Common Wisdom: Being There

There was a great hullabaloo recently in our local press about the awarding of a medical degree to one of my neighbors. She had decided, at the age of forty, to become a physician. There was a lengthy interview, accompanied by a beaming photo. The awed journalist asked how on earth this belated vocation had been followed, since the medic was married and the mother of two children. Well, acknowledged the newly minted healer, she got a lot of cooperation from her spouse. She further ventured that her children developed considerable independence. I would venture this was the understatement of the year. The good doctor earned her diploma because others were persuaded to pick up her oar and pull in her stead. She leaned on the generosity of a younger brother who became a househusband and, after enrolling her eleven year old in a school two towns away, opted out of a car pool co-op because it interfered with her own schedule. The girl was deposited on a bike and, inclement weather not-withstanding, that was that. Jubilation at the physician’s personal achievement aside, the naked truth is that she abrogated the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood to live the life of a single woman.

It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) I encountered this formerly selfish but now fashionable disposition. My oldest child’s best friend had a Nana, not a Mother. Nana was pressed into service because her daughter preferred teaching other children to tending her own. One memorable result of this choice — the list is long — was the big day of Mary’s “fly up,” something Blue Birds do to become Campfire Girls. No doubt by now the organization is liberated and bisexual, but in those days the ceremony for girls was held nearby and all Moms were on hand except Mary’s. I became a surrogate Mother when the term was yet novel. Where was the birth Mother? Well, her star had so ascended in the high school hierarchy that she was made a counselor. It seems she was all counseled out by the time of Mary’s “Fly Up” and needed the relaxation of working in her garden. She waved as we drove by.

In neither situation was there financial need. These Mothers were deliberately absent to indulge personal gratification. The worst of it is the increase in this behavior, thanks to promotion by feminists. Sure, the occasional bone is tossed to the “homemaker,” but in trend-setting media land, the Cosmo woman is definitely on a payroll.

That there is still residual guilt among Mothers who opt to leave home is equally obvious. Books and magazine articles are mass produced by psychologists trying to assuage the troubled, to explain away vestiges of the Stay at Home syndrome, pejoratively fingered as a “Fifties mentality.” In fact, this is a misnomer. Until recently, it had been the mentality of every decade, i.e., the husband as provider, the wife and mother at home with the children. That this traditional and most natural arrangement has suffered considerable attack and undergone substantial erosion needs little validation. It is even nakedly demonstrated in one unintentionally poignant commercial for 7-Eleven. An anxious child accosts a briefcase Mommy, trying as she is to depart the premises, with a “Where are you going?” She clues him in that Mom has an important meeting, so Nana (what, again?) is assuming maternal duties. And Mom thinks she can talk Nana into a trip to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee! “Does this make it better?” she asks, hoping to get off the hook. “No,” comes the wistful reply, “but it helps.” Mom, replaced by a Slurpee. That this piece of copy could be concocted and delivered as an appealing message speaks volumes for the acceptance of the scenario’s legitimacy.

In today’s world, Mom has put down the broom and picked up a briefcase. This is supposed to represent a step forward, a liberation. Biology no longer shackles her; she can breed ’em and leave ’em. In growing numbers, she does. Literally babies in diapers are trundled off to pre-school (many pricey and prestigious) in the early morning, to be collected late in the afternoon. One of my daughters worked in such a school, taking often weeping toddlers at departure, changing diapers, meeting their needs. The school is internationally respected for its excellence in developing a child’s ability to organize, to learn, to accept discipline. The downside is that there are little ones who do not adapt, or who are actively disliked and made a pariah by the staff. At their young age, there is no way such tots can communicate unhappiness or discrimination. The idea that Mom can compensate for daily trauma by giving the child “quality time,” after her own day at the office, is fantasy. Anyone who has been employed, anyone who has been at home with children, recognizes the improbability of successfully tackling the strenuous demands of both. The bald truth is that total time spent with the child consists of dinner, bath, and bed.

The crucial question, asked by radio psychologists of bewildered callers about the value of a relationship, is this: “is she/he there for you?” It seems to me they are on to something. We are inundated with a steady stream of advice from academics and amateurs on what constitutes a “good Mother”; “how to be” a good Mother. Mine is just one more voice, but after a quarter-century of experience and observation I believe that erudition and speculation aside, the essence is, simply, being there. Being there when the first step is taken or the first word spoken. When the fall occurs. When the earache and, later, the heartache strikes. Imperative when children are young, I’m not sure there is a cut off time, when not being there is okay. I think it is a priority which continues until the last breath is taken. Goals achieved, “personal best” gained, gold watch tributes, these pale beside the durable rewards of giving uncompromising love. What eclipses the relief, the joy, of being there to meet the crisis, to share the triumph, to cushion the defeat?

As a mother, I’m not sure I have imparted words of wisdom or come up with key advice. I have offered suggestions; some taken, some rejected. Whatever else, I was — and I am — available. There is a very real comfort in merely knowing someone loved, and loving, is there. Husbands and wives routinely experience the consolation of shared space, even when no words are exchanged. The widowed speak eloquently of its loss. I believe it is just as true for mothers and their children.

When my three were young, I got a call from school to ask if I could take home a sick child whose working mother had listed me as being willing to do so. I could do little to chase the child’s flu, but I made her cozy and often sat with her during the day. At one point she looked at me through glassy eyes and said solemnly, “Thank you for being home.”

Being home, being there. After all the papers are written and seminars concluded about Motherhood and Mothering, I think unbiased data will reveal the profound essence of it all is simply that.

B. F. Smith

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B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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