Her Bad Mother

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Big Fish

My mother was and still is an inveterate teller of tall tales, especially in conversation with children. Any of you who read my interview with Mommybloggers.com will know that the very name for this blog originated out of an incident involving one of her tales, in this case a tale involving a crocodile, a bedroom closet, and one grandmother emulating Steve Irwin. She delights in the wide-eyed fascination of children with all things fantastic, and decided very early in her career as a mother that it was part of her job to keep the eyes of her own children and those of any children who accidentally wandered into range of hearing as wide as possible.

Accordingly, I grew up in a home in which it seemed entirely possible that there were sea creatures living in the plumbing and gnomes hiding in the closets. There were fairies and elves and imps and other magical creatures in the woods behind our house, and they lived in harmony with the animals there – the squirrels and birds that I saw every day, and the raccoons and skunks that I saw less often but knew well from the tracks in our backyard, tracks that my mother was very careful to point out and explain as evidence of the late-night forest creature moondances that occurred a few times each month. I knew that the forest creatures maintained harmony in their community through the frequent town-hall meetings that they held in a mossy stump – I knew this because my mother showed me exactly where they all sat during these meetings and held up various broken twigs and branches (used as benches) as evidence. I knew that I should never, ever pick toadstools, because if I did so I would be destroying the shelter of the littlest creatures of the forest.

I also knew that my sister and I came from a cabbage patch, and that if we unscrewed our bellybuttons, our bums would fall off.

I was reminded of my mother’s proclivity for storytelling while reading one of Jaelithe’s posts the other week, in which she raised the question (discussed with Andrea and, apparently, debated over at the Mom Trap, although I seem to have missed it, as I do everything these days) of whether lying to children undermines our credibility as parents. Do you tell your turkey-averse child that you’ve just put chicken on their plate for Thanksgiving dinner? Do you tell your child that Santa (or God) wants them to put their toys away? When your child asks, as Jaelithe’s did, about where the sun goes at the end of the day, do you tell them the truth or do you say, a la the Von Trapp children, that the sun has gone to bed and now must they?

I thought of my mother when I read this post because my mother, as should be clear from what I said above, never let the hard facts get in the way of a good story. She had it on good authority that the sun left our neighborhood at the end of the day so that he could go light up the neighborhoods of other children, who needed light so that they could play outside. She also had it on good authority that Curious George’s favorite food was lima beans, and that both God and Santa were always very happy when I picked up my toys.

The question is, was this deception? And if it was, does it matter?

In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates explains that there is a very great difference between a noble or fine lie, and a lie of the soul. The latter is the sort of lie that deceives in the most fundamental way – it turns a soul away from truth, puts that soul (understood as the seat of reason, among other things) on a path to ignorance. This is the worst kind of lie, because it corrupts the part of our being that is most uniquely human – that is, our reason, our ability (and desire) to seek out truth. The noble lie, on the other hand, tells the truth figuratively. Plato, among other classical philosophers, suggested that not every human soul was capable of perceiving and comprehending ‘truth,’ but that every human soul – every soul possessing the uniquely human faculty of reason, even in its most nascent form – could be turned toward truth. Set on the right path, oriented toward more correct opinions. Noble lies accomplish this work – they orient the souls of those who aren’t able, or are not yet able, to pursue truth directly.

When my mother told me that toadstools were shelters for magical creatures that I couldn’t see, she was, it might be argued, telling me a noble lie. Her lie did not obscure the truth; rather, it illuminated part of the truth for a mind that was not ready to perceive it in its fullness. Toadstools do indeed protect and nurture many creatures that human eyes cannot or do not see, and I should indeed be respectful of toadstools, and other flora and fauna, when I come across these. They are not mine to trample or use for my own amusement, and there is far greater potential stimulation to be gained from them in appreciating them as the remarkable works of nature that they are.

A very young child might not be capable of understanding the laws of planetary motion and the principles of a solar system, but she can understand that the sun has disappeared from our view, that it does so every day, and that it has something to do with the cycle of the day. We can explain that straightforwardly, or we can wrap it up in a story. Wrapping it up in a story presents the truth, or some portion of the truth, in terms that a child can understand. In terms that capture the child's imagination, and so their curiosity.

