The idea that soldiers in extremis, or pilots in crashing planes call out for their mothers is apocryphal but feels true enough to bring empathetic tears from us all by the end of the movie. None of us knows what we would yell on the way down, but being instantly confronted with our most elemental terror, we might hope we’d be noble (make sure my body goes to science!) or witty (do I have time for another martini?) but Muuuum!!!! Sounds about right.
The reason might seem obvious, since everyone has had one, and many of us are one as well, so Mothers Day (in Australia…not sure where else) feels like a good time to examine it all. I feel really fortunate to be a mum but I also know now why nature endows the gift of fertility on the relatively young. I gave birth with such blithe optimism that I knew what I was doing and had all the answers. Just as well biology didn’t let me wait till now, when I realize I know nothing at all, and had no clue about the ways in which being a mum would belt me out of my smug know-all mind set and leave me murmuring gratefully I can’t believe they’re still in one piece! This is not to disparage the two absolutely gorgeous young adults to whom I gave birth. (I love that expression, it makes me sound so generous, and turns out I had to be, although at the time having them was all about me…that lasted up to about the fourth hour of labour!) They manage to be lovely, well adjusted people in spite of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along upbringing they had. And I’m eternally grateful I thought I knew then what I don’t know now. As Kierkegaard said, life is lived forward, and understood backwards. Someone sure stuffed up there!
I have cause to revisit these years since a big clean out has given me occasion to go through pages and pages of my frantic angst-sodden journals, which have shocked me for a couple of reasons:
- How on earth did I work full time, keep two kids and a hubby from death by non-organic food choices and disease from a kitchen in which you’d be dubious about eating off the table, never mind the floor? Not to mention edit the school magazine, run the debating teams, umpire volleyball (!), help renovate an old timber house, pretend we were still young and social and write a masters thesis.
- How obsessive I was about the minutiae of everyday life, none of which now looks remotely significant. Come as your favourite book character had us helping our seven-year-old daughter to fashion a witch’s nose out of papier-mache on the morning of the parade. Well anyone with half a brain knows that’s too late, and anyone with a quarter of a brain knows not to put it in the microwave to hurry it along! This is the stuff that will consume twenty years of your life if you let it, and we did. No wonder we didn’t have time to cure cancer or invent the post-it.
None of this would matter if the consequences weren’t so dire. Because everyone has one, the mothering or lack of, that one experiences is truly life-altering and unfortunately society is quick to blame mum. If a boy (or girl, but everyone knows girls are born with the ironing gene) turns up in a wrinkled shirt the default response is that his mum is deficient in the parenting dept, not his dad, not the kid, even if he is old enough to figure out how the iron works. Same with the most feared words in the English language, bring a plate. If mum can’t whip up a batch of scones in a heartbeat there’s something wrong with her, but if dad can, he’s some kind of culinary genius. And it’s a fearless mum who braves the tuck-shop rating system as you drop the kids off: lycra gym gear? Good girl! Nightie still poking out of trakky daks? Call social services.
So you think, well if I just give them unconditional love, I can’t go wrong. Think again. Norman Mailer told Ramona Koval in one of her wonderful interviews for the ABC’s now defunct (or revamped) Book Programme that he reckoned he had the quintessential Jewish mother, ie if he was on top of the school building spraying everyone with machine gun fire, she’d say, What have they done to upset my Norman? Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the line between supporting your kids and giving them enough self-esteem to power a small African country, or subscribing to the old Scottish saying: they’re all out ‘o step but our Johnnie! This wilful blindness to a child’s shortcomings does them no favours and taken to extremes can have sinister implications such as blaming the USA for corrupting your sons so much that they leave a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
But most of us will do anything to get between our kids and pain. At the school where I worked, when a girl in class would complain to the others about how her mum was so strict and mean (usually code for she won’t let me stay out till 2am at a party or spend all night on Facebook) I used to tell them about a news item I once read, about a mum and her young daughter walking alongside a steep drop. Somehow the girl lost her shoe and in leaning to get it, fell over the edge, and the mother immediately jumped after her. Pure instinct I told those girls, who by now are really listening. Clearly it would have been much more sensible not to jump but to phone for help, but she jumped. Fortunately they both survived, but the point is, I told them: That’s how it feels to be your mother! That got their attention.
And the wellbeing of a society is predicated on that feeling – not just from mums, but dads too. Here in Australia there has been scarcely murmur of protest about a new tax impost to pay for a National Disability Insurance Scheme, because we are all so moved and astonished by the love, dedication and sheer daily hard work undertaken with more courage than most of us can imagine, by the parents of kids with disabilities. And while most of us are not called upon to be those exemplars of the finest behaviour humans can display, we can all share in the elemental decency that parent-child relations ask of us. Being a mum or a dad forces us to grow up, be nicer, better, give up cigarettes and booze, stop spending all the money on ourselves; in short to move over…it’s nature’s way of telling us it’s someone else’s turn now. Not such a bad thing.
The good news is, it’s become fashionable! Babies are promoted as the new must-have celebrity accessory and childhood has become the latest commodity in the branding competition that glamourises everything from the nuptials to the nappies. Here are a couple of doozies I couldn’t resist:
But all the silliness in the world still can’t take away the depth, and the realness of parenting, because it turns out that’s in the minutiae; the every day mad, funny, profound and hopeful drudgery of it all. The Irish writer Sebastian Barry shows us, in his elegiac description of the terrible waste of war, that there is heroism is in the minutiae, and it comes from the mothers:
Willie has just been born at the end of the 19th century.
His mother took him to her breast with the exhausted will that makes heroes of most mothers. The fathers stood well away, taking a beer at the Ship Hotel. The century was old and weak, but the men spoke of horses and taxes. A baby knows nothing, and Willie knew nothing, but he was like the scrap of a song nonetheless, a point of light in the sleety darkness, a beginning.
And all those boys born in Europe in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish – and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack and all the rest – their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their millions of gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk, and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those millions of boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of the coming war.
Barry, Sebastian, A Long Long Way. London: Faber and Faber, 2005
That’s so hopelessly sad that I feel I should leave you with something a bit chirpier for Mothers Day. Hal Porter’s lovely description of his mother may engender howls of protest from the sisterhood, but we need to remember it is very much of its time and place: country Victoria in the 1920’s. And I don’t mind that he has made a kind of poem out of his mother’s work that lifts it out of the ordinary. Makes me feel a bit better about not inventing the post-it!
I am discovering as I write these words that my autobiography, at this period, is my mother’s biography…mother is constantly making time in the same way she makes Cornish Pasties. She makes it, between the crevices of her daily plan, in many patterns, and lays it aside, lays aside tangible and visible samples of the hours: a mound of darned socks, a dozen jars of quince jelly, a dead-straight line of weeded onions, a varnished meat pie decorated with a pastry rose and its serrated pastry leaves. Sometimes, as men and boys do, as Father and I do, she fills in time. She too fishes in the river, comes mushrooming and blackberrying, shrieks and splashes and dog-paddles at beach picnics. This filling-in is, however, apparent only: the picnic-hamper holds the too much she has made to eat, there is always time’s essence in blackberry tarts and blackberry jam, a dish of stewed mushrooms and jars of dried ones, or a platter of fried bream. In making time thus three-dimensional in many forms she creates the illusion of abundance for us.
Porter, Hal, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. London: Faber and Faber, 1963
Happy Mothers Day!