In February 1989, I ended a phone interview for a magazine story I was writing and looked up to find my 21-month-old daughter imitating me.
She was standing just a few feet away at our coffee table. The receiver of a toy phone was crooked in the curve of her neck as she wrote curlicues in one of my reporter’s notebooks with one of my pencils.
“Yeah,” she said, over and over, nodding. “Yeah. Yeah.”
She looked so cute, so seriously like me. Was that good? Was it bad?
I was working at home so that I could be with her, and she was trying to be just like me. Aw.
Still, work is work, and there she was, imitating the reason Mommy had told her to be quiet. Oh, God.
I stood there for a few moments as guilt and pride duked it out inside my head. My own little Mommy War, if you will.
I reached for my camera and photographed the evidence of my screwed-up priorities. A reminder, I told myself. A reminder that I’m always a mother first.
Man, I’m glad those days are behind me.
Dear young mothers: Despite recent media coverage, you didn’t invent mother’s guilt.
Dear older mothers: How silly were we?
There are plenty of battles with guilt raging between the ears of most mothers, but there are no Mommy Wars. This doesn’t stop the media from trying to start one, of course.
The most recent toss of the grenade comes courtesy of Time magazine, which ran on its cover last week a slim, attractive mother gazing at the camera with a hand on her hip as she breast-fed her 3-year-old son, who was standing on a chair. He, too, was looking at the camera even as he suckled.
My immediate reaction was to feel mighty sorry for the years of schoolyard ridicule headed that little boy’s way.
I also admit to a pang of envy, as I never wore skinny jeans or skimpy tops during my land-to-air-missile days of nursing.
The headline on the cover: “Are you mom enough?”
And we’re off!
I posted a link to the magazine cover on Facebook and asked for opinions. Within minutes, we had a vigorous debate going on. Some people cast judgment on the mother; some defended her. And still others cast judgment on anyone who was judging. This is bound to happen whenever a breast is involved.
Far more moving was the other discussion unfolding, as one mother after another offered parenting stories. The should’ve, could’ve theme was nearing a crescendo when I posted my own opinion:
As the mother of loving, well-adjusted grown children who make their livings helping others, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I was a good mother even though I stopped nursing around nine months, insisted they sleep in their own beds most of the time and worked outside the home before my daughter was in middle school. There’s no template for the perfect mother. Thank God.
I never could have written that 20 years ago. Sure wish I’d known that peace was coming.
Launching your chicks into the world gives you the opportunity to look back at the nest you built for them. You can appraise yourself more gently because you know the outcome. With some sheepishness — but also a good deal of relief — you realize you weren’t so bad after all.
I used to feel guilty that I hated board games and sometimes fell asleep next to my children in the middle of reading a bedtime story. Not once has either of them ever turned to me and said, “You know, Mom, if you’d played Monopoly with me, I’d be a bank president by now.” Or, “To this day, Mom, I’m worried that Runaway Bunny never found his way home.” We all moved on.
As for that fateful day when my toddler daughter imitated her reporter mother — well, let’s stop right there. It wasn’t fateful at all.
I went on to build a career as a writer, and she grew up to be a woman who believes in her right to have a say in the world.
I’m still her mom; she’s still my girl. And whenever I start to ask myself how she ever got to be so strong-willed, I look at the framed photo sitting next to my computer.
In it, she’s 21 months old. She’s holding a pencil I’d warned her to leave alone, writing on a pad I thought I’d set out of reach.
She’s on the phone, and she’s got a story to tell.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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