4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I was standing in Jasper’s kindergarten classroom for orientation and during an awkward moment of quiet I turned to the mother I’d just met and said, “I feel like our children’s lives are going to be a response to all the things our parents did badly.” She looked at me open-mouthed.
“Too soon?” I asked.
But as we looked around the gorgeous classroom and three (three!) teachers for this class of 15 fresh-scrubbed kids, the three-story play structure in the yard and the pen of teaching chickens outside, I realized it was true. Here we all are, organic feeding, playdate making, activity scheduling, fresh bread baking, apple picking, hard working uber-parents, in one way or another.
A few minutes later, the new mama sidled back up to me and said, “I walked to school by myself. In kindergarten. Can you imagine? The dogs! Crossing major roads! Myself!”
“Me too!” I replied. Although that would truly be the least of the childhood garbage in my psyche I’m navigating around, I was glad to see she was on board.
“The dogs…” she replied, and I could tell there was a deeper story for this gorgeous mama, too.
Somewhere I read something that said that we spend our childhood trying to survive being a child and then the rest of our life recovering from our childhood. I remember immediately responding. Exactly! That is exactly what I’ve been thinking since I turned 18. My whole MFA thesis show was predicated on this; we are struggling to swim out of the marshy, stinking mess of our childhoods, forever tethered to our parents, our siblings, our experiences.
And it wasn’t that my mother did such a bad job. When my siblings long to crucify my martyr mother for Our Childhood, even if I’ve just finished a tirade about her last visit and how she tried to blame the sitter for dropping Reid in the parking lot when it was really her, well, I have to jump to her defense.
As an only child growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s poor in a house with an emotionally absent father (on a good day) and a mother who labored full-time as a waitress in Philly, what did my mom know about motherhood? With five kids in 14 years and almost as many miscarriages, a severely retarded child, a daughter with both visual and hearing impairments and a husband who was on tube-feeding and countless medications from soon after their fifth child was born until his death 18 years later, I mean, what was my mother going to do? From my current point of view, I appreciate the fact that she got us dressed each day, in clean clothing, no less! And she had precious few Mama friends to guide her.
A few weeks ago I was driving along talking to my mother on the phone enumerating our activities for the week as an explanation for my lack of phone calls. My mother sighed and said, “You do so much with them, Jennie.” I thought she was preparing an excellent compliment to my mothering abilities (which to her credit, she often does) when she said, “My mother never did that for me.”
“Mom?” I replied. “You never did that for us.”
“But that was different. We had your brother.”
My turn to sigh. “I know. I’m just pointing it out.”
Because we all have these stories, right? A recent playdate found me introducing two of my friends to each other. “So, her father had a second secret family while she was growing up and her dad was in jail. Guess that trumps 18 years of patriarchal tube feeding and a brother who watched television 24/7 and pooped in his chair all day long…”
Who taught any of us to be good mothers or fathers? How in the world do we know how to be a healthy family, anyway?
All these mama friends, by the way, are amazing. Inspiring. And such good moms and guiding friends in their own ways. How did we do this? Survive the childhood, recover from the childhood, and now most importantly, build the childhood for our own kids.
On a great day we find the flow, channel the love, seize the day! On a mediocre day we just try to right the wrongs done to us throughout our childhoods, whether that’s outdoor activities every day, a school with chickens, driving them to school, living healthfully, or intentionally building their self-esteem. And on the bad days I for one will yell at them things like, “Put your sneakers on yourself. You’re 3 for god’s sake! It’s not rocket science!” or “This is quiet time! I do not want you yelling for me unless you have a pencil sticking out of your eye socket!” (Yes, I said these things.)
So that someday when Reid calls me to proudly tell me about how she focuses on restorative love flooding, or whatever the new mama mantra of the day will be in thirty years, I’ll say, “My mother never did that for me!” and she’ll reply, “Really, Mom? Really?!”