Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who’s Afraid of the Perfect Mother- Mother's Day 2008

Motherhood, or
Who’s Afraid of the Perfect Mother

I had trouble getting into this topic. I guess I would just rather be taking a bath and reading gardening books to celebrate Mother’s Day than writing talks about it. It’s not as though I haven’t gotten into the role of motherhood. Aside from being a stay-at-home mother to my three children, I have been the daycare provider for my sister’s children for almost three years, 18 months ago I added her nephew, and last month my younger brother’s two kids joined my after-school herd, making 8 kids at my house on most school-day afternoons. So the need for mothers seems so overwhelmingly obvious to me that I can’t quite see why we need to talk about it at all. It’s like saying that we need to breathe air. Duh.

I decided to approach this talk as an essay and for research sent email to various friends and relatives to ask them what their thoughts were on Mother’s Day, and found that for a wide variety of women, Mother’s day is an uncomfortable experience. For the woman who became an adoptive mother in her forties, it is understandable that Mother’s day used to be the worst day of the year, but the mother of 12 disliked it as well, finding that it made her feel “conspicuous and insufficient.” The mother of eight said that her children are the source of her both her greatest joys and her greatest sorrows. The full-time student did not mind that her children were in daycare because she had chosen the facility carefully, and used to be a daycare provider herself. But the working mother home on maternity leave struggled to feel that the contribution she was making to her family by cooking, cleaning, and nurturing were sufficient compensation for the loss of income. The divorced mother with great personal struggle gave custody of her children to her ex-husband because their needs would be better met in the school district where he lived. And the mother of several very young children didn’t write back, I suspect she is just trying to get enough sleep to be able to drive straight.  My mother sent humor, I’ll read some of it later.

Mothers are so obviously necessary to the human race, so varied in the demands placed on them, in the resources they bring to the task, in the problems they face and the approaches that they take to address them that they defy tidy description or standardized praise. There are as many different kinds of good mothers as there are good women who try out for the job. And it matters a lot less whether you feed your children homemade wheat bread or store-bought Wonderbread than it does that you are making a sincere effort to do what is best for those children. This is a story related in an article by Ardeth G. Kapp, formerly Young Women General President in The Church
“To suppose that nurturing, tutoring, and mothering should be the same for all children is folly. A fable tells of the animals, who organized a school at which, to make it easier to administer the curriculum and evaluate progress, every animal was to take the same subjects. According to the fable, "the rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of makeup work in swimming. The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat others to the top of the tree, but he insisted on using his own way to get there. The prairie dog stayed out of school because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum." The very skills and gifts that made each one great individually were being overlooked through a curriculum designed for blanket applications to everyone.”
If it is folly to assume that all children should be mothered in the same way, then surely it is also folly to assume that all mothers should be the same.  

Because there is such variety involved, Motherhood is not well-defined, and I have often thought that this contributes to not being well-appreciated. There is no “cardiac surgeon’s day” that I know of; the value of that profession is recognized and rewarded. Maybe we need a professional organization, or a Professional Code of Conduct for Mothers: “First, seek the best interests of your child. Second, recognize that this will be a complex, challenging task that will require most (sometimes all) of your mental, physical, and financial resources. Third, don’t be a martyr about it. You can’t fulfill their needs if your own needs are chronically unmet.” That’s as far as I have gotten so far, but it could go on along those lines.

Every new mother knows that there ought to be training for motherhood, including a crash-course in triage, first aid, and diagnosis of about a hundred common pediatric problems. Pediatricians are all well and good, but they are not in the room with you and your infant at 3:00 a.m. after who knows how many hours of crying- and that’s not counting what’s coming from the baby. Also helpful would be home-economics, child development, law enforcement, recreation management, physical therapy, speech therapy, psychology, and maybe dermatology. Other courses could be offered depending upon the needs of the particular children a woman was going to have. But of course no mother knows that ahead of time, and anyway to the best of my knowledge no one is offering such a curriculum. We jump into motherhood when we can, or must, with whatever resources we have acquired by that time.

 Mothers draw on the experiences of other women around them, at least if we’re smart we do. The church can be a valuable resource in this respect, a place where we find women who share, if not parenting styles or even reproductive status, then at least common eternal goals. And from time to time it is necessary for mothers to realize that no matter how hard they try, they be all things to their children. We must eventually rely upon those around us to help us fulfill our children’s needs. So keep good people around you. Many a woman, with or without children of her own, has been invaluable in helping raise other women’s children to productive adulthood.

