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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How Far Would You Go for Your Children?

In Virginia Woolf's magnificent 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay is the mother of eight children, ranging in age from 17 to 6, and she spends her life thinking and working towards the happiness of others. She is a soothing, sociable, lovely mother, an indulgent wife, a thoughtful neighbor. She has aspirations to better the dairy system and improve the delivery of less expensive and more healthful milk -- but when she even alludes to these aloud, her whole family laughs at her over the dinner table. It is not intended (by them) to be the cruel laughter of derision, but rather the silvery tinkling laughter of those sharing a joke at no one's expense. But it nonetheless feels unbearably cruel to a reader who by this point in the novel understands Mrs. Ramsay's life of giving and giving and giving and sympathizes with her interest in doing something intellectually challenging. Of course, to the merry party gathered around her dinner table in 1927, there is nothing better she could possibly choose to do than manage such a glorious meal even on the wilds of the Scottish coast in their summer vacation home.

At one point, Mrs. Ramsay reflects on the value of the occasional moments she has to herself, which she characterizes as her time,

To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.
I find this image incredibly powerful as a way to describe the life of a woman who lives almost exclusively for others: when she is alone, she shrinks to a small bit of darkness that no one else can see -- hiding, as it were, the very essence of her being from prying eyes by way of protecting that tiny scrap of self from being absorbed as well in the demands of "all the being and the doing."

Julie Pippert asks, in her query for the week, to what limits one would go for one's children. And I have to answer: apart from matters of life or death, I would stop well short of becoming Mrs. Ramsay. Although it may go without saying, I will say anyway that if life or health depended upon it, I would do anything for my children -- fight off a bear with my camera, travel halfway around the world to consult a doctor, sell all my stuff, donate a kidney, you name it.

On the other hand, when it comes to the day-to-day, to the wants as opposed to the needs, I draw the line of self-sacrifice somewhat closer. Because my children are still very young (4 and 2), and therefore prone to disaster, poor judgment, and all the harms that may befall children who cannot read or (in the case of Daughter) cannot even speak fluently, I do spend a tremendous amount of time watching out for them. I neglect working on my book to teach Son how to sew. (On Monday, he hand-stitched the seams on a cowboy vest for his teddy.) I neglect to put on make-up or dry my hair most mornings in favor of changing diapers or making breakfast. I choose dinner menus on the basis of least common denominators from whatever sliver of Venn diagram includes both their preschool tastes and my requirement that we all eat vegetables. I plan my daily schedule around naptimes and mealtimes and known melt-down triggers.

But I do not plan to do this forever.

I want my children to be independent, well-rounded, thinking creatures who can fend off their own looming boredom. I want them to be under-scheduled enough that they actually get bored occasionally. I want them to learn that intellectual curiosity is the key to a fascinating world -- and I want them to know how to look stuff up to find answers.

I understand that I will have to teach them these things. I take it as my job to guide them towards these skills, to foster their growth, to support them when they struggle. But, in fact, I do not think it is my job to keep them from failing at something. No one can be the fastest, smartest, mathest, writingest, buildingest, and coolest every single minute of the day. And that's an important lesson to learn too.

Even more, I think, it is important to learn that we are a family. And being a family means that we share many things -- laughter, vacations, a love of meatballs-and-macaroni-and-cheese, and responsibilities to each other. We owe each other a little private time every day. I must do the best I can to raise thoughtful, considerate, smart kids with reasonably good judgment, and then I must stand back and be willing to let them make some mistakes and learn something from them. They must let me help, guide and teach them, and they must let me stand back. As much as I have an obligation to help them learn, being part of a family means that as they get older and more capable of some independence, they will have an obligation to let me have some time for myself as well.

I think it is vitally important that they understand that Mama has needs too. Not that I will expect them to take over what are justifiably a parent's jobs at home, but that I will expect them to respect my own ambitions, my time, my dreams, just as I respect theirs. It will be a struggle, I can already see, to help them learn that they do not need me in the same room as them every single minute of the day, that I do not need to serve as a witness or bear affirmation to every successfully cooked air omelette. But I will stick to my feeling that they must learn this.

