I am not my mother’s daughter…but I want to be.
When I wrap my fingers around my daughter’s pink hands
And feel my pulse snake through my wrist into her heartbeat. When mine
Is frantic, hers skips and I am tired with the day that’s gotten itself over me
Wielding a missed deadline and a crumpled paper and a memory of my mother’s endless patience.
She swam in an ocean of unfinished picture books because the young me fashioned messes,
And when my daughter wriggles her nose and turns my briefcase upside-down to create a tornado
Of reasons onetwothree why I have ignored her today,
I remember my mother’s job WAS me.
And I paid her terribly, I forced her into slavery overtime, and the benefits
Were reaped by me rather than the other way around.
I am not my mother’s daughter…because I’m not clever enough to let the wrong things
Go down the drain with the rancid food.
And I live in a time where her sacrifices aren’t acknowledged anymore.
They’re relegated to antique stories with curled edges, Betty Crocker aprons, and the tsks
Of the modern age, a shining gleaming inadequacy of doing everything
And doing nothing simultaneously.
I am my mother’s daughter because I can throw the voice she gave me
Like a ventriloquist onto my daughter’s sparkling eyes
And she sees beneath the me who is haggard and unforgiving.
She will one day watch my sacrifices like a sociologist nodding and dissecting the way we live,
And with her own silvery voice will cry
She possessed a mother who was her grandmother’s daughter
And that like all of the women before her brandished the only thing that mattered.
Sarah Clayville’s fiction and poetry have been featured in The Threepenny Review, StoryChord, Literary Orphans, Central PA Magazine and a number of other journals. A teacher, author, and single mother of a toddler and a teen, she often contemplates what she’s doing wrong and not often enough what she’s doing right. Visit Sarah at SarahSaysWrite.com.
When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we bought “The Book.” A 633 page trade paperback, by then in its 3rd revision, of Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care. We quickly nicknamed it “The Bible.” We couldn’t believe things like “spitting in infancy,” “fretful baby” and “green stools” (three categories) were in the index. Whenever we found ourselves looking with concern from baby Justin to one another, one of us would say, “Let’s look it up.”
It wasn’t a book you read from cover to cover, like today’s parenting books. It was more like an encyclopedia, or a garage mechanic’s shopworn engine manual. You quickly found your problem, and Dr. Spock led you through a soft-spoken “Ah yes, that does happens sometimes, let me explain” discussion of why, and what you might try, and how most things resolve themselves anyway if you can’t find a solution at the moment. And good for you for noticing.
Not so today’s parenting books. A quick check on Amazon shows over 34,000 options under parenting, the titles taking a much more specific approach to child-rearing: raising emotionally intelligent, or self-confident, or empathic children. Choose the adjective you want most for your child, and that’s the book for you. The other adjective-driven approach is parent oriented: Conscious parenting, parenting without power struggles, parenting with love and logic. I feel overwhelmed just looking at the titles. Is there one I wouldn’t want to apply?
Not only is it hard to choose but the variety seems like a recipe for parenting angst: Do I want to be a Tiger mom, driving my child toward excellence at any cost? Or am I creating a tiny narcissist, certain he is extraordinary and entitled to be treated that way? Competing titles challenge each other, undermine our confidence, and make us wonder if our children’s problems are our own creation, the bad result of subscribing to the wrong theory.
A decade of self-esteem books that advised universal praise and trophies-for-all has given way to a new approach: Avoid praising the product, and shift to process, praising grit, and determination and hard work instead. But what does that mean? Can I never again say “This picture is beautiful! I love it!” to my granddaughter? I wonder if Mozart’s mother settled for “You really dug into that chord progression, and I’m proud of you.”
Benjamin Spock’s #1 rule for parenting was a simple one. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you know.” It was a comforting undertone, one that left the reader feeling encouraged, more capable. Learning new facts always left room to engage your own intuition and trust that as well.
That intuition led me to strap Justin to my chest in a soft flannel carrier and talk to him nonstop as I did household chores. He curled contentedly inside the Snugli, tucking his head under my chin and peering out with wise blue eyes that understood everything I said. My mother was unconvinced but I had no doubt.
I wouldn’t dare trust that instinct today. Too many books would make me doubt. Was I stifling his exploratory need? Making him too dependent? Should I be finding him a playgroup, or letting him manipulate the latest educational toy?
Now, after 35 years of clinical psychology practice, I rarely recommend parenting books when someone comes for help with a child. “Let’s figure out who she is first, and why you two are struggling, then maybe we’ll know if a book might help” I’ll say. It’s a psychologist’s version of Dr. Spock’s rule. Listen to your child, listen to your intuition and believe in what works. Learn to read your child’s behavior. It will tell you much more than any book about what is working and what is not. Trust yourself, and each other.
Children come pre-wired. Each year we learn more about how sophisticated that wiring is, how much they perceive and feel, and how genetics and epi-genetics determine who they will become. They are not blank screens, waiting for us to write on. They are more like flower buds filled with receptors, waiting for the world to stimulate the ones that will generate a blossom. And like flowers, each one is different, blooming in its own time, to a feeding and watering schedule unique to them. Too much praise for one is just the right amount for another. Firm discipline feels like safety to one, and stifles another. The conditions for growth have similar outside edges, but come in lots of different versions. The parenting manual we really need is inside our child, waiting for us to stop and listen and look closely enough to trust that it will teach us what we need to know.
Justin was in kindergarten when his little brother was born. I happily took out that frayed Snugli and gathered Matt’s tiny body inside. He squirmed, he fought, he could not get comfortable. He pulled his head out from beneath my chin, and craned his neck, swiveling his tiny face left and right. Finally, I listened.
I turned him around, and arms free, legs kicking, face to the world, he led me forward.
Mary E. Plouffe raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.
catching me in an ordinary moment
as you turn your shoulders to reach for a pen
or bow your head over books as in prayer
and now as—hands at 10 and 2—you
steer cautiously into your future.
How could you be so wholly beautiful
sweet child of mine?
Tell me how it is possible
I can’t remember entire years of my sinuous life
names of my students
where I put my keys just moments ago
and yet your voice at age three
rings clear as a bell
through the cavern of my skull.
How love has wrought an indelible record
of every childhood giggle
every puffed out cheek that ever hovered over birthday candles.
How it keeps making each sunrise
marbled and beautiful and vibrant
as the wonder I felt
the first time I saw your face.
Sandra S. McRae teaches writing at Red Rocks Community College near Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of the bestselling cookbook Weber’s Big Book of Grilling (Chronicle), earned her Master’s degree at University of Colorado-Boulder, and studied overseas on a Fulbright Grant. Her work has appeared in Poets Against War, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Word Soup, Steam Ticket, Pure Francis, and elsewhere. She lives in the Colorado Rockies with her family, two dogs, and the occasional bear. She is never bored. Visit Sandra at www.WordsRunTogether.com.