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Passing Judgment

“I don’t know how she can live like this,” I overhear Daughter #1 sigh as she scrubs a countertop I had dabbed with a dishtowel and left for clean.  Meanwhile, I’m frazzled, running late (again), and…“has anybody seen my phone??”

Daughter #2 retrieves it from under a stack of mail.  “It’s not charged,” she says reproachfully. Her eyes flicker with disgust as she peers inside my closet; I’ve pulled out half its contents because all my damn clothes are black and I can’t distinguish between them in the dim light.

“Sorry, things get crazy,” I apologize breathlessly. “Deadline-time…”

“It’s always ‘deadline-time,’” she drawls.

At that moment, even though I know my kids love me to death and vice-versa, I kind of can’t stand them.  Because  there’s nothing that drives me crazier than feeling like they’re judging me, especially in those areas in which I am, in fact, noticeably flawed.

Yes, it’s payback-time.  Many years earlier, I heaped strong criticism – withering glances to poison-pen manifestos – upon my own parents.  They, in turn, hurled a nickname at me (warning: it is harsh): “The-Judge-the-Jury-and-the-Executioner.” Any time they sought to suppress me, to keep me from the heady lures of a world spinning fast with change, I’d retaliate by holding up a mirror to their shortcomings. My kids’ critiques aren’t rooted in epic power struggles; they’d just like to see me less harried. Still I find myself surging – overreacting, really – with self-righteous indignation:  Hey, what about all the ways I’ve done right by you, by others, by the universe? How about some credit for all the ways I didn’t screw you up?

Long ago, when they were little, I concocted a catch-phrase to rationalize (if only in my own mind) being the mom who back-burnered housekeeping and was tardy with permission-slips while staying up half the night to watch a movie, comfort a friend, coordinate a volunteer project, or write a book. “PAT THE BUNNY!”  I’d intone, alluding to a charming New York Times essay I’d read about the woman who, 50 years earlier, had authored that warm and (literally) fuzzy children’s classic.   Dorothy Kunhardt wasn’t one of those “normal, everyday” post-Depression-era housewives “who ran their home efficiently… and always had neat living rooms,” wrote her son Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., a former Life Magazine editor. “She was bad at all these normal functions and a thousand more…  How could she possibly run a home with so many obsessions stirring around in her heart, so many interests whirring around in her head…”

How I was buoyed by this affectionate paean  to a perennially distracted mother! Would my three children remember me fondly someday, forgiving (the store-bought cupcakes) and forgetting (the unplayed board games)  like Son of Pat the Bunny?

The daughter of one Boomer literary icon recently did just that, surprising those who assumed that certain  parental peccadilloes must be unforgivable (four marriages and scads of scandalous  affairs) and  unforgettable (chronicling them in graphic detail).  In a much-discussed Wall Street Journal article, writer Molly Jong-Fast described her mother, Erica Jong, as having been “hippy dippy and career-obsessed,” but strongly credited her for being a supportive parent and trailblazing second-wave feminist who worked hard so third-wavers could have options (“to devote ourselves to work or be 1950s June Cleaver types”).  Never mind that this essay ran as a sidebar to one in which her mother laced into the very mode of mothering embraced by many of Ms. Jong-Fast’s peers. (“Attachment parenting,”  wrote Erica Jong, is “a prison for mothers”; and “especially when combined with environmental correctness [being ever-present to breastfeed, homemade baby-food, cloth diapers], has encouraged female victimization.”)   Declared Ms. Jong-Fast,a stay-at-home mom of young children: “I am slightly in awe of how much my mother did. I could never have raised kids and made money… she was incredibly kind to me and always made me feel loved.” 

Contrast her compassionate take with this jarring 2008 interview with another third-wave writer-daughter, Rebecca Walker, about her celebrated mother, Alice Walker (The Color Purple).   While  Rebecca later claimed the interviewer misrepresented several of her comments, she did not dispute being left to fend entirely for herself while Alice Walker became “a mother-figure” to women’s rights organizations worldwide. With her mother’s knowledge, Rebecca started having sex at age 13; at 14 she became pregnant and arranged her own abortion.  Not long after, she discovered a poem her mother had written, characterizing motherhood as “a calamity.”  They became fully estranged several years ago, after Alice Walker responded harshly to her daughter’s  joyful announcement that she was expecting a baby at age 36, “culminating in [Alice] Walker sending a terse e-mail in which she resigned from ‘the job’ of being her mother, and told her that in any case their relationship had been ‘inconsequential’ for years.”

Some have seized upon Rebecca Walker’s blistering indictment of her mother and modern feminism (for, among other things, “betraying an entire generation into childlessness”) as an example of how the movement failed the next generation.  But others consider it a tragic mother-daughter conflict as old as time. “I wish that I could gentle these two women into repairing their breach,” wrote second-waver Phyllis Chesler in Salon.“ It is one that they will regret forever.”

Former First Daughter Patti Davis is the last person one might expect to have wisdom on this topic, but she was apparently “gentled” from being Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s angry judge, to becoming  their devoted advocate.   For years, Ms. Davis, 58, famously rankled her conservative parents not only with her renegade behavior, but by blasting them in interviews and thinly-disguised fictions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Ultimately, Ultimately, though, she saw her father through the final stages of Alzheimer’s, and bonded with her mother, now 89.  Ms. Davis told NPR that examining these volatile relationships from a middle-aged perspective in her latest book, The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us, was like “going to an art gallery and standing back from a painting so that you can see it better.”  With age, she said, you realize “you can’t change your history,” but you can choose to “make the best of it and understand how you came to be the person who you are, in all of the good ways, either because of your mother or despite what your mother did…”

Not unlike a head of state, every mother aspires to leave her mark, hoping that history will judge her kindly. What will be remembered, I wonder– the messy kitchen, the AWOL permission-slips, or our delicious laughter, our bootylicious dancing, our conversations rich and deep and never-ending? Will they see past my foibles and failings, and believe I loved them authentically, unconditionally? Will they perceive that I lived a life of value and integrity, even though I sometimes juggled its components ineptly?

Will they look back mirthfully and admiringly, with the tenderness of a fluffy bunny, at the maelstrom that was their mother?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Pamela Redmond Satran November 29, 2010, 11:31 am

    Great post, Vivien, and one that cuts to the heart of most 80s-style working moms with daughters of the age when they believe that they’ll do everything better. Just one tip: that “bootylicious” dancing? They’re NEVER going to appreciate that.

  • Nancy Firth November 30, 2010, 9:59 pm

    I really appreciate the post, Vivien. My three children saw all that I went through raising them as a single parent, having two jobs, more boyfriends than I care to think about and I thought all was lost- till they started saying “thank you” when they were over 21. When I was recovering from cancer, my one daughter said to me, “What have you done today” and then handed me a list of a teenagers stresses and all that she had done that day. I had done nothing all day. I was speechless. I cried over that- feeling bad, when I had nothing to feel bad about. But they have all thanked me- over and over.

  • P December 1, 2010, 12:07 am

    I am absolutely convinced they will look back and appreciate you for who you are – I don’t think they can point to anyone else that has the spectacular mother-daughter relationship they have with you. What you speak of is inconsequential to their long term opinion of you…although eloquently written (as always)!
    Your forever fan club chair and probably very first student…

  • Leah December 7, 2010, 12:16 pm

    I think the issue is that Walker was a neglectful mother, not “just” a working mom. It’s not neglectful to get behind on laundry or feed everyone cold cereal every once in a while. It is neglectful – and worse – to encourage your 13 year old to start a sexual relationship so that they’ll be occupied and leave you alone.

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