This fall, I found out two of my dear friends will soon enter into the mysterious Cult of Mom. With the news, memories tumbled out of the dusty box of the past, memories of being twenty-one and pregnant from a brand new relationship and terrified that I'd be an awful parent. I especially remember the guilt of not enjoying my pregnancy, of feeling poisoned and invaded and certain that these feelings would ruin her little psyche forever. We all have our own box of memories we draw upon when a girlfriend gets pregnant. We initiate her gleefully into the Cult of Mom with our war stories and random tips. We can't help it, we're mothers; we just want them to have a better time of it than we did. But the fact is, each of us has to come to terms with the sudden decline in money, time, sleep and autonomy that comes with childbearing in our own way.
And the hardest part is not in seeking out the right stimulating toys, or knowing the difference between a Braxton-Hicks and a real contraction, or any of the multitude of other random tidbits we learned about in What To Expect When You're Expecting , thousands of which are available at Amazon for a penny.
Instead, it's those little battles we fight every day within ourselves. The wars against the parenting we received, the fight for self-esteem, the frustration with feeling as though we don't exist as a woman anymore, just a screaming, drooling motherandchildebeest.
There is a reason goddess religions bother to separate maiden and mother: Once you've pushed that big baby out of that little hole, you are no longer the same person. Unfortunately, there's no way to express that to my expecting girlfriends, I can only keep my cell phone turned on all night for the next five years as they meet the women they become, warts and all.
When I was pregnant - oh jeez, eight years ago, I was one of the first in my community to take the plunge - or rather, to fall in the lake. The only veterans to bury me under mountains of advice and war stories were my co-workers, middle-aged advertising execs who largely gave more time and energy to their work and its social obligations than to their families. I cannot say whether the differences were generational or conditional, just that the majority of the comfort I gleaned from their well-meaning advice was that if they can do it, anyone can.
I was born on a commune in 1975. The revolutionary notion of the time was that pregnancy is not an illness. I was born at home with my parents' community of friends in attendance. Those friends helped take care of the kids on the farm; they helped my parents build their house, and were generally a tight little community. The summer after I was born, as they worked together to build their new house out of materials my dad salvaged from his job demolishing houses, my mother found that I had crawled over to a tomato and sucked it dry.
I was starving. We all were. Soon after, they packed up their stuff and moved home to her parents in Chicago.
A couple years later my parents split and by Kindergarten I was living with my mom and spending summers with my dad. My childhood was defined by my mother's self-esteem issues. I was an accessory and, like many children, powerless, forced to go along for the ride as she coped with alcoholism, poverty, abusive men, and health crisis after health crisis.
It's not that she was a bad mother. If anything, I have a huge leg up on most of my friends because I never doubted for a moment that I was loved and wanted by my parents (even if my arrival was a bit of a surprise). It's just that she belonged to this generation of kids who decided to reject the whole June Cleaver notion of family. But when you start over from zero, there's a lot of potential for mistakes. What does a new family structure look like? How is it sustained? With all of the other ideas they were experimenting with, they were pretty much doomed to drop a few balls; there were simply too many variables - the downside to cultural revolution.
My parents, like many in the Pluto in Leo generation, were too caught up in the radical notion that they were human to consider the humanity of those around them too awful much. My mother summed it up perfectly in a memorable argument from my childhood: “When I was a kid, my parents were in charge, now it seems like you are in charge, when do I get to be in charge?!”
The problem with the notion of fighting the power is that it puts everyone but you in the seat of power. My mother couldn't see that in order to get respect from others, she had to respect herself. It's a legacy with which I still struggle.
Today, like many adults, I am trying desperately not to repeat the unconscious conditioning passed on to me by my parents, from their parents, ad infinitum. If we don't think about it (and sometimes even if we do), we do exactly what is modeled to us, a recipe for a never-ending cycle of subtle and not-so-subtle emotional abuse.
My first five years of parenting were an abysmal failure. Yes, I am the queen of self-flagellation, and you may be tempted to shrug it off because I'm such a <fill in the blank> and articulate person, but this is the truth. It's humility.
I was barely more than a child, trying to make the best of a relationship that, before my pregnancy, took place long distance over a span of about three months. I resented the loss of my freedom. I didn't understand why this baby cried and threw tantrums, so I took them personally. I tried to somehow distance myself from this thing; this “mother” that I had to be, that felt nothing like who I was.
My daughter's early years were a binary pattern of anger and guilt. In truth, she was the only one I knew who was weaker than me, which made her a target for all the anger I couldn't cope with. Which made me feel horrible; I wanted to be a good mother, I just didn't know how. Friends were rarely helpful, telling me this was normal and I shouldn't beat myself up for it – or the even less useful, “This is why I don't have kids”. I knew there had to be a better way, but the maze was frustratingly dark and circuitous.
