Last Saturday afternoon, after much hype, my youngest son attended a friend’s 5th birthday party. It was a karate party and the children on the mat, all darting legs, arms and earnestness were adorable to watch. My son, who had been looking forward to the party all week, had become convinced that he would emerge from the hour a full-fledged ninja. He had spent the days leading up to the party slinking around the family room spontaneously snapping into a sumo stance, lunging into a low squat with his bony legs taut and set wide apart. With his narrow, smooth arms bent so that his hands could protect his face, he would start chopping, punching and kicking at whatever warm body was closest (usually his older brother, sometimes the unsuspecting dog). After moving his limbs wildly for a few seconds, he would suddenly stop, side-shuffle around the coffee table, press his back to a wall behind the couch and fall silent, certain he had executed a sneak attack and confident he could no longer be seen. He asked if they’d be using nunchucks or swords at the party, asked if he’d get a belt, asked how often he’d be going back to the karate studio after the party was over, confusing a one-time event with ongoing lessons. Saturday morning, the prospect of his black-belt experience only a few hours away, he tiptoed up to my bedside at 6:30 am and whispered to me, “I’m feeling a little shy about the karate party. I only know how to karate chop, but I don’t know any other moves.” I assured him he’d be fine — I did not point out that he doesn’t actually know any moves — and I knew then that we were likely headed for tears at the party and his participation would be reluctant, at best.
Despite anticipating this, I couldn’t help but be completely annoyed at what ensued. My son clung to me for the full hour of karate, he buried his face in my stomach, wouldn’t let me chat with other parents and, worst of all, he whined nonstop from 4:30 to 6 pm when the party finally and mercifully ended. Somehow, between the whining and the clinging, he managed to drop his pizza in his lap, drop his cake on the floor and pick his nose through the “Happy Birthday” song, which will be immortalized in photographs as he was strategically sitting at the right-hand of the birthday boy. It had been a long week. It was one of those weeks where each one of my children had at least one “off” day, a day where they needed a little extra push. There had been a low grade, a bad game, some questionable adolescent behavior and, more than once, there had been tears. I had spent much of Monday through Friday mediating emotions, troubleshooting and cajoling, emailing teachers and coaches and juggling last minute changes to schedules (which led to two or three slip-ups of my own).
Sometimes, I feel like I’m seining in a swiftly moving river. My children’s tribulations pass through me and I become weighed down. Untangling that net and letting go of its catch isn’t so easy. I should know, at this point, that bombing a test, or pushing boundaries with a lie, or even whiny, antisocial behavior at a party are standard parenting fare. However, we live in a heady time to be a mother. I’m not ‘leaning in,’ I’m not ‘helicoptering,’ I’m not managing a ‘work/life balance,’ and I don’t have a giant color-coded wall calendar displaying each child’s laudable commitments and implying my selfless devotion to their success. So, then, what am I doing?
I am an avid listener of NPR. I listen from my car while driving or from my kitchen while I’m doing dishes or cooking dinner. One of the great things about so many of the segments is hearing people who are much smarter than myself discuss their pursuits, ambitions and research. I feel both immediately connected and yet so far from the guests in each segment. According to our tax return, my job title is “homemaker.” You could say I’m proficient at this work — as long as you don’t rate my performance by the amount of laundry that’s put away or how well-stocked the refrigerator is. Sometimes, after listening to a particularly compelling segment with a guest who may be a wife and mother and at the top of her field, I feel like I’m not living to the full potential and expectation of my birthright as a woman in the 21st century. A few weeks ago, during a period of preschooler sleeplessness and teenage angst, I was listening to the radio as usual, and again wondering about my contribution to the world. Accepting the realization that I was never going to find myself in a stimulating conversation with Brian Lehrer (he doesn’t need me to tell him to add chicken broth to the broccoli rabe to make it less bitter, he has Lidia), I jokingly told my sister that I was not going to pursue intellectual and physical pursuits of excellence like so many women around me. Since my efforts on the homefront were feeling fruitless, I was going to channel my energy into improving myself only by accessorizing more — a tenable goal that simply requires me to put on a necklace every morning. With her usual keen assessment of all things, she immediately said, “I get it — keep your goals simple. Lipstick and church. Last year, my resolution was to wear lipstick every day and go to church more. It didn’t work, but I tried.”
Lipstick and church. Isn’t this, in many ways, the essence of motherhood? It’s solitary and it’s a sisterhood. It’s shared strength and insecurities. It’s the daily reconciling of being on display, while we are still finding ourselves. It’s deciding what face we’re going to show the world, while being laid bare time and time again by a force that is not our own. It’s whom we aspire to be while trying to find the people that see us for who we really are. It’s individual and collective, quiet and communal, passion and prayer, surface and sacred, warpaint and worship. And no matter how perfect our make-up, we still find ourselves seining in the river holding heavy nets.
There were plenty of mothers at the party who were able to commiserate over a child who wasn’t doing what his mother wanted. We exchanged stories about birthday party disasters, laughing at times we’ve climbed into inflatable jungle gyms to rescue crying children or whisked wailing toddlers away from clowns or other characters — all of this meant to be fun. With Mother’s Day approaching, one of my favorite essays to read is Anna Quindlen’s widely shared and spectacular reflection on motherhood, “Goodbye Dr. Spock” from her book Loud and Clear. As is all of her work, it is funny and moving, and it is a reminder that our children become their own people regardless of our shortcomings and self-doubts.
This Mother’s Day, between a soccer game and a family dinner, we will celebrate my daughter’s 15th birthday. I’ll light the candles on the cake, tell the kids to get in the picture and to smile. And maybe, since it’s Mother’s Day, I’ll get in the picture too. I’ll put on some lipstick and pose before the camera surrounded by my children. The picture won’t betray any frustrations of the day, perhaps a morning derailed by a missing soccer cleat or a tantrum over iPad use. It will be a perfect Mother’s Day portrait of a smiling mother, two teenagers and a 5 year old with a finger up his nose.