I wager few mothers in my age bracket (54) can look at a wire hanger without cringing. That is because the demon gaze of Faye Dunaway transformed into the cold creamed, screeching Joan Crawford in in the 1981 American mommy horror show, Mommie Dearest, still makes me shudder.
We would never grow up to be such a mom. We would be more careful with a child’s daily personal safety, heck, his/her feelings. We would be kinder, gentler, less nuts and less selfish. We knew we would not be perfect, but we would try not to be scary at the very least.
Which is why – as a single mother of three sons – I recoil at the buzz about the latest crop of cool moms who admit in print to being, if not exactly of the Mommie Dearest ilk, then on the edge of high risk. Now 24 years into this gig, I feel motherhood in the Courtney Love/Britney Spears brand of alcohol-soaked anything goes is an ill-conceived plan at best. Just ask Reese Witherspoon.
No, you do not have to be flawless. But joking about being scary? That is a particular luxury few mothers around the world can afford. For most of the 85.4 million mothers in the US and the estimated 1.7 billion mothers across the globe, this latest round of highly publicised, dismissive approaches to motherhood likely does not resonate.
What I can say to Nicole Knepper as she is book-signing her way around the US with her new book, Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind, is this is not your optimal approach – especially during the teen and young adult years.
The Knepper book promotional chatter goes like this:
“It’s not that she doesn’t love her kids. It’s that she understands what a mind-f*?% it can be to try to civilise those wild little beasts… This book reveals why family dinners are like herpes…(as) she gets to the heart of what every exasperated mom is thinking, just much funnier.”
I have been exasperated as a mother, but this is not at all what I am thinking.
Likewise, I have little in common with Jill Smokler, whose 2012 book, Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood – The Good, The Bad, and the Scary, is also making Mother’s Day rounds this month.
The mistakes are not funny
I know this sounds judgmental, but I suggest both of these authors take a good, long look at the State of The World’s Mothers Report 2013 released earlier this week and see how lucky American mothers are. The report includes the Mother’s Index that ranks the positives of motherhood along measurable lines in 176 countries such as maternal health, children’s well-being, educational, economic and political status of mothers.
Just to put it in perspective, the US is ranked 30th, behind the leader in Finland and its Scandinavian neighbours of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Denmark holding the spots of 2 through 6. While the US is behind Spain, Belgium, Australia and Germany, American mothers have it far better than mothers in 146 other countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, coming in last. In that context, so many mothers do not have the luxury of viewing the gift of family dinners as a curse.
This is what else I want to say to the American moms who think it is funny to act like they are moms gone wild while officially in charge of raising humans: don’t. Now that my boys are men at 24, 22 and 19, I can say with undeniable certainty that you need to be sober when you get a call at midnight to come pick up your son at a party because the friend who was driving is too drunk to get behind the wheel.
I am no killjoy. Yes, I drink wine; no, I do not smoke and yes, I swear – and yell while swearing on occasion. I also lose my temper. But I can say with a great deal of conviction (the pun is intended) that the “cool” moms usually end up with “cool” kids who tend to get arrested for underage drinking and worse. And it is you who bails them out and goes to the court appearances, pays for the attorney, tries to unravel the mess and get it expunged from their records. And they cannot get college financial aid if they have an arrest record. If the party is at your house? In Illinois, where I live, you get a “Class 1 Misdemeanor” and a $500 fine. If someone dies as a result of drinking at your house? It is a “Class 4 felony”.
It's not that she doesn't love her kids. It's that she understands what a mind-f*?% it can be to try to civilise those wild little beasts…
What I want to say to Nicole and Jill and anyone else who will listen to what I know sounds preachy is the deal you made with the universe when you became a parent (by birth, adoption, marriage or any other circumstance) is that it would cease to be all about you all of the time; you would bravely attempt to be the caretakers of the minors in your charge. And you would draw the lines in the sand for your own behaviour, know what you cannot cross. You would understand your missteps – and there will be many – and know what you need to regret and never repeat. And the mistakes are not funny.
