Monday, April 6, 2009

Mother Love

Yikes! Taking on the topic of a mother's love is a tough one, tough but necessary for it gets at the heart of how deserving we feel of a gold star.

My own mother told me a story this weekend about jazz king Wynton Marsalis offering up in an interview that his mother never called him, not to say hi or to congratulate him on any of his accomplishments, his performances, his awards. But she called him recently to tell him she thought he'd done a good job with some work he'd done for a group of inner-city kids. For that, she thought, he deserved a call.

My mother thought that was great, since she is a big believer that parents today overpraise, with their bumper stickers touting their child's placement on the honor roll, with their constant "good job!" accompanied by wide fake smiles. And look at how well Wynton Marsalis turned out?! I disagreed. Mr. Marsalis is, in fact, very successful. But at what cost, I wondered, and why? To please who? The bumper stickers are all about the parents, not the kids, to show off their own efforts, and they merely underline the pressure put on grades and accomplishments, those that the parents deem worthy. The "good job!" epidemic, likewise, is only a thin cover for parents' guilt over not really ever feeling like good is good enough, for themselves or for their kids. It is a classic case of BS and kids, like dogs, sniff it from a mile away. It looks like there is praise abound but, at closer range, it looks mostly like pressure. At least, that's how I see it.

Take the adorable art teacher at my sons' school as example. She is young, smart, energetic and pregnant. When I congratulated her this morning on her as-yet small-bellied state, she waved off my enthusiasm. "I'm terrified!" she said.

"Do yourself a favor and try not to think too far ahead," I said, knowing as I said it how nearly impossible that is when facing the fact that you are soon to give life. "Pregnancy is like a bad meeting, where there is talk and talk and all kinds of information shared, much of it neurotic and worrisome, and then--push comes to shove--decisions are made by an individual in the moment."

"I know, but there are so many strollers to choose from, and our apartment is so small and messy..." she said. She was thinking of staying in her one-bedroom, not moving in panic so she could give the baby a big, beautiful newly painted room with all the trimmings.

"Don't put so much pressure on yourself, the baby doesn't care!" I said. It is the beginning of those big decisions over what's important, what's not and who it's all really about. I had been relieved when we had likewise decided to stay put in our cozy little place, to give little Eli a crib in the corner of our room, a drawer in our dresser, not to try to move to a bigger place just so we could show off our baby's room to others, to ourselves, to a baby who could barely see and couldn't make out color for a while at least. It worked out great.

The best advice I ever got was from my first pediatrician, fabulous Dr. Yaker. When I beseeched him to tell me how best to sift through all the overwhelming amount of contradicting opinions on parenting I was getting he said, "You're going to do it your way, and that's going to be the right way." Really, it's all you can do. He was right. It has saved me a lot of time reading manuals on what other people think and do (though I do that on occasion, in a panic) or on asking never-ending numbers of questions from others who may or may not think like I do, whose advice I'd be hard-pressed to follow if I go with my gut as I'm likely to do. As, in the end, we all do.

As I walked out of school this morning, another mother was coming in, heading to chaperone a field trip for the 2nd grade to Historic Richmond Town in the pouring rain. "Ooh...I'm sorry!" I said. "Wait, I have something for you!" I handed her a gold star and offered up my great hope that it would help the sun shine, make her duty a little less dreary.

"You made my day!" she said.

Shortly thereafter I offered up a gold star to a crying child and his exhausted mother who had been up all night caring for him. She had joked with him that she was going to nod off at work from lack of sleep. He took her star so he could have two and she let him. I gave her another one. She needed it. Loving children is 24/7, it is hard under any circumstances, harder still when we don't take a gold star for ourselves or award them freely, wholeheartedly and often to our children, just for trying.

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