The Mother’s Handbook
I sat on a swivel stool next to my best friend, our skinny legs tucked under the counter in her kitchen. “Here’s your snack!” My friend’s mother, exuberant and direct, placed two plates in front of us with neatly spaced tuna fish sandwiches, sliced diagonally to make triangles. I scrunched my 9-year-old nose, but swallowed forced bites. Tuna was my least favorite. My friend’s mom chatted with us as she wiped down the kitchen counters. “Eat up, girls! Tuna fish makes your boobs grow.” Mortified, my cheeks turned crimson. I was an awkward introvert, and my own mother, who taught my brothers and me about puberty by reading us a library book on the topic, would never have mentioned “boobs” so casually to her quiet daughter.
“How do you know that?” My friend challenged.
“Why, it’s in The Mother’s Handbook, of course!”
The Mother’s Handbook was the ingenious invention of my childhood friend’s mom. She used it to justify everything from healthy foods we didn’t like, to the daily activity schedule, to why we needed to clean up after ourselves. She recruited others into the fold, convincing my mother to play along. “We do that because it’s in The Mother’s Handbook, right?” Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. My friend and I would plead with her mom to show us a copy of The Mother’s Handbook, but she always refused. “You get your Mother’s Handbook when you become a mom; that’s the rule.”
When I became a mom myself, this woman, so dear to my childhood days, sent me a lovely baby gift and a handwritten card: “You must have received your Mother’s Handbook.” Six years and three children later, I’m still unearthing The Mother’s Handbook, page by page. Part rule book, part advice column, The Mother’s Handbook holds timeless insight, guidance and is every mother’s true companion. These are the tenets of The Mother’s Handbook I’ve discovered so far:
- Motherhood is unpredictable.
I remember delivering a baby in residency training to a teen mom. Her extended family flitted in and out of the overflowing labor and delivery suite, young cousins circled on the floor playing card games. The laboring teen was on her cell phone, chatting with a friend through most of her contractions. Nearing the end, she finally said goodbye, with a flourish: “I have to hang up now – I need to push this baby out.”
At the time, I had never given birth myself. I was shocked at how casually this new mother approached labor and such momentous change. I discovered over many years of delivering babies that women react quite differently to the pain of childbirth and motherhood in general, sometimes surprising themselves. While doing a rural rotation in Montana, the sweetest redhead I had ever met spouted obscenities during labor that would have put the crassest of sailors to shame. In between contractions, she would apologize profusely to her obstetrician.
My own first baby was breech, necessitating a scheduled caesarean section. With dozens of deliveries under my belt, I thought I was prepared for any complication or aberrancy that might occur with my own initiation into motherhood. But her breech status, subsequent C-section and week-long hospitalization at birth for several complications revealed my ignorance. I was confronted immediately with this first and most valuable of lessons—you can never prepare yourself for the unpredictability of motherhood.
- Ask for the Barbie.
I never had a Barbie doll growing up. As the middle child flanked by two brothers, I played with Legos and GI Joes and Transformers. I coveted my best friend’s Barbie, her pink plastic dream house with the crank-lifting elevator, the open-top corvette that Barbie and Ken sped around the playroom, wind whipping their un-tousled hair.
I ached for a Barbie, but never got one. Years later, as an adult, I asked my mom why. I assumed it was some underlying feminist stance she held, abhorred by the unnatural body habitus of the iconic doll. She was trying to protect me: her half-Asian, bookish, chubby daughter from the self-castigation in which every young girl is tempted to participate. But she actually had no lofty intent. My mom said she never bought me a Barbie doll because I had never asked for one.
I don’t remember why I never asked for the doll I so desperately wanted. But I try to instill in my own children that, while they may not always receive what they desire, the ability to define it, to make known to themselves and to others their longings, is a skill in self-understanding and communication. In motherhood also, I’ve discovered the value of this ability. The demands of motherhood have refined me and defined my needs, my musts and my goals. In order to give of myself to others I need to fill myself up with those things that bring me sustenance and joy. As mothers, we need to ask for the “Barbie,” be it a weekend away with friends, a regular exercise routine, a career change or a night of takeout. We need to ask it of our friends, of our partners, and of ourselves.
- No one has it all together.
Social media came of age just as I was birthing my first child. I began posting photos of my baby to Facebook, collecting the likes and complimentary comments. I used Pinterest to plan her first few birthdays: coordinated affairs with themed foods and tasteful decor. Instagram became more popular as my two youngest arrived—the perfectly framed and softly filtered images depicting a quiet baby, an expertly prepared dinner, tanned smiling faces on a beach vacation.
