Saturday, April 02nd, 2011 | Author: mjward

It’s what I always wanted to be–a mother. And I knew I was going to be a good one. Through some kind of osmosis, I had absorbed the image of what she was like. Without even thinking about it, I knew she fostered the best in her children. She protected them from harm and kept them safe. She was patient, nurturing, warm, and gentle. She guided rather than punished, so that her children might in their turn make their valuable contribution to society. Oh yes, she also “did for” her children, cooking, cleaning, sewing. She, and all the world, would know what a good mother she was because her children would be a credit to her. Although the details of the picture were hazy, I saw her with an aura around her as she gathered her loving and beloved children into her nurturing arms.

I tried to be a good mother, I really tried. I think I even succeeded to some degree following the birth of three children in close succession and then the adoption of a baby. But then my fairy tale was shattered. We adopted a sibling group of five boys aged five to thirteen and, two years later, eight- and twelve-year-old sisters.

I wasn’t able to protect my children. One of our new sons was incensed at the whole world and verbally and physically attacked other children in the family. He gave one brother a concussion; there were numerous other incidents. I couldn’t even protect him. Someone, never found by the police, beat him up so badly we didn’t recognize him in hospital emergency. Another of my boys, thanks to an ill-advised experiment, had his shotgun explode in his hands. He still carries the physical scars. Some of my children carry invisible scars to this day from the verbal abuse and various cruelties that others heaped on them behind my back.

My children gave signs they weren’t going to be the paragons I planned to raise. Two never completed high school. Another two seemed determined never to find gainful work and to live on the generosity of society and the welfare system. We survived other episodes when the children were younger. The two youngest, for example, sneaked out of the house one night and were caught trying to set fire to the gas tank of our neighbor’s car. I spent many days in court with one of my sons as he faced charges of theft and vandalism. No, my children were not much of a credit to my parenting.

I tried to do everything for them–cook, mend, wash clothes, supervise homework, chauffeur to activities, go to parents’ night at the school–everything. I nearly burned out. I couldn’t even “do for” my children. I was too exhausted to be patient, kind, and warmly nurturing. In fact, I had to devise an on-going schedule of chores for all of them in order to get even the minimum housework done. So I fell short on the caregiving too.

There was a final failure that it took a long time to admit. I couldn’t say for sure I loved all my children; I certainly didn’t like some of them very well.

Out of the crucible of failure, however, I eventually distilled a new image of the good mother.

A mother who is worth her salt, I believe, is committed to each of her children. She doesn’t have to like them or even love them, though that helps, but she must be steadfast in her devotion to their welfare. When their various needs conflict, she tries to balance her commitment to each of them, difficult though that is, as she attempts to work out the greatest equity possible. If it means sitting in hospital emergency with an injured child or going to court with a delinquent, then she is there, but only after she is assured the others will be cared for. Yet there must be a limit to this commitment: it mustn’t be so single-minded that the family, or she herself, is destroyed.

She provides her children with opportunities for growth. It means allowing them to take increasingly greater responsibility for themselves and others, and the chance to mess up. It involves exposing them to options they never before considered and opening the world to them. It also includes therapeutic nurturing for those who have had traumatic experiences. Adopted children have been wounded to their vitals through separation from those who would, in the normal way, have nurtured them. They need healing. In our family, so did our initial four. By adopting acting-out children whom we expected them to regard as brothers and sisters, we had laid on them a burden of pain. It also means that a mother remembers that her children may choose not to profit from the opportunities afforded them.

A good mother recognizes her own limitations. She doesn’t expect herself to do the impossible, but does what she can with her physical, emotional, and intellectual resources. She understands that, in spite of her most diligent efforts, she cannot always keep them from harm. She allows others–spouse, friends, relatives, therapists–to help her care for her children. She also sets limits on her children’s behavior. For example, she may choose not to talk with them when they are drunk, saving discussion for sober times. She tries not to feel guilty for failing to live up to the romantic mother image.

She fosters the sense of herself as an individual and looks for opportunities for her personal growth and enrichment. She nurtures her own relationships and allows herself to be cared for when she needs it. That is, she is both a needy child and her own good parent. For how can her children learn about self-esteem and healthy relationships if she doesn’t show the way?

Finally, a good mother lets her children go. She does not claim their accomplishments for her own credit. Rather, she rejoices in even small steps they make. It is a milestone when one of them graduates from college. It may be as great an achievement for another to be alive, if most of her biological brothers and sisters are dead. It is cause for celebration when a man of thirty finally, after years of drifting from one nothing job to another punctuated with spells on welfare, phones to say he has just got his mechanic’s papers. Or when a daughter, in her turn, cradles a baby. A good mother enjoys without recrimination the adults her children have become, wonderful and flawed as they are. As she herself is.

(Revised 2006, 2011)

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