A Person in the World

Jan - Purple 2

I’m in a stage of my life where I am wanting mothering to have been one of the things I’ve done but not the only thing or even, maybe, the most important thing. Part of my wanting to get out from under the mothering mantle is its constant evaluative dimension. Maybe one doesn’t get tired of being a mother. Maybe one gets tired of being judged as a mother.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted that one day she was the world’s greatest mother and the next day the worst mother who ever lived. It sounded to me as if one of her kids was issuing these labels, if I had to bet, I would guess it was her daughter.

I responded to her by saying eventually you’ll end up somewhere in the middle and added “I’m still waiting.”

The pendulum swings about my mothering performance are no longer day to day. The intervals get longer, happily, as my role in my children’s lives becomes less and less central. In this case, the more I am marginalized, the better. I say that only partially tongue in cheek.

This comes after forty years of mediocre grades, notations that Janice isn’t applying herself, that she fails to listen, and doesn’t check her work carefully. But interspersed in her mothering career are moments of extraordinariness, just enough to raise the overall grade from its bumping along the bottom average. She has the potential, the grader says, for greatness if only she would show consistent effort. Which, of course, she doesn’t or didn’t.

I’m not alone here. I’ve met up with other moms in study hall and compared notes. There’s a lot of disappointing grades, a lot of unfairness and frustration being felt.  ‘I tried, I really tried, don’t I get credit for trying?’

The judging seems too all encompassing to come from just one source but it pretty much does. We are always, constantly, grading ourselves, comparing ourselves to our own mothers, our friends, Michelle Obama, the mothers on TV, the mother we thought we would be, the mother other people think we are, the mother we should be, the mother our kids say other mothers are like. We constantly adjust our rating, little ladies holding babies on a massive slide rule, zoom to one end when our kid seems headed to Harvard, zoom to the other when jail is in sight. All of this is day to day, very constant, very prickly. A hair shirt that comes with the bounty of motherhood, children who love you and who you love.

Mothers, I think, go through their entire lives with a giant stripe painted down one side of their bodies. And the stripe is there and visible no matter what they are wearing or what they are doing with their lives. I don’t think fathers have a stripe like that. But maybe I am underestimating fathers. Maybe they think about their fathering a lot more than I suspect. I don’t think so. I think they just do it, they raise their children, for better or for worse, and move on. They distance themselves. They don’t walk around with their stripe forever. If they ever had one.

Because they seem free of thinking constantly about being a father, I don’t think most men have any idea how much weight women carry with them with regard to their mothering, they don’t get how immutable the stripe is. It’s impossible to explain. I’ve tried. It just doesn’t make sense to anyone without the stripe.

I know it is a peculiar thing to have been exceptionally blessed with children, to be proud of them and glad they are alive and well and also want to be out from under all of it, to be rid of my stripe.

I want to just be a person in the world.

That will make sense to some people. Not all, but some.



10 Comments on “A Person in the World

  1. Another comment a year later! I work as a copy editor for a number of publications that use reader stories, and this past week I’ve been noticing how many stories come through talking about “my mom,” with no mention of her name. I’m asking the editors to remember to get those names from the contributors. Because it matters.

  2. There is something to be said for the therapeutic function of a blog, that’s for sure. It’s great when there are people who get it and say so. Thanks.

  3. I think I am very detached as a mother, yet it is THE most important thing to me, the one I don’t want to fail at. I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of the stripe.
    Thinking about this brought a new understanding about my mother to me. Thanks.

  4. I had to think about becoming a mother. My mother was less than maternal. She was a career woman with a purpose. I’m glad I did. But I’ve never, ever defined myself solely as a mother. And I think, actually, that’s good for my kids. I’ve not read Pamela Druckerman’s book on French vs. American mothering, but the cultural differences do stand out. In America, we hold it up there with the flag. How can you win?

  5. It makes perfect sense to me.
    My mum is 81 and at 51 I still feel her unwavering and unconditional love, and I know that she cannot help but be anything else to me. The first thing she does is ask if she can make me something to eat, one of the most basic acts of caring in human nature, and something that I think is instinctive to mothers from the moment they bring us into the world.
    But I am very much aware of my mum’s identity asides her role in my life.
    And I am also aware of how she feels about her own performance as a mother, seeing this reflected in every failure that I make in life, some way in which she is responsible for not parenting me correctly.
    Of course she isn’t. We both know this but it doesn’t stop he feeling it.
    But I see my shortcomings as my own. I don’t feel that my parents have any responsibility for who I am. They did the best they could, the rest was up to me.
    And I’m just as fallible as they are.
    Since dad’s death we have discussed many things about ourselves and our relationships with each other, and exposed much of ourselves outside of our roles as mother and son. And I have gained nothing but admiration for learning about my mother’s own identity and personality.
    I don’t know if that helps at all.
    I know she can never escape from motherhood, but I don’t think it solely defines her as a person. Maybe that’s easy for me to say.

  6. I have a college sophomore – happily away at college. Recently we engaged in slightly tense discussion – me not agreeing (nor being off the hook) with some decision she was making. Stupid stuff – she’s a great kid and I’m lucky. But I am so used to NOT managing someone else’s life, not much, while she’s away. I LOVE it! So I’m with you.

  7. I think I will send this to my daughters, who may or may not read it, who may or may not understand it, and who will certainly never talk to me about it. Because I still care more about how they see the world–and me–than I care about how others do. And this is where I am, too.

  8. It makes sense. Motherhood stamped me young. It was my adventure in many ways, the way world travel has been for a different sort of person. These days I am leaving (or as I prefer to think of it am still in) middle age just as my son arrives in it. For a while we’ve occupied it together — that feeling of sudden vulnerability combined with a growing awareness that just as we’ve grown competent at a few things, the time we have to use it or do something new is slipping past. There is a HUGE part of me that wants to be a person in the world for a while and there are times when that stripe feels faded to me and not as visible. I don’t know if I am ready to wash the stripe from my back though. I’ve been trying to write about this myself. For a while I made the mistake of hoping that he would someday see me as a person aside from the parent, but that hasn’t always happened. Trying to think when or if I’ve granted my own mother that. Good post. Thanks.

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