When you’re a woman with children, this question is freighted with meaning. When you’re a woman with children and you are working outside the home, the question is even weightier. Are you a wife, a mother, a daughter, a professional – some weird combination with blurred lines that change daily?
I just finished a new novel by Ann Packer entitled, The Children’s Crusade. Here’s a blurb from the book jacket:
“Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of the family he might create there, Bill buys the property and proposed to Penny Greenway, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life appeals to him. In less than a decade, they have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, overwhelmed and under satisfied at a time when women chafed at the conventions confining them. And Penny will sacrifice anything to become an artist.”
The book captured my attention for a couple of reasons. One, I was born in 1954 and I enjoy reading about that time period. Two, my mother sounded a lot like the description of Penny. The story details the effect of Penny’s passion for art on her four children. On the surface, Penny’s actions seem selfish. She is uninterested in the minutiae of her children’s lives. In fact the title, “The Children’s Crusade,” is taken from their childhood project to find things that would make their mother interested in being with them.
I know how the kids felt. I always felt loved by my mother, but she would also disappear for hours into her art studio, and I never felt that I or my brother was at the center of her life. When I got to college, I read Kate Chopin’s groundbreaking novella, The Awakening. The main character, Edna Pontellier, finds being a mother stifling in her late 19th century Creole Society and says at one point, “I would die for my children, but I cannot live for them.” I had a feeling my mother felt the same way. Edna eventually drowns herself escaping the limitations of her life. The book was scandalous at the time for its feminist themes.
Probably in reaction to my mother’s rather laissez faire approach to motherhood, I approached motherhood a little differently. I never had a baby book and have very few pictures of me without my older brother. With my own daughters, I documented every coo, every whimper, every step of their young lives. I made packing lunches into an artistic challenge. Fruit kabobs, sandwiches cut with cookie cutters of the season (pumpkins, Christmas bells, Easter bunnies), trips to the library, no video games – nothing was too over the top or neurotic for me to try. Working outside the home was still a contentious topic when my girls were young and I was determined to “win” at both – mothering and career.
No matter which path mothers take — laissez faire to helicopter — I can guarantee you at some point, we feel conflicted. Are we doing it right? I always wondered why my husband never seemed to worry about the girls. I asked him once and he said, “I don’t have to. You worry enough for the both of us.” He actually meant it as a compliment, but it speaks to the truth that mothers are much more judged about how their children turn out than are fathers.
The name of my company is The Right Reflection because no one sees themselves directly, only through the reflection of others, and I’m fascinated with the reflection women see of themselves.
We are all unique, complex kaleidoscopes consisting of thousands of facets that continually change throughout our lives. What my mother and Penny and Edna were all chafing against was being defined by one facet no matter how brilliant. By embracing all our facets, we can See Clearly, Act Boldly, and Live Fully.