There is something to be said for serving up the truth straighforwardly to children - for telling them the facts about the movement of the Earth and the sun, and the facts about the North Pole and about existence or non-existence of Tooth Fairies, and the truth about how little we know about what happens to us when we die. I certainly believe that we should never under-estimate childrens' capacity for reason, and their ability to appreciate and understand 'facts.' And I believe strongly that the 'truth' - so far as I or anyone understands it - about the natural world and everything in it is as fascinating as story that my mother ever concocted.

But I think that what we gain from wrapping the truth in a story - and, occasionally, weaving fantastical tales that seem to incorporate no measure of truth - is this: we communicate to our children that the world is not prosaic, that it is a place of wonder. We teach them that the world, that life, holds many unanswered questions, and that even those questions that seem to have been settled are worth interrogating. We teach them to believe, and to doubt. We provoke their curiosity – we make them lovers of discovery, which in turn makes them lovers of wisdom. Philosophic puppies, as Socrates had it, but only in the best sense: joyfully bounding towards that which they do not know. Experiencing the unknown as an opportunity for play.

Still... my mother's insistence, for years, that if I unscrewed my belly-button my bum would fall off is clearly an example of maternal deception. As was her insistence that there were never any mushrooms in her spaghetti sauce, that marshmallows were made of whipped cloud, and that if I lied the bottom of my tongue would turn black. And there's an argument to be made that the belly-button lie might have contributed in some small part to some body-image confusion. But do these lies matter? My mother approached motherhood, and every second of interaction with her children, as an opportunity for fun, and my experience of childhood was entirely shaped by this ethos of laughter and discovery. And it had everything to do, too, with my love of story (supported, obviously, by the abundance of books in our household and frequent visits to libraries, but that's another post.)

None of this is to say that deception qua deception, deception in the form of lies of the soul, should be embraced whole-heartedly. Only that it might have a place, alongside the nobler, poetic forms of lying, in making the worlds of our children rich and vibrant and alive with possibility.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


You are, all of you, every single one of you who wrote, commented or reached out in any way in response to my last two posts, the most generous human beings. Your honesty about your own experiences, your candour in sharing what has and has not worked for you in tending to your children, and the warmth of your expressions of support and solidarity have been a sanity-saver during what has been a very difficult week. I have learn so much from you all, and I have felt embraced.

Thank you. THANK YOU.

Many of you have sent me links and book recommendations: Lady M sent me a whole list of relevant links (most of which were to the blog of the incomparable Mary P., who has been sending me tremendously helpful words of advice), and some of you referred me to posts that you've written yourselves on challenges similar to mine. I'm going to pull this all together and compile them for a resource page on these issues (broadly understood), so that I have them all in one place, and so that anyone else who finds themselves struggling with the remarkable and sometimes challenging changes that occur when baby becomes a turbo-charged toddler, and/or with issues pertaining to 'disciplining' small children, and/or simply feeling like a bad mother, can benefit from all of the tremendously helpful and reassuring information that you have shared with me. You have shared gold with me, people, so it's only fitting that I share it back. If you know of further resources - posts, book recommendations, helpful blogs, sources of advice and support - please leave a note about it here and I'll include it on the resource page.

It's the least I can do.

Again, thank you. A million times over.

(WonderBaby, note, is ambivalent about whether or not to feel gratitude for the support that you have provided to her bad mother. On the one hand, the well-being of her bad mother is necessary to her continued well-being. On the other, you have been encouraging her bad mother to resist her attempts at domestic domination. This, clearly, verges on the traitorous.

WonderBaby trusts that you will, in future, resist any and all urges to foment revolution within her household.)

(Her Bad Mother, obviously, hopes that the Mommyblogger Underground Revolutionary Movement in Support of Beleaguered Mothers Everywhere stays strong. But that's between us, 'kay?)

Not seen in photo: troops of the Republican Baby Guard, standing by to free their Imperial Leader from the restraining devices and redirection strategies of Bad Mother's Opposition Force.

This mothering shit ain't easy, but you all are making it a hella lot easier than it would otherwise be.