Because I see in Mrs. Ramsay's fate the net result of never teaching one's children the value of oneself as an individual. When, a hundred or so pages into the novel, after the summer is over and the house is boarded up, we learn the following (yes, the original is enclosed in [ ]), it is an incredible shock:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
Her death is recorded as a dependent clause stuck in the middle of a parenthetic sentence whose subject is her husband. In short, Mrs. Ramsay has shrunk to such an infinitesimal wedge-shaped core of darkness that she has disappeared, and the only reason anyone even notices she is gone is that she is not there to catch them when they fall.

I do not need to be famous or wealthy, but I do need to be Somebody. A whole person. An individual. I need my children to need me, to love me, and to see the strength in standing next to me rather than attached to me. That will not happen for some years, I expect, as they slowly grow to a point where alone-time becomes valuable and important for them as well. But it is my hope that they will see through my example that while accolades may come and go, races may be won or lost, a Self is the one thing no one can take from you. Unless you allow that to happen. I do not want them ever to allow that to happen to themselves. And so I think I must show them how I can love them with my whole heart and at the same time not allow mothering to so consume me that I allow my own Self to disappear. I do not know exactly where I will draw the line in future, but I do know that wherever that line is, there will be a brightness, not a darkness, that demarcates it.


Juli said...

I think you have it just right. We're sort of wired to let our kids consume us when they're younger, but as they get older, it's our JOB to help them become more independant. The REALLY hard part is figuring out when that starts. Scares me silly!

Jo said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I love being a mother and I have immerssed myself in the role. But their is a balance that is important to maintain. It is important to recognize that the balance may need to be adjusted from time to time as well.
Aside, I have a blog etiquette question for you. Do you need to ask others to put them on your blog role. Just wondering where you weigh in on that. Thanks.

PS - Loved the cowboy dance, it was too cute. (Sorry for the long comment)

Cocoa said...

As mothers our primary responsibility is to care and nurture our children while they are young. As they get older our responsibility changes to helping them care for themselves. They are only with us (in the home) for 17 - 20 years, about a quarter of their lifetime. They need to know how to deal with life after that!

At the same time we cannot allow ourselves to be so consumed with our children that we lose our identity in the process. It's not being selfish to take off and pursue your own hobbies! This past spring I listened to a talk from a leader in our church geared specifically to mothers. It was wonderful! Here's just a small quote from him, "Find some time for yourself to cultivate your gifts and interests. Pick one or two things that you would like to learn or do that will enrich your life, and make time for them. Water cannot be drawn from an empty well, and if you are not setting aside a little time for what replenishes you, you will have less and less to give to others, even to your children." ~M. Russel Ballard,Daughters of God

Kimmylyn said...

It the birth of my second child to realize that I need to open my life back up to me. I was consumed with being a mom and started to get recentful that I lost sight of who I was.. I am still on the journey, but your post makes a great point.. about needing you and not being attached to you..

Loved this.

auds at barking mad said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Someone once asked me, as part of an essay exercize, to define identity. Had I been asked this, almost 21 years ago when I first became a mother, my entire description would have surrounded being a mother and nothing else. I would have said something martyrish, along the lines of, "I am here to do for my children above all else..."

Today, after having traveled a long road which has included the death of a child, divorce, and learning to finally take care of myself, I would describe identity as something you evolve over time. It's not a singular thing anymore...not to me anyhow. Motherhood encompasses a large portion of it, but not in it's entirety.

If I were still the young girl, perched on the ledge of motherhood who still insisted her identity revolved around that of a mother and nothing more, if I'd never figured out who I was, then I'd have no hope of helping my children figure out who they are and how to do for themselves and become the independent, thoughtful adults I hope they become.

I think, or at least I hope, through my own example of being able to do things for myself, things I enjoy and take pride in, outside of doing for my children, they'll see the value in not letting one sole thing be your identity.

Momo Fali said...

I have just recently (within the last couple of years) started to find myself again. It has been a strange journey back, but I am beginnning to finally feel balanced.

thailandchani said...

