Monday, March 17, 2014

The Most Important Thing I Know About Parenting

My worst flare-ups as a mother - every single one - happened when I was anxious about someone else's opinion of me. Sometimes that someone else isn't even a real person, merely one of the faceless horde of What Will People Think.  Maybe it was an impending visit from the in-laws, or that time we were getting our house ready for a showing. It could be my kid's tantrum at a playground, or the time she made me look bad in church. But at the core of my worst moments as a mother, an inordinate desire to look good to others is always there.

We intuit this, even when we don't say it out loud. The best parenting advice has this behind it, even when it's not acknowledged. Consider this wise post from We Are That Family. Very sensible. And as I read Kristen's list, I see lurking behind each item a rejection of the urge to look good to other people. Would we overspend if we weren't trying to keep up with someone else? How does your spending change if you choose to be unashamed of what you earn?  Does anyone really plan those party goody-bags out of pleasure, or is it so the other moms are impressed by the way you have it all together?

Here is the most important thing I've learned about motherhood: know who you want to be in yourself, alone, before God or in the interior of your soul. Then know who you want to be in your relationship with your kids. When you look for community, choose a few moms whom you respect. Seek their counsel when you need advice.  And other than that, disregard the entire prating world. Disinvest yourself from the babble of opinions, real and imagined, and live by what you yourself are determined to be. Let that wave of opinionated nonsense rise and recede without sweeping you away with it. Stand firm in who you are. That's it.

The Mommy Wars are manufactured, of course, and patronizing and pointless and destructive. But they have an effect, to be blunt, when we allow them to.

 There is a scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More, knowing that arrest and possibly death is approaching because of his religious stance against the king, urges his friend Norfolk to abandon their friendship. More picks a quarrel on the subject of the king's demands when he knows he and Norfolk are observed. More says, "I will not give in because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites, but I do -- I.  Is there in the midst of all this muscle no single sinew that serves no appetite of Norfolk's, but is just Norfolk?"

What part of you as a parent is just you? Not the club you belong to or the people you want to please or the public image you want to cultivate, but you? Not the ideas that enrage you or the puffery that entertains, but the identity that sings in your soul and calls itself right whether anyone is watching or not? Who is the parent you choose to be, not because others are noticing, but because you yourself have determined this is what a parent is?

Love is, in its essence, the meeting in delight between you as you really are and the beloved as they really are. Love is the opposite of pretense. The joy of parenting comes from getting to know  children in their fascinating selves - all the ways they are like mom or dad, and all the ways they are different; the things about them that are fixed traits, and the qualities that are pruned and shaped. There is joy in learning who a child is meant to be, and knowing you helped get them there.

When the words of others help you see your children better, show you new ways to recognize them or shape them for the good, then those are wise words to be cherished. When the words of others, real or imagined, interfere with that face-to-face knowing and instead encourages affectation and shamming, then they are only noisy gongs or clanging symbols. Turn them off and shut them out. Be the person and the parent you decide to be, and be at peace.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Husband in Winter

My husband says I love him more in winter. The heat does not stay in our drafty old house, and I scoot closer on the couch. He wears big quilted overshirts, and when I walk into our kitchen on the cold, cold floor each morning, he laughs at me and spreads his arms wide, that roomy, unbuttoned overshirt opening for me to tuck myself inside.

When there is snow on the ground, his warmth feels meant. Despite all scientific facts to the contrary, I feel certain the heat from his body is intentional and directed. It reaches out to me on purpose and stops the shivers. Every year I deny that I love him more in winter, but when the windows frost, I find myself settling into marriage like a quilt. I can't help it. Or I don't want to.

I have been working on a novel for years, the slow, sneaky kind of project that throws sand in my face when I think I've got it pinned. To write it, I have to remember what I thought love was when I was young. I set myself the chore of listening to young music and I try to remember. I recall being lit up by conversation and the certainty I was understood, that piercing feeling of affinity, the belief that I had finally found my kin. I remember the hollow longing that never got filled up. I remember that intensity that makes every roadblock an outrage and an ending of the world. But as I sift through my memories, I am surprised at how bodiless it all is. I remember the longing, but from this distance of decades, it looks pointlessly consumed with my own interior self.

But marriage is carnal. The man in my kitchen stands there, solid even when I'm not paying attention.  There is no moment he is safely framed and contained in my thoughts. In our own demanding story, dammit all if he doesn't shock me with his stubborn plot points. I shuffle into his arms on a cold winter morning and see how memory and future track along his hands, his neck, the grizzle of his beard. He is always past and always present, and I am never merely left inside myself.

Warmth is personal, no matter what the physiology textbooks say. He warmed me by meaning to, and I sometimes hope that winter lasts forever.