It is not that I have no sense of humour – and you should never believe anyone who claims to be funny – it is just that I shake my head at writers who think their kids will not grow up and read about how their mothers had to drink, get high, break stuff and scream to get through their early years.
Above all you must find a way, as my friend Pam, an author, web designer, environmental activist and mother of four says, to love them enough and love yourself enough to stay on the other side of scary.
No, I am not doing the Mother Blame thing that Paula Caplan writes about in the Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada collection. I am not judging anyone to be an unfit mother. And I am not separating working moms from stay-at-home moms here either. I am a deeply flawed mother who also is an ambitious author, journalist, university assistant professor and sole support for my family of four. Regardless of who earns the paycheck, there should not be different maternal standards.
Sure, this notion of wonderfully candid authors laughing at mommy flaws is not new – Mary Kay Blakely apologetically referred to “Bad Mommy Moments” in her 1995 book, American Mom. But nothing was high-risk. I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in 1999 and flinched in parts. I am not going to read Lamott’s grandmothering 2012 book, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, because I think she is a brilliant writer, love all her other work and I do not want to be disappointed in her. And last year, writer Ian Frazier chimed in with his novel, The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days, but alas, it was fiction.
Kids deserve better from moms
It is a hard enough assignment trying to be sure your children make it to college graduation with all the food-shelter-self-esteem basics plus poster boards for show and tell. This past weekend, I listened at my middle son’s graduation from the Ohio State University as President Obama gave the commencement address and dared the nearly 10,000 graduates to do better.
Moms should dare to do the same. I never had the option of being the Scary Mommy forgetting I was the only one responsible for them. As the sole parent available to Weldon, Brendan and Colin since they were 6, 4 and 1, everything was on me.
But I admit, on one afternoon just before Christmas in 2006, following my breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy when I thought I might die, I faltered. I thought maybe I did not have to do all of what I did as a mother all the time for them over the years. I could have done more for me instead.
I was standing in the basement taking the clothes out of the dryer and I started to sob, I mean cry really, really hard, because I never got to go to Australia or Thailand or Brazil. I crumpled to the floor. It was too much to realise I only got to do some things once, most not at all. My bucket list was overflowing and what I had actually done could only fill a teacup. And thankfully, not one of the boys heard me cry, or saw me sobbing with the warm towels and the underwear, the sweatshirts and the mismatched socks in my lap. But it was only that one afternoon. And truly, I have not felt that way since.
That is because the Amber alerts for missing children on my phone, the digital text signs on the highway and the photos of the missing children on the screens at the grocery checkout counter disintegrate me. For years I felt uncomfortable pouring milk into glasses for my three healthy boys with those faces of other missing children on the carton, knowing another mother was agonising somewhere, a deep crucifixion of grief. The news this week in Cleveland, Ohio, of the three young women rescued 10 years after they were kidnapped as girls and held captive, underlines my point.
It is not befitting of any mother to take her children for granted, even as she calls it a joke. A mother cannot afford to be scary. Because here is the tricky, sacrosanct part of motherhood, parenting, really and here is what Jill, Nicole and even Anne miss. Even when your children are making you feel desperate? You cannot make them feel as if they are not worth the effort.
I was never the Mickey Mouse pancake kind of mother; I never had the time to drop the circles of overlapping batter onto the griddle to form the outline of Mickey’s head. But I did make the pancakes, piles of them. I also sat in the stands in hundreds of gymnasiums, dragged my boys to museums, listened to the Raffi tapes in the car and went to all the G-rated movies they wanted to see, even when the plots were so criminally thin, you could moan at the creative injustice of it all.
And I am certainly not alone. I likely do no more than most mothers do. No matter where you live in the world, the blip on the timeline when you are the most important person in the world to your child is brief, finite. It is your performance in that window that counts.
Kids deserve better from mothers. Mothers deserve better for themselves. If you do not believe me, just ask Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina.
Michele Weldon is an author, assistant professor of journalism at the Medill School, Northwestern University, leader with the OpEd Project and recently completed the memoir, Escape Points, about raising her three sons alone.
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