But to get back to that bizarre sense of guilt or insufficiency that so many mothers seem to feel. We know that there was only one perfect individual who ever walked the earth, and whatever current popular literature may imply about his paternity status, Jesus was not a mother. Sariah, though the wife and mother of a prophet, was a real woman. She complained against Lehi, and her anxious outburst managed to get recorded in scripture, something which I rather hope does not happen to anything I might say, should I ever have as much reasonable cause for agitation as she had at the time. I don’t judge her for haranguing her husband. You try living in the desert middle-aged and pregnant, giving birth without running water and sanitary supplies, possibly without even a capable midwife; or think about nursing children for years on end without a good supportive bra and see how cranky you get. Sand in places you don’t want to think about. Ick. Lehi himself seemed to understand his wife fairly well. He did not rebuke Sariah. He acknowledged the truth of some of her statements, reminded her of what he had been promised, and generally tried to comfort her. I wonder, when Nephi says she was comforted when her sons actually did return, if maybe Lehi would have had more success making her feel better if he had stressed that she was promised the same things he was. Or maybe she was just pregnant.

I don’t think most mothers want a big fancy “Mother’s Day.” Don’t take that to mean we don’t want the flowers and candy or whatever or that you can skip the lunch today. If mama is expecting it, you better give it. But in general, little tokens given quietly and regularly mean a great deal more than annual ostentation.  Mothers want hugs when their arms are empty, a hand when their hands are full, an arm around their shoulders on bad days, a pat on the back on good days, and an encouraging word any time they can get it.

I will close with just a few funnies from my mother’s email, which she says was from questions about mothers answered by 7-year-olds.

Why God made Moms -- BRILLIANT Answers given by 2nd grade school children to the following questions!!

 Why did God make mothers?
1. She's the only one who knows where the scotch tape is.
2. Mostly to clean the house.
3. To help us out of there when we were getting born.

How did God make mothers?

1. He used dirt, just like for the rest of us.
2. Magic plus super powers and a lot of stirring
What ingredients are mothers made of?

1. God makes mothers out of clouds and angel hair and everything nice in the world and one dab of mean.
2. They had to get their start from men's bones. Then they mostly use string, I think.

Why did God give you Your mother & not some other mom?

1. We're related
2. God knew she likes me a lot more than other people's moms like me.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I know you mean well, but please stop telling me that I am a failure. #DayOfLight

I don’t have an excuse for my chronic mental health problems. No history of abuse, no traumatic events, no drug use. I eat healthy food, get daily exercise, attend church regularly, volunteer at my children’s school. I even get weekly adult time with my spouse.

And yet I fall into depression every few months.

I spent a decade of young adulthood trying to get a doctor to actually recognize that I had a problem- circa 1990, if you weren’t cutting yourself or displaying an eating disorder, you weren’t sick enough to get medical attention. I spent five more years trying to find an effective treatment. For about seven marvelous years Celexa helped me respond to life in a normal, healthy, non-self-destructive way. Then, as sometimes happens with mental illness, the medications stopped working. It was gradual. First I was just a little cranky. Then I was unaccountably weepy. Then I started wanting to bang my head against the wall like I used to in high school. Eventually I could not deny that my daily pill was useless and I was once again ill.
While I am looking for a new treatment, I follow all respected medical advice for dealing with mental illness. I do things I used to enjoy, like planting trees and keeping an organic garden. I’m trying to learn to play the guitar. I take deep cleansing breaths whenever the crazy creeps in, and get on my bike for half an hour every day whether I feel like it or not.

I also surround myself with positive people. But if it weren’t for doctors recommending it, I wouldn’t. These positive people keep giving me bad advice. They keep telling me that happiness is a choice. And anyone who has dealt with depression knows it’s not.

We wouldn’t want it to be.

To reduce a person’s inner experience to a single, up-or-down personal decision robs the sensation of happiness of its fundamental utility: that good things should make us feel good.