What a wonderful post! I like the fact that you do want to teach your children that *all* people in any given structure need to be respected.. and to understand the difference between 'want' and 'need'.

Your kids.. and you.. will all be better off for it!

Melissa said...

Wow. I couldn't have said that any better myself. I agree with you totally. It's kind of why I started blogging: I needed a way to work some things out and figure out who I was again.

San Diego Momma said...

So well said. I completely agree on all counts.
Many times, I feel I must defend my choice to not be uber annoying mom, but it's good to be among like minds here.


Mrs F with 4 said...

.... I must resolve not to be, as an overworked spider, spun out; where nothing remains within me with which to build the supporting web of family life.

Sandy C. said...

Very well said. So much of what you said is what many of us moms aspire to. I know I do. I hope I'm able to draw the line overtime as well.

Lipstick said...

Well done. Mommy as Martyr is not a good example. I think one of the greatest disservices that parents can do to their children is coddle them so much that they are unable to become independent, free-thinking adults.

supertiff said...

oh, for the love of pete: i don't even have any children, and you have me crying here.

this was just beautiful.

Laski said...

I am in 100% agreement. I just had a discussion with friends on this very topic. J's ability to be independent is one of the greatest gifts I can give him. It prepares him to lead (and I do mean LEAD) his own life successfully.

I also blogged about the whole idea of balance not long ago (though not quite as articulate as you). It spurred an interesting thread of commentary. I truly believe that maintaining our own independence as a mother benefits children by setting a strong/powerful/positive example.

GREAT post!

anniegirl1138 said...

Well said.

Fiona O'Dowd - Intend. Act. Inspire said...

Thoroughly enjoyable reading! As my son inspired me the other morning...

Yielding yet resilient,
Flexibility alongside vigour,
The inquisitive mind of a child.
Robust yet delicate,
With innocence and purity,
An unswerving seeker of knowledge stands before me.
Open and free.
A wholesome, brilliant diamond of life,
Ready to encounter All That Is

Julie Pippert said...

Excellent...I totally agree. It is so in my mind to do this that when I really set myself aside, I surprise myself a bit.

IMO, a healthy balancing of giving and doing for self teaches children to be the best people. Children who don't get enough are often perpetually hungry adults, seeking more and more to never enough from others. Children who get too much, ironically, are the same sort of adult, but more affably so...so not hungry, but expectant.

But children who get and learn to respect other people as people tend to grow into such respectful adults, health and while in themselves, and healthy in relation to others.

You know, ideally. Nothing is perfect, but speaking to degree and in general.

Total service is rarely a good service.

Again, great post, could not agree more with your message.

MultiplesMommy said...

As always, I aspire to be what you are in the mommy department. I love your literary references, and though I intellectually know and agree with everything you said, I find it hard to be ME and not someone's mommy or wife sometimes. I'm trying, though, and have gotten very involved lately with some outside groups. I now have the challenge of balancing volunteer endeavors with family life. -sigh-

le35 said...

I think that the letting go and grow comes slowly. It tiptoes up one step at a time. I've found that even with my small children, if I take time to do something for myself, like practice the marimba or play the drumset every day, then I'm a better mom and I have more patience with my children. My children are small, too. Not quite two, and not quite four. I think that your post was great. I saw the same idea of not getting to put on my make-up in my life. I really think though, that even my 3 year old still needs a lot of help, she has her independence too. She picks out her own clothes, even when I'd like her to wear something else, or they don't match. I let her put her shoes on opposite feet. I think it's sort of a process. I can't just wake up one day and completely throw her out of the nest and hope she flies. I need to fly along with her a bit until her wings get stronger. Letting go a little at a time.

MommyTime said...

Fiona, what a beautiful poem!

Auds, thank you for being willing to write something so personal and supportive at the same time. I deeply appreciate that.

Le35, welcome! And thanks for leaving a comment too.

So many of you have such familiar ideas in your comments, things that resonate with the balance I struggle with, and I really appreciate you putting them out there as part of a conversation and a community. It's so nice to have other perspectives and ideas to help me think about how to work through these issues.


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