Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Women, Children, Fulfillment: Notes on An Ongoing Conversation

Thinking this morning about an interesting conversation that has come to me two different ways this week--first, through email correspondence with an insightful e-friend, and then on a Facebook thread through a friend there.  This is a conversation about what lies behind the ability of some mothers to savage their children (or so it appears to those of us on the receiving end of maternal treatment at times).  

At Facebook, my friend Kae writes, 

I used to worry that if I didn't have children, I would never understand "life," whatever that meant. But then I went around asking people, especially women, to articulate what their kids meant to them, and I got mostly mysterious smiles and evasive answers. Do any of my friends regret the choices they made--to have kids or not?

Kae's commenting on this article by Katherine Butler at Alternet yesterday.

And in response to Kae, I've posted,

As she aged, my mother began to collect "message" pillows from people at her office. Apparently a whole circle of women cross-stitched these, to display prominently when your children came home, with ominous messages like, "Avenge yourself: live long enough to be a problem to your children." The message from my mother, at least, was that she could have had a real life, if she had not been tied to the obligation to marry and have children. And she may well have been right. Women of the time and place in which she came of age (small-town Arkansas in the Depression) had few choices, and promising spousal material was, to say the least, rather limited.

That message pillow someone had given my mother: it sat defiantly, neon-bright slogan front and center, in a little mahogany rocking chair my mother had recovered, which was her mother's rocker, the rocker in which my grandmother sat as she nursed all her children.  It's a rocker I now have, and it strikes me as I look at it now that it's designed precisely to dandle and nurse children, since it has no arms, and allows maximum movement of whoever's sitting in it.

Knowing my mother, I suspect she knew full well the message she was giving her sons when she put that pillow in that chair, so that we could read the message all over again each time we came home.  And it was an effective message: who could argue that women in her culture have ever had much freedom, ability to control their fate or affect their circumstances?

Who could argue that my mother might have had far more of a chance at a real life, given support, liberty, and more malleable circumstances?  Perhaps many women who raise families  recognize this, and that recognition gives a bittersweet quality to their interaction with their children.

It's interesting that this conversation comes to me this week from two different (and independent) angles.  And that it's arriving on the eve of the Christmas holidays, when the sad reality of family life often collides spectacularly with the pretty gauze-wrapped dreams about family we're taught to believe in.

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