LIFE ON THE L-EDGE

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SEPTEMBER 13, 2011 11:19PM

Ingrid Bergman and Mothering

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Prelude: This is an article I wrote during those years when I would escape to the Middle East and then have to leave a small journalist meeting with Bill Clinton to keep my word and get home by 3Pm the next day. Talk about the work/child schism. I had it up the wazzzo.

Recently I asked a good friend and great writer what was best about turning 72. He didn't hestitate but said, "We'll never hace to raise young children, not ever again." I am sure he loved his kids as much as we all do ours. But I had to laugh at how on target how great was his response. That made me think that there might be parents here who will relate to this, either because they too are finished with the rigors of child rearing or because maybe some are in the midst of it. So, here goes:

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D.W. Winnicott, the wonderfully quirky English psychoanalyst, has buoyed many mothers with his famous phrase: "the good enough mother." Meaning: you don't have to do it all. Even better: you don't have to do it all well.

Thousands of us take refuge in this phrase when checking out those subtle deals we cut with our kids. Because, just now and then, most of us are tempted to slip a wee bit. But when "good enough" is your credo, you're allowed an occasional bald failure, naked neglect, or plain old not-in-the-mood. Because "good enough" is compensated by those many times we give ourselves completely to the dizzying challenges any day can demand: chauffeur, social director, boundary setter, empathic listener, clever nutritionist, encouraging conversationalist with, if we're lucky, a few life lessons thrown in. Those days when we rise above "good enough" into "great".

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I was thinking all this while watching a documentary on Ingrid Bergman's life, narrated by her now grown, wonderfully accomplished kids. "There won't be a single Mommy Dearest written by any of the five of us" Pia Lindstrom, Ingrid's first-born, was saying. A newscaster and television commentator, she's a woman so poised, and self-possessed: my mother's dream. I was thinking just this as she went on to describe how Ingrid Bergman had deserted her, leaving her with her dad, not seeing her--not once--from ages 2 till 18.

Ingrid Bergman left Pia to run off with Roberto Rossellini. Left the child for romantic love, for their art, living out a then scandalous divorce in Italy, while managing to have four more kids--those Pia didn't meet until she was almost twenty.

One of whom is the model/actress Isabella Rosselini. She followed Pia on the screen; her beautiful famous face so reminiscent of her mom's. She too was full of love and adulation. `Well, she got the good mother,’ I thought, as they showed old photos of a huge Italian extended family laughing on some exotic  hilltop. What most of us no longer have to spread around our kids.

"Mom was totally there for me when I was having thoracic surgery." Isabella began. "She stopped working for over a year, stayed by my side." Isabella's face was glowing as she spoke. Then she added: "But basically my mother lived to act. She'd fly off to Paris, stay on film location for weeks or sometimes it was months. We were so excited when she returned we'd assault her: "Mom, the dog's thrown up." "Mom, The toilet's broken." "Mom, look see what I did in school.": each of us hollering at the same time while my mother looked into each of our faces, mixed emotions crossing her face as she scanned the chaos-- our house.

"Within six hours she'd say: "I can't handle this'. And off she'd go".

Isabella was forgiving as Pia: "I rather liked it that way" she said, "I was a spunky independent kid: I didn't mind the freedom. It was really OK that she was hardly home."  

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 'Wow' I thought. `Sixteen years without seeing her Mom and Pia thrived. Six hour visits, then Ingrid Bergman took off again--and her kids were not maimed for life.' I was watching all this inside a familiar creeping depression (what autumn and single parenting invariably create): the recurring feeling that I'm a prisoner of my daughter's life. Watching clips from old Ingrid Bergman movies, seeing her radiant face, hearing her kids' reflections woke me up to possibility.

She wasn't bathed in guilt, nor compliant to conventions, didn't brace herself moodily for household details. It was the details of her acting she craved. She must have handed the everyday mothering over to someone more suited for the job. The way Margaret Mead did. The way Doris Lessing did. All those women had a call, and the call was not the child. They found help, and left.

