Period. As for the female infighting, competition and other manifestations of internalized oppression, haven’t enough pixels and angst been spent on this phenomenon? Can’t we just move on?

Maybe the generational, vertical dimension of Mothers Day – I send flowers to my mother or visit her grave, and hope that my kids do the same – is missing the horizontal dimension. Mothers who spend more time with their kids and the mothers who spend less time with their kids, mothers from privileged classes and mothers from less privileged classes, don’t have to be a struggle in The Ooze of Mutual Recrimination (TOMR).

Yes, the flowers and cards are lovely. But today I’m reaching out to other mothers who struggle as I do with generations’ worth of difficult issues, disappointment, heartache, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that we are all doing our best. Most days.

My own mother, Eileen Quinlan Lartin, her mother, Hannah Quinlan, and her mother, Nora Sullivan Mahoney, have left me a rich and complex legacy. I have more of them in me than I know. I would like to think that I am becoming my own mother. Meaning that I’ve both created my own sense of motherhood with the ingredients they’ve given me, integrating evolving ideas and experiences to define mothering as I see it and to nurture and mother myself in the process.

So my second solution to the complex societal ambivalence and goo is that I am mothering myself today is the best possible way. I am happy to bathe in whatever love and affection comes my way from others. But I’m spending the most of today doing things I love such as writing this essay, playing with my indoor and outdoor plants, hiking, and eating food I adore. Lox! Dosas! Chardonnay! Macaroons! This is my affirmation and present to myself for acknowledging that all in all, I’m not the greatest mother, I am a good enough mother and I am a fantastic mother. As I see it.