Last night my mother and I caught the first few minutes of A Prairie Home Companion while putting the finishing touches on supper, and we shared a chuckle at Garrison’s monologue: some B.S. about discovering that his mother had led a wild life in the few years before she got married, traveling the country with a circus and dancing on the backs of elephants. He made much of the discomfort this new-found knowledge supposedly occasioned.
The story may have been fiction, but I think the discomfort is real. A good friend of mine regularly complains about one of her grown sons who seems unable to keep his embarrassment at her unorthodox views and behavior to himself. Granted that I am only hearing one side of the story, it sounds to me as if he is unable, or unwilling, to grant her the full freedom of an independent person, demanding instead that she remain forever defined by her role as his mother. That’s not only selfish, but infantile. In his defense, though, I gather my friend went through some rather profound life-changes right around the time her four children were leaving the nest: the sixties were happening and she was in the thick of things, getting an advanced degree and then starting an academic career. So no doubt it was very difficult for him and his siblings to see their mom suddenly having such a wild time — not back in her youth, where it could perhaps be forgiven or at least ignored, but right in the middle of her life.
For my own mother, the transformation has been less revolutionary and more evolutionary, I think, but there’s no question that both my parents are very different from the people they were when my brothers and I were forming our first and most lasting impressions of them. Mom likes to say she’s getting more radical with age, and that certainly seems to be true. For example, I remember years ago she used to groan whenever Dad put on one of his Bartok records, preferring the more standard Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. But thanks in part to our local NPR station’s endless and maddening parade of classical pablum, Mom now has a much higher tolerance — even craving — for the less conventional harmonies and rhythms of 20th-century classical music. I don’t remember her blasting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and dancing around the kitchen when I was a kid, though I suppose it’s possible she waited until we were off to school to do that.
I’m also still learning things about her — though I have yet to uncover any hidden past life involving circus elephants, alas. Just the day before yesterday, she told me she thought that her interest in nature observation was really helped along by watching some bizarre flicker behavior when she was a young mother in Washington, D.C., pushing my older brother in a stroller through Rock Creek Park. “I was always interested in nature, but I think that was when I really started observing things and writing about them in my journal,” she said, adding that she’d have to try and find that entry in her Washington journal for the article on flickers that she’s planning. (Yes, she’s been keeping journals continuously for at least 44 years.)
This is a long way around saying that I am uncomfortable with this whole Mothers Day thing. Perhaps if the holiday had stuck with the pacifist vision of its founder, Julia Ward Howe, I wouldn’t feel that way — who better to end war, after all, than those who stand to suffer the most from it. But instead the holiday has become an excuse to promote (and of course commercialize) a one-dimensional view of mothers as self-sacrificing servants of their families, with negative repercussions for mothers and for children alike. Should children of alcoholic, abusive, or psychopathic mothers suffer a lifetime of guilt for their inability to worship at the shrine of Mom? Should new mothers struggle through the hell of postpartum depression because they don’t happen to find motherhood as immediately fulfilling and wonderful as the entire weight of our culture insists it must be? And what about moms who don’t fit the June Cleaver mold: those who are the primary breadwinners, for example, or perhaps the only breadwinners? I don’t think single moms should be scapegoated for social ills that have much more to do with endemic poverty and injustice. And I don’t think it’s fair to stay-at-home dads to associate the nurturing-parent role with femininity.
I realize I’ve been uncommonly fortunate in having stable, nurturing, and happily married parents who are also among my best friends. Perhaps it is that friendship that makes me resent the imposition of culturally approved scripts about parents and children. But I think there’s something more than a little patronizing about the way we treat mothers in general. Exhibit A comes straight from one of my mom’s favorite rants: “Mother Nature.” For some reason, good ol’ boys and developers just love to talk about Mother Nature, I’m not sure why. It always makes me flinch.