I remember meeting up with an admired friend from middle school. Her children were older and her life looked so polished online. I was in the throes of sleep-deprived babyhood and toddlerhood, my house a mess, my life feeling strained. She always looked happy, stylish even. Her children—perfectly coiffed, her husband—successful, her own business—thriving. I had always emulated her, even as a preteen. I was happy for her, but my life, although full and accomplished, felt worn in comparison.
We chatted over dinner, easy conversation that comes when childhood friends reunite. She admitted her family had been stretched by years of her husband’s graduate school training; she was ready for it to be completed. She had the normal worries of a mother of any teenage daughter: appearance and self-image, influential friends, the mother-daughter relationship. She didn’t know it all, didn’t have it all, and wasn’t perfectly situated in an idyllic life.
I was shocked. There was nothing severely amiss in her life, nothing out of the ordinary. But because I mostly saw her through the filtered lens of Instagram and Facebook, hearing about her everyday stressors seemed revelatory. I ascribed perfection to this dear friend who I had admired all my life, but she, like all of us, struggled too. It’s a lesson for our children also: everyone faces challenges, even the most popular, talented, happy appearing kids at school.
I began to re-filter my perception of moms on social media, acquaintances I encountered at preschool, the moms I saw at the park. I reminded myself that, just like me, they’re presenting their best selves. Underneath we’re all flawed and struggling and continually learning, every single one.
- Eat your tuna fish.
To achieve a goal, you sometimes have to do things you don’t like. For my friend’s mom, she attached tuna fish to adequate development, a goal to which every awkward preteen aspires. In motherhood too, I’ve discovered many areas where I’m required to do tasks I detest, all in the name of mothering. We’ve all cleaned poop out of the bathtub, made a million school lunches, filled out lengthy summer camp forms.
But it’s the more subtle asks of motherhood—the constant interruptions, the monotony of playing the same game over and over and over again, the sleep deprivation—that I’ve found the most grating. The end goal in motherhood is more nebulous, not a tangible prize, not a destination, but an evolving accomplishment: grown, contributing, kind human beings. It seems that is worth eating some tuna fish along the way.
- There’s no such thing as “just a mother.”
I started motherhood later than most. Driven to achieve, mothering took a backseat to my ambitious pursuits: medical school, doctoring, marriage, world traveling, home owning. I always knew I wanted to be a mother, but I wore these other roles and accomplishments as badges, collected them as treasures. Motherhood could wait.
Motherhood, though, proved to be not only the great refiner, but also a definitive definer. Suddenly, I was “just” mom to my child. This little baby didn’t care that I held postgraduate degrees, that I had strolled through Angkor Wat at sunrise, that I had managed an ICU in a rural Kenyan hospital. I was warmth, a source of sustenance, a safe harbor. Just Mom. It was hard to reconcile my previous multifaceted self with my new, singular role.
I’ve had friends, often who stay at home full time, who have struggled with identity too. Suddenly you are “just” mom to this little being, and it’s takes effort to not also identify yourself as “just.” The antidote seems to lie in the refining aspect of motherhood; we become defined by this all-consuming role, but as we are also refined by the intensity of motherhood. We unearth the gifts we want to cultivate.
For me, this came in the form of writing. Although I had always been a writer, I only began to take my writing seriously after I became a mother. Now I think: All those years! All that time I could’ve been writing. No interruptions. No children clinging. No bone-weary exhaustion. But it took the pressures of motherhood, the unveiling of my greatest flaws, the culling of my mediocre hobbies, to reveal my authentic self. As we grow into motherhood, we can rest in that refining role, without letting it define us entirely.
- Learn on the job.
The truth is, there is no handbook. The brilliance of the concept lay in the fact that The Mother’s Handbook is customizable, malleable and fluid among the members of its tribe. We all make it up as we go. We glean from others, lean on others, imitate the mothers we admire, do our best to avoid the mistakes of the mother figures who might have wounded us along the way. This is a learn-on-the-job vocation. My oldest just entered elementary school. I’m sure I’ll receive new wisdom for The Mother’s Handbook as I journey through each stage, each challenge, each triumph.
The Mother’s Handbook is both a manifesto for motherhood and an instruction book for the children we are rearing. It’s meant to be written and re-written and shared. It’s meant to be instructive and bolstering and mysterious. The Mother’s Handbook is the great gift my best friend’s mom bestowed on me decades ago in her 1980’s tan kitchen. I hope to add to The Mother’s Handbook as I grow into my mothering. And, just maybe, get my kids to eat a little bit of tuna fish along the way.
Mary Pan is a writer and family medicine physician with training in global health and narrative medicine. Her work has been published in several online and print publications including Intima, Coffee and Crumbs, Hektoen International and Mamalode, among others. Her musings can be found on her website (marypanwriter.com) and in undecipherable scribblings in her Moleskine notebook. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three young children.