Motherâ€™s Day, 2001
The problem with Mother's Day rituals is that they reinforce what I call the telescope effect on Moms and their kids. Most days of the year, disproportionate blame is leveled at Moms for their kids' shortcomings. On Mother's Day, they are privately adored.
Remember Smokey the Bear, and his paranoia-inducing admonition that you alone could prevent forest fires?
So it is with modern motherhood. Only YOU, Mom, can assure your child's self-esteem, reading readiness, sociability, physical fitness, personal safety, and moral uprightness. You must say the right words, practice scripted bedtime rituals, offer the prescribed number of minutes of quality time per day, purchase the proper products, provide age-appropriate stimulation, and work full-time (or not) depending on the latest study and/or the latest punitive welfare policies.
Let's take the mandate to build self-esteem. For this, we are given quantitative and qualitative guidelines, along with handy props. The Boston Globe child-care column instructs us to praise our children at least 5 times a day. My local doctor's office hands out pamphlets that include preferred phrases for offering praise. The current Ladies Home Journal (May 2001) includes an article by a woman who is nurturing her 5-year-old daughter's self-esteem by teaching her how to fly. She figures that knowing how to maneuver something like an airplane will help her daughter feel so good about herself, she'll more easily weather later disappointments like not making the cheerleading squad, for example. A music cassette that somehow found its way into my kids' lives features a song about liking all the different parts of your body: "And I like my nose. I sort of like the way it blows..." The chirpy refrain is: "I like me. I'm an okay me to be."
The trouble with all this expert advice and finger-snapping ego-building jingles is that it's all utter nonsense, and every alert kid knows it. Why? Because the overwhelming evidence of popular culture is that you are most definitely not an okay me to be unless you happen to have been born with a very narrow set of acceptable physical attributes. It's no mystery what those are: the good guys and gals in Disney movies have those attributes. The bad guys and gals don't.
Moms are also in charge of what their kids know. A recent solicitation from a company that sells language videos asks in large bold type: "Does your child speak only one language?" It comes out like an accusation. Unsuspecting parents, doing nothing more than sorting the junk mail into the recycling bin, are suddenly thrust into a moment of self-doubt. "Yes. In fact, my child does speak ONLY one language. And it's because I neglected to provide this stimulating educational learn-a-second-language video. I have failed my child!" Yes, indeed, Mom. It's all about you. Only YOU can prevent monolinguism!
For mothers and children, the entire universe of complex human dynamics in community and in family, and in relation to a variety of social institutions, not to mention biology, is reduced to a single provider of inputs (Mom) regurgitator of outputs (Kid). On Mother's Day, Moms are rewarded with Hallmark cards, flowers, and consumer goods that are meant to show appreciation for all she gives - a ritual that neatly reinforces the idea that it all begins and ends with Mom.
True, the relationship between mother and child is one of great intimacy. But it is a human bond, not a quantifiable, qualifiable stream of goods and services and gadgets flowing from parent to offspring. For Mother's Day, this year, let's burst the privacy bubble that surrounds being a mother. Let 's "zoom out" from the micro-relations of mothers and children, and celebrate Mother's Day by changing the larger context that we operate in.
In my neighborhood in Boston, some of the major roads will be closed on Mother's Day. A consortium of grassroots organizations is hosting a day-long festival to raise consciousness about ways that parks and city streets can be more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. I like this idea. Kids will be safer out on the streets, they will inhale less polluted air, they will relate more to neighbors, have lots of fun, and learn something about alternative transportation, and - best of all - none of it will be due to a mother's one-on-one micromangagement. In an event like this, we see a public network (not just Mom!) creating a web of community, nurturing, and positive influences.
This neighborhood event prompted me to think of other ways we might discard the telescope, and honor mothers by lifting their burdens and sharing their responsibilities. Here are a few very modest and random suggestions.
Redesign candy counters so that they are not exactly the height of most pre-schoolers. Think of the tension this would reduce in most mothers' lives. Imagine waiting in line at the check-out counter and NOT having to run interference between your kid and the mesmerizing variety of permutations of corn syrup arrayed at eye level. Better yet, replace the gum and candy with a whole food, such as fruit. You'd not only be making life easier for Mom, you'd be helping the kid get a serving from one of those essential food groups we're always hearing about.
Clean up the parks and the green spaces. Stop spraying them with pesticides. Something is wrong when I have to instruct my kids not to play on the grass because those little signs are up everywhere recommending that, due to a recent application of weed-killer, dog-owners should keep their dogs away. It doesn't say anything about children, but one has to assume that if it's not safe for dogs... Meanwhile, I've done my best to educate them about garbage, allowing their various rock collections, and my older daughter's fascination with "metal objects." Still, their curiosity leads to discovering used condoms, for example, for which I must come up with age-appropriate explanations. And when my five-year old points to a hypodermic needle on the sidewalk, and says, "Look! Doctor stuff," I spend the rest of the day worrying about what other specific hazards I have forgotten to warn her about in our private one-on-one "Hazards of the Park" lessons.
Launch a massive consumer boycott of Disney with all of its racist, sexist, and classist imagery. In a recent movie criticizing Disney products, a mother describes how her son heard African Americans talking on the subway, and said to his mother, "Oh, it's the hyenas." It took only a moment for the mother to remember how the voice-over for the evil hyenas in Disney's "The Lion King" spoke in Black English. Walking away from Disney movies with racist interpretations of Black people should not be a private thing for mother and child to work out. It's a public problem, and it requires a public solution. We are all responsible for the fact that our kids are exposed to contemptuous portrayals of girls, women, people of color, and the non-wealth-inheriting class.
Some other Mother's Day gifts that would really help mothers feel recognized and valued? Adequate wages, health insurance for all, decent schools, to name a few.
For Mother's Day this year, I'm certainly not opposed to breakfast in bed. But when it comes to all the richness and responsibility of parenting, I'm willing to share the wealth.