“Woe to the mother who speaks of child-rearing,
For lo, her children will misbehave.
They will wail and scream in the market,
They will poke eyes and pull hair.
Even strangers will reprimand them, and
Their cuteness will shield them not.”
If that’s not received wisdom, it should be. While I’m not a superstitious person by nature, my rookie years as a mother have taught me a valuable lesson: Any complacent talk of “what we do in our family” or “the importance of routine” will inevitably jinx children’s behavior for at least a week “after the lapse.” Previously heavy sleepers will rise for breakfast at 4 a.m., and even dinosaur-shaped food will fail to appease lifetime members of the Clean Plate Club.
If play-group small talk can lead to such lawlessness, I shudder to think what might happen on actual publication of a column about child-raising. So a disclaimer at the outset, offered up to the patron saint of easy bedtimes: None of what follows is meant to imply that our children, wonderful though they are, knock politely on our bedroom door in the morning, beds made, teeth brushed, and clothes on. And despite repeated suggestions, they have yet to spontaneously mix their parents each a martini before quietly retiring to their rooms for the duration of the cocktail hour.
This despite countless books’ implied promises to the contrary. Like many mothers of my generation, I have been a voracious consumer of child-rearing books since the birth of our eldest. As has been widely noted, young families often lack close-at-hand models of good parenting, having settled wherever their jobs, schools, or tastes alight. In our case, for a long time the largest neighboring family was a couple one apartment over with two dogs and a cat. Nothing if not overeducated, our contemporaries turn to books less for the knowledge they contain than for the sense of security they provide. And so Brazelton and Leach and (gasp!) Spock, 1-2-3 Magic, Time-Out for Toddlers, and Montessori Play-and-Learn all line our bookshelves, soon to be consigned to the dustbin of experience.
Not to say there aren’t good books out there. The Mother’s Almanac has a great play-dough recipe, Jim Stenson provides bracing common sense, and Ezzo & Co. are single-handedly responsible for thousands of restful nights nationwide. But it seems not only fruitless but somehow even wrong to look to books for skills that generations of parents seem to have known simply by breathing the air around them.
Suspecting as much, before the birth of our first, my husband and I decided to try something radically different: a class. The hospital where I was to give birth offered “Parenting 101,” taught by a nurse with three children of her own (Three! A room full of first-timers gazed at her with undisguised awe). Billed as a nuts-and-bolts course for beginners, it was in fact an evening of indoctrination for the Snugli set. “The family bed” (a movement that encourages parents and children to share the same bed) — good; set bedtimes — bad. Cloth diapers — very good; processed food — very bad. Thankfully, we managed to match our classmates’ serious expressions and dutiful nods for most of the evening. But after listening to one earnest question too many, we finally dissolved into the kind of giggling fit last experienced during Coach’s eighth-grade health class. We hightailed it out of there, fearful that Child Protective Services would soon have our names on its list of Unserious Parents.
That was six years and three children ago, and we now wistfully remember the days when the art of diapering seemed out of our grasp. Even at the time, though, book-reading and class-taking were clearly not the best ways to go about becoming our children’s parents. Only on-the-job training would do, with a weather eye on the lookout for the best habits of other families.
The playground is one of the best places to pick up on those habits. Early on we frequented one set into a strikingly beautiful hilltop in San Francisco, whose occasional broken bottle and ever-present pigeons were made up for by its stunning location, permanent recreation director, and regular crowd of kids. It was a typical Bay-area mix: the never-flustered home day-care provider whose charges happily ate black beans and rice every day; the underpaid au pairs standing in a surly knot and smoking; the lawyers and doctors taking their three months of maternity leave.
And then there was Sally. Surrounded by Cheyennes and Sierras, her children bore fine names like Peter and Daniel. Surrounded by mothers consumed with their single toddlers, she handled her four children with unflappable aplomb. Surrounded by political correctness, she spoke confidently of her work with the crisis pregnancy group Birthright, an image of Mary small but shining around her neck. Everyone gravitated toward her. It wasn’t that her children were perfect; it was that she handled their imperfections with confidence and gentleness. She always seemed happy.
It dawned on me then that books can get the mechanics right — when to call the doctor, how to install a car seat, what to feed a toddler. Some even manage to convey the more abstract concepts — how to make a sixth-month-old laugh, how to help a three-year-old behave. But none of them can capture what makes Sally and countless mothers like her stand out: a strong and joyful faith. From that faith comes an openness to God’s grace in both the joys and the crosses of motherhood. Cooperating with this grace in the everyday details of a mother’s life takes many acts of will, and certainly that sixth load of laundry or second scraped knee doesn’t readily appear to be a brush with the divine. Yet it’s not surprising that an openness to God’s grace — that which set the Blessed Mother apart — should be that which can transform us all into the mothers we hope to be.
This article first appeared in the January 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.