What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?
By Meredith Fein Lichtenberg
In Manhattan, if you live on a residential street, you have to move your car twice a week (for an hour and a half, in the middle of the day!), so the street cleaner can come through. Every street has a different cleaning schedule, and all the parking spots are always full, so there’s nowhere to move the car, which creates a madness that explains, in part, why most of us don’t have cars at all.
You can deal with it two ways: (1) You can sit in your car for ninety minutes every other day, briefly moving when the street cleaner comes through, then moving right back and not losing your spot. Or (2) you can double-park across the street, leave the car for an hour and fifteen, and then run back and move back to your spot at the end of the time-window.
Doing this is actually less complicated than explaining it; it’s a pain, but like many things, like motherhood, people get used to it.
Once, many years ago, I’d borrowed my mom’s car and it was time to move it. I planned to double-park, take my son to the playground, come back and move the car back. He was young enough that I couldn’t leave him on the sidewalk even for the minute it would take to park across the street. But he was old enough to ask questions while I strapped him in.
“Why aren’t we staying in the car like the other people?” he asked.
“Do you want to sit in your car seat for an hour and a half?”
(This was before the iPad, so, no).
“Why doesn’t everyone double park, then?”
“Because if the police find the car double parked, they will give us a ticket.”
A four-year-old has a strong sense of crime and punishment. He wanted to know if the ticket would send us to jail. Was the fine more dollars than we had in the bank. I explained that I hoped we didn’t get a ticket, but we’d be OK even if we did. Yet, a nagging sense that I was omitting something grew in me. It’s a little alarm bell that begins quietly and rings louder, until I obey its call. It’s an old fashioned alarm clock, and across the face, where the hands should be, it says, “hypocrisy.”
Finally, I said, “It’s not really about the ticket.”
“What do you mean?”
“The reason we shouldn’t double park isn’t to avoid the ticket. It’s because it’s not the right thing to do. Suppose I double-park and the person who is parked next to me needs to drive to the doctor. If we double-park, her car is blocked.”
As I admitted this, I knew we were about to spend the next ninety minutes in the car. After explaining it, how could I do the wrong thing—in front of him? He had that young face still shining with honor. Of course he engaged in normal preschooler bad behavior, with regular infractions for grabbing, not sharing, etc., but at four that’s mostly about impulse control. He believed in Rules. He did not yet have the adult’s patina of cynicism, from decades of casual lies and taking the easy way out.
I also knew, then, that I would never again double park, even alone, without thinking of this conversation. Note, I did not say I would never double park again; sometimes convenience wins over ethics. Adulthood is trying to make peace with complexity. Motherhood is remembering when little ones can’t see the complexity.
It’s not such a hardship to sit in the car with your child (though it wasn’t the most fun hour and a half, either), but it’s, to me, what motherhood is: seeing the world at once from your own, adult perspective, and, simultaneously, from the child’s perspective and trying to live, within reason, in a way that honors both. When my eldest was first born, I thought of motherhood as “having a baby,” because that was how I became a mother, or “caring for a baby,” because books in the “parenting” section are exclusively about “child-rearing,” and not about the experience of being a parent.
But the thing about kids—even big kids, even teens—is that they’re observing you all the time, long after babyhood. They imitate your facial expressions and body language. I can remember the first time I noticed my daughter watching me try on a bathing suit. It was January, I hadn’t shaved my legs in a while and I’d just spent a month eating holiday cookies. For me, that’s a hard moment to try on a bathing suit. I knew instinctively to shut my mouth, keep from using words of self-hate that would be like noise pollution to her perfect ears, but, looking past my own reflection at hers, I saw she was both beaming at me and simultaneously furrowing her brow just like I was. The little alarm was ringing again. She was aware of my expression and body language. The sight of me, perpetually frowning at the mirror was as potent as the words I was working not to say.
I tried to see myself as she saw me, tried not to “hold in” the self-criticism, but to see something I didn’t have to criticize, as she did. It was not easy to see, in my own reflection, the power and beauty my daughter sees in me effortlessly. It was work to actually be, momentarily, the things that she believes I am.
And then I tried again later, alone, and then, slowly, tried to do it always. Like double-parking, I don’t always manage, but I do it more than if I’d never dared to try, and it started with motherhood, doing it for my kids, first, to try to make their world good and untainted, and then, ultimately, doing it to untaint my own world.
Motherhood germinates with a magical infusion of hope and dedication at the beginning, but where it really takes root is the ongoing attempt to stay inspired: to be your most honorable self more of the time. Not all the time, that’s inhuman, but, simply, to live, mostly, the way you hope for them to live. To play nice with others and be kind to oneself, to be generous, fair, creative. Don’t we all hope our kids can be those things? They never doubt that we are those things. And in that is our inspiration to try.
Meredith Fein Lichtenberg is a lactation consultant and parenting educator in New York City. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The Mom Egg, The Huffington Post, Full Grown People, and WFUV’s Cityscape. She blogs at www.amotherisborn.com.