How can you know if you have found someone you want to spend your life with if they don’t make you feel happy? Why would you bother to seek more suitable employment, if a lack of happiness did not prompt you to it? Stay with the harpy or the schlub, don’t bother getting retrained- blaming your lack of willpower for the fact that you are not happy is easier and less frightening than making a life change.
 How do you even know when you are having fun if doing it doesn’t bring a feeling that you can identify as happiness? Following your bliss is less a life quest than an absurdist mantra if bliss is something you can turn on like a faucet. “Wickedness never was happiness,” says the scripture. But if a person could simply choose to be happy regardless of their moral state, then who would bother to do all the tediously upright and temporally unrewarding work of being a decent person? What is Damnation but a state of never ending unhappiness? Fear not, evil doers- choose to be happy in the face of your eternal torment!  You’ll get used to the heat.

Happiness motivates. It’s like the flip side of pain. Pain exists to tell us that something is wrong and that we should do something about it, quickly. Happiness exists to tell us when something is right. It is a crucial indicator of whether or not we are who and where we are supposed to be. Now I agree there is a significant element of will involved in being happy.  Two different people in the same basic circumstance can decide to react in completely different ways: when surrounded by darkness, you can curse it, or you can light a candle. 

But no number of candles will turn the night into day.

Everyone knows that a person with chronic pain is not necessarily lacking in some aspect of character. But whether or not a person whose brain can’t get the Happy thing going is morally deficient seems to still be in question.  That question is raised every time one of my friends shares what they think is a simple inspirational Facebook post proclaiming that “Happiness is a Choice.”
If happiness is strictly a matter of choice, it is my own fault if I am not happy- I am personally deficient for my lack of happy sensations. Whenever I sit down with a friend and list the things I am doing in an effort to be happy, they agree that I am making the right choices.

But unless they have experienced mental illness themselves, they just can’t wrap their heads around the lie that they are telling me. They chide me for my defensiveness, or chivvy me to “talk with my doctor” (as if I haven’t already). Some go so far as to insist that I can “just pull myself out of it!” (Thank God I already talked to my doctor, who is at least better informed than that.)

Rather than stick around for more Pollyanna pistol-whipping, I usually withdraw from my unwitting antagonist. My social circle keeps shrinking, which is counterproductive when trying to deal with a mental illness, but better than seeking support from people who are not equipped to give it.
From time to time I find people in my situation who are able to frame their friends’ behavior as ignorance rather than deception or douchebaggery. I admire their fortitude.

But it sometimes happens that their Happy friends decide to end their relationship, frustrated with this person who is willfully, obstinately Not Happy- and in spite of all the Happy person’s good advice! Ironically, this leaves the Happy person in a perilous position. Around a quarter of the population will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. So a person who has it all together today and thinks it is because they are just that skilled at choosing happiness is in for a rude awakening if they experience an episode of mental illness.

The facile employment of the “Happiness is a Choice” meme perverts happiness into a virtual cudgel, a tool to blame the victim. Those who find themselves sane and happy can isolate themselves from those who aren’t, reassuring themselves that their pleasant mental state is the result of their own virtue, and that those in misery deserve it. It is a psychological burqa: If only you would cover yourself, you would not be assaulted: If only you would choose to be happy, you would not be miserable. It allows the voluntarily veiled to blind themselves to the reality of the involuntarily vulnerable.

At least, until the vicissitudes of life catch up to them.

“Happiness is a Choice” reduces a complicated interaction of Brain, Body, Spirit, and Will to a light switch. Happiness is a pipe organ, not a plastic whistle. It’s not just on or off. If you mean “Life ain’t perfect, but I am counting my blessings,” then say so. It doesn’t take that much longer to type out. If you mean “I feel fantastic today and I want to take some credit for that,” then go for it. If you want to share it with a pretty picture, you’ll have to add your own, but that’s not so difficult.  And if you mean “I’m sick of listening to you whine! I don’t have those problems, so they can’t be real- shut it already!”- well, then, at least we would all be dealing straight with one another.

I know you want a tidy, happy ending to this story. I do, too. I’m trying a new treatment now, and it’s helping, sometimes. When it is working, if someone throws a little “happiness is a choice” nonsense my way, I can drop and roll and let it pass me by. But I choose not to.  Not allowing people to tell childish, pretty little lies is the best choice I can make to spread a little happiness. Or at least, a little understanding.