Sunday, May 23, 2010

Perfect Moms

I was thinking, as I lay awake two nights in a row, about motherhood.

I realized that motherhood has some essential duties (nurturing children) and a WHOLE BUNCH of satellite duties.  For example, it is part of mothering to keep your children clean and appropriately dressed.  The satellite of that is doing laundry.  Really, doing laundry is not part of motherhood. You could hire it out and someone else could do it, and you would still be mothering your children.

Dishes are another. In fact, cleaning the kitchen is. Feeding and nurturing our children's bodies with healthy food is part of mothering. But you could hire someone else to clean the kitchen and do the dishes, and it wouldn't interfere with the mothering.

The thing I realized is that, when we talk about or imagine perfect mothers, the things that we attach to that perfection are, more often than not, the SATELLITE duties--the ones we do of necessity but that aren't actually part of being a mother! Isn't that strange?  It's true, though. When we imagine a perfect mother who has it all together, her kids look perfect, her house is clean and organized, her kitchen and bathrooms are spotless, her yard is manicured and her house beautifully decorated. She has a garden and feeds her children organic produce. And those children dance around happily in clothing she made herself, begging for more homemade bread.

Oh, there are other things, too. Most of which aren't really things the woman can control. For example, perfect mothers have children who are friendly, personable, polite, and articulate. Now honestly, can a mother, even the best of mothers doing the rightest things, actually produce that? NO, not honestly--because if we are being honest, we admit that those things have to do with the child's temperament and choices. The mother can teach a child that it is right to be polite, but ultimately it is the child's choice if they want to. And we all know children who don't want to sometimes. Or all the time. Depends on the kid. And how old they are.

I realized two things, actually.  One is that the "perfect mother" doesn't exist, so we should stop envisioning her and then comparing ourselves unfavorably.  Perhaps we should strive for "righteous woman" (which is possible) instead of worrying about being the perfect mother (which isn't possible).

The other is that in order to be a truly effective mother who uses her limited energies on the most important things, it is important that we separate mothering from all the satellite duties. It's not that the satellite things are not important. Everyone has to eat off clean dishes if we want to be healthy. It's just that we shouldn't confuse that with motherhood. Housekeeping and child rearing are different things. You can hire a housekeeper for your home (and don't we all wish we could!) without it affecting your personal righteousness. I'm not sure you can hire someone else to raise your children without it affecting your personal righteousness (I'm not talking about daycare, which especially single moms find absolutely necessary--I'm talking about, for example, the Victorian Socialite's ideal: bear the children and then put them in the nursery and hire a nursemaid to care for them, allowing them in your presences once a week or so. There are modern parents who still do this.).

And how many of us have spent a lot of emotional energy worrying about our failures in the non-mothering duties moms all have? Or worse, neglected the children to be a "perfect mom"--by making sure all the satellites were taken care of!

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