Fortunately, a big part of my path the past two years has been toning down the hyper-criticism I once turned on myself, and thus everyone else. Which made room for the radical notion that I am raising a human being. And that (the horror!) I am a human being.
I knew that once. Since then it must have simmered in the back of my mind, waiting to be stirred back into my consciousness. It's funny how many of the great realizations come with the phrase “I knew that!” A big key for me was getting outside the sphere of my known world. The book that changed everything for me is called Positive Discipline , which is founded on the radical notion that children are human and want to be respected and they will do as you do, not as you say, whether you like it or not. Every time. Want respect? Give it. Want introspection and creativity? Demonstrate it. In keeping with my new self-esteem, though, I am not so much remorseful for the first five years, as grateful that I have the next dozen to do it better (most of the time).
But really, no matter how hard we try, we're bound to make mistakes our children will resent us for. We're humans, somehow responsible for the development of another human, yet barely capable of being responsible for our own human development.
And really, our parents were humans too, trying to do the right thing in the face of their own obstacles and their own search for love. No one taught them how to deal with anger except their parents, who often used belts and other forms of violence to express their anger and thought it was best. I don't believe anyone ever sets out in the morning wondering what sort of damage they can do to another psyche today. (Not even Karl Rove. Okay, maybe Karl Rove. But even he, I suspect, thinks he's doing good every day).
What we may have failed to notice in all this blaming of our parents for their shortcomings is that they actually did better than their own parents. I was spared the humiliation and pain of the belt, a wound my mother is still trying to overcome. And she was allowed to go to college, an option most women my grandmother's age weren't given.
Even wounded, we stagger forward.
If you step back and look at the bigger picture, the past several generations have been struggling with revolution after revolution. The industrial revolution, the great patriarch of every inorganic thing your eye hits if you look around at any given moment, took men out of homes and made fatherhood insignificant, which meant that mothers had to try to fill both roles. Harsh discipline trained children for a cruel commodity-based world of bosses and officials who would do far worse than a parent could - or so they reasoned. And to add insult to injury, we have, by successive generations, relied less and less on the community around us and taken more and more onto our own shoulders.
It's no wonder my parents rebelled. The environment they were raised in wasn't particularly natural, either. And yet, for every loss in community there seems to be a corresponding gain in freedom: less social cost for non-conformity, and many more communities of like-minded weirdoes available, though usually without the benefit of geographic proximity. But everything has its cost. The cost of finding a community where you feel you belong is distrusting the strangers next door.
Statistically, my daughter and her peers are significantly safer than I was as a child, and yet we perceive the world as a more dangerous place. Partly that is because we live in a world of strangers rather than small communities where we all know the kids and look out for them. They have become more like zoo animals than children.
The catch-22 for most people I know is that they feel they have nothing in common with their communities, no way to relate. Time is scarce and they don't want to waste it on awkward small talk with people who drive SUVs with yellow ribbon magnets on the back. In my town, people don't vote for school bonds unless they have children. I know mine isn't the only one.
We have lost our commitment to the future, which speaks to the elephant in the living room of our world culture: the great and unspeakable ennui about this great handbasket the world seems to be riding in.
If you want to know the heart of a culture, look at how it treats its children. I don't think most people believe in the future anymore. Or if they do, they've bought some Hollywood script with some brave and bulky actor who sweatily rushes in to neatly save the day. But of course few kids from my daughter's generation would answer such a call anyway. They'd be home eating McDonald's and playing on their Game Cubes. People who raise kids to be pacified by stuff aren't thinking of raising their kids with altruism.
Too critical? Not really. I stand by my point that these parents are doing what they do out of a sense of rightness engendered by exhaustion and guilt and numbness and a lockstep inability to think beyond their televisions. It can be hard to break free of that (I should know, I just traversed another holiday retail assault). The solution, in my estimation, is not to righteously preach to these parents or treat them in any way that would make me feel like something on the bottom of a shoe, were tables turned. And they have been. Anyone who stands on the fringes has been on the receiving end of a speech from some well-meaning mainstreamer imploring them to “be more normal”. I know how willing to listen I was. Turning the tables only results in the same barrier from another angle. We all have a right to our unique worldview, but we also have a responsibility to examine it. Not anyone else's - ours.
The recipe for making a difference hasn't changed much. If you want to see change, demonstrate it. Without expectation, for the joy of doing what is right for you. Give people other options to consider. Listen to them. Learn from them. Ask them why they do what they do. They will do one of two things: teach you something, or start asking themselves why do they do that (even if they never admit it)? As easy as that, you're fostering community. If you try it on kids, you're raising a human being. Now we're getting somewhere.
This is the legacy I hope to leave my daughter.
It's also the only thing I can offer my favorite moms-to-be that's worth two cents.++
Maya Dexter has written for Planet Waves since 2001.