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Friday, September 21, 2007

Be Good

On Sunday a member of my Quaker meeting gave me an article on blogs about motherhood, which made me realize that I have not blogged on that topic for quite awhile. Partly it is the fact that my children have asked me to stop writing embarrassing things about them, thus taking away my best material. But even if they had not asked, the dilemmas of pre-teens are not for public dissemination (at least not until my daughter gets her own page on Facebook, or something), so I’d like to model discretion. Another reason is that motherhood has gradually gotten easier, mostly, so I have not needed the writing therapy so much. I did snap at Luke Wednesday afternoon when he abandoned his homework to sing the Macarena while kicking the metal dog bowl, but most nights we are all generally well behaved.

It’s a tricky business, how we socialize children. Just now, as I was waiting in line at a coffee shop, wondering what I might say about motherhood, I overheard a mother speaking to her daughter, whom I would guess was about one. The girl made a loud exclamation, and her mother said, “Be good. People are watching.” I flinched. My sympathy for all mothers of young children and my memories of my own missteps kept me from asking the questions that popped to mind: “Is there something ‘bad’ about expressing emotion? Does she only need to be ‘good’ when people are watching? Do you live your life in fear of what people will think of you, and are you sure you want to pass that on to your daughter?” Of course I was sympathetic to what she was consciously trying to do. We should teach our children not to scream in coffee shops and to be considerate of other people. It’s all the unconscious junk we pass along in the way we word things that makes me nervous. Just as I was remembering another conversation I recently overheard about how adults treat female and male babies differently, I heard the mother say, “Be a nice girl,” a phrase with connotations that made me flinch again.

Recently my daughter observed that being an adult seemed harder than being a kid. I felt bad that I’ve given her that impression, probably by snapping when people sing the Macarena and kick the dog bowl instead of doing their homework. I admitted that there is a lot more to think about when you are an adult—Are the kids keeping up on their homework? What are we going to have for dinner, especially now that my daughter wants to be a vegetarian but won’t eat beans? What sort of sexist or other messages am I passing on unconsciously? It is enough to wear a person out—but on the other hand, I told her, there are some ways in which being an adult is easier. “For example,” I said, “now that I’m forty-five, I really don’t care if everybody likes me or what they think of my clothes. I know who my friends are, and I don’t worry about every one else.” She took a deep breath and smiled, “Yeah, that would be nice.” And then she added, “You really don’t care how you look.” Thanks for noticing, Honey.

Another mother recently told me that her seventh grade daughter watches her like a hawk these days, asking, “Why did you do that?” to her every move. In some ways it is sweet and touching, this need girls have to learn to be women from their mothers. In another way it is sobering, the weight of it. It’s like living with a little Oversight Committee, designed to challenge you and keep you honest, one that feels entitled to follow you into the bathroom. “Be good,” a voice says in my head. “People are watching.”


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