You rock.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Which Her Bad Mother Quite Unironically Seeks Assistance In Her Efforts To Practice Good Parenting

I cannot thank you all enough for your tremendously supportive response to my last post (and to my recent, related posts over at urbanmoms.ca): your comments, your e-mails, and your many virtual hugs have been so much tonic for my frazzled soul. Things are still very challenging - WonderBaby is turbo-charged for as many hours in the day as she can keep her eyes open, and then some, if the night terrors come - but the knowledge that I am not the only one struggling with feelings of maternal inadequacy, that so many of you have felt or feel right now the way that I have been feeling, has gone so, so far toward easing my anxiety and frustration. But even though ‘thank you’ is insufficient, it needs to be said: thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now to business. I need more feedback and advice: how does one approach discipline with a baby that is rushing headlong into toddlerhood? WonderBaby – 11 months old yesterday – cannot be reasoned or bargained with, and she has only the most rudimentary understanding of what it means to do something that Mama disapproves of. (I think. There have been many moments during which I have been convinced that she knows exactly what she is doing. The deafening silence that falls upon the house when she is about to do something naughty – like, say, reprogram all of the electronic devices in the house – is, for example, suspicious.) Obviously, sending her to a Naughty Corner isn’t going to work.

What we currently do, when she does something that she shouldn’t: calmly and slowly say no, and separate her from whatever it is that she is doing. This, as I related the other day, is sometimes very difficult if not impossible: she’s a strong and willful baby, and if she works her well-honed arch-back-go-limp-deaden-weight move (which makes it near-impossible to lift her), her push-self-against-Mama-arch-and-throw-head-back move (which makes it near-impossible to hold her), or her arch-backward-go-ironrod-stiff move (which makes it near-impossible to get her into stroller or carseat), it can sometimes be – how to put this? – impossible to manipulate her physically. In which case, what is one to do? Obviously, in an emergency or truly desperate situation I would just wrestle her and drag her away, screaming, but I am, as it goes, reluctant to do this under ordinary circumstances. So, what is to be done? Do I just ride some things out, pick my battles, etc, etc? Or will I spoil her by doing this?

She’s a sweet-tempered baby. With so many things, she is agreeable and adaptable: if, for example, I pull her away from my laptop – as I must do frequently – she lets out a holler and stomps a foot but is over the fuss in a split-second and moves on to something else. In some cases, simply saying, firmly, NO, WonderBaby, will be enough to dissuade her from pursuing whatever nefarious activity she has set her mind to. But often, when she is really, really determined to do or not do something (eat, nap, get in stroller), there is no fighting her.

(On that subject: how does one feed a baby who refuses to eat anything but random bits of cheese and cucumber and the occasional lemon, and who refuses – REFUSES – to be spoon-fed? She’s a healthy girl – the energy level described in my last post, and her seemingly superhuman strength are evidence of this, I think – but she can go days just picking at and playing with her food. Is this a problem? How do I battle it?)

I’ve always intended to exercise a form of discipline that utilizes reasoning and discussion and getting down to child-level and teaching. But I fear that that particular resolution is doomed to the same fate as the no-garish-plastic-toys resolution and the no-DVD/television resolution (let’s just say that the week I was sick, I spent hours hunkered down on the floor in front of the television with the remote control and a stack of DVDs, trying to get Miss Business to sit still and get addicted to the screen already. That I was profoundly disappointed with my failure speaks volumes about how very, very far I have fallen.) I can’t have empowering heart-to-heart talks with WonderBaby about why it is very important to not bite one’s mother. I can’t reason with her about how very unpleasant it is to listen to screaming. She’s a baby.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea of raising my voice with her; my heart flips when I think of even speaking harshly to her. I much prefer the idea of firm and gentle – but is it enough with a despot-in-training? (Benevolent, but still.)

Despots-in-training shun toys. Despots-in-training sweep toys from shelves with one flourish of their tiny muscled arms and make those shelves their own. Despots claim territory, and if some idiotic department store employee has left a screwdriver behind with which to dismantle the structures of that territory, so much the better.

What do you all do? What did you do, when your children were very small? When did you begin exercising discipline, and how? And if you have a quote-unquote spirited baby, what do you do now?