Not for the first time, but for the first time this year, there arose in me the notion that I could pull off a mini-version of the same. It suddenly did not seem outlandish to leave my kid with loving adults (there is wonderful child care on tap in this house.) I wouldn't be leaving for months, after all: just weeks. Just a few weeks every few months. Suddenly it seemed I was not being fair to either of us, struggling inside household routines that bore me into despair while neglecting work that energizes me.

Unfortunately, it's journalism half-way around the world which I love, assignments I'd been rejecting, trading the writing life for the mothering life. Instead of chasing down terrorists in the exotic Holy Land, I was shuttling my daughter through bland suburbs to birthday parties, museum school, piano lessons. On good days, while a chauffeur we get to chat, as we do when I read to her every night, check her homework, eat dinner, more engaged in her now than a few years, back when I came and went to Jerusalem more often.

Like most moms, I now live inside my daughter's shifting reality continuously. Watching old footage of Ingrid Bergman, I saw that I had overdone it: nourishing her life at the expense of mine.

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Inspired, the next morning I was not only mentally packing my bags but making long distance calls, setting up interviews, checking in with editors. As my tentative plans took shape I wandered around the house, plucking clothes and books, wondering about the weather, what I'd wear in the West Bank, selecting the best read for the long plane ride, clipping recent news reports, excited.

In this happy state of mind, I came across my babysitter's People Magazine. I do not read People Magazine. I certainly do not read People Magazine when I'm excited about work, when I have real "people" to see. Yet the magazine sitting on the table beckoned to me. So I tossed it on my desk. This magazine sat incongruously on top of the Fall issue of American Scholar (above last week's Nation, three weeks of half-read New Yorkers, The Atlantic, Lingua Franca, Common Boundary, NYRB, you name it, I subscribe.)

While negotiating another round of phone calls with journalists and my editor, Mary Tyler Moore stared up at me, glossy, huge, with a stilted expression on her youthful face. I was still high from Ingrid Bergman's life; how well I understood her impatience with domestic details. How awful that wailing: "But we've had chicken three times this week" or worse the " NO I won't feed the dog because you promised television". Or "Mom where are the scissors? No, not those scissors, The. Red. Scissors". Then I remembered the way I wasted last Saturday on the hamster:

I'd already dressed to go to Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies when I heard: "Help Mom, the hamster got out. We've got to find him"-- one note in the high-pitched discourse that ricochets around my house, filling my days and what's left of my mind--much, if you have kids, like the conversations that fly around your house too.

Six hours was all Ingrid Bergman could take and her kids turned out creative, self-supporting, loving. As children, they understood she couldn't waste her precious talent on details for which she had no talent, couldn't sacrifice her soul to those long weeks that epitomize tedious, that are the last word in unimaginative. (With her beloved hamster loose, my kid went to the ballet, while I spent Saturday trying to corner him. This hamster-watch--I kid you not--lasted from noon till midnight when he finally crept out from under the couch–the moment I realized that now I'd actually have to touch that hairy thing.)     

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Now, I was at my calendar, calculating the best get-away dates, sketching the story on my computer, waiting for return calls from Jerusalem, inside that old adrenaline buzz--amazed by the amount of energy my plan had already generated, thinking how great, how brilliant really, to get to the Mideast while getting away from November in New England ("No light, No sun, No fun, No-vember")

At some moment, my exuberance became laced with a subtle fatigue. Because? Because I hadn't yet shared this plan with my daughter. Just thinking about the look of panic that spreads across her face whenever I pack to leave cut my joy.

What was creeping back was guilt. Now I remembered that  double-forked mind that drove me nuts for years. One voice says: "It's good for kids to see their mother fulfilled". The other voice knows "Any kid, given a choice, would rather have her mother home, even in bed, even quasi-suicidal, than halfway around the world." ( Nora Ephron)                                                    

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Maybe taking this trip, however purposeful, was rash. How exactly would I tell Miranda? Numb with a spasm of indecision, I plopped onto my bed with the glossy People magazine. Under that huge fake photo of young Mary Tyler Moore lay two smaller, more authentic ones: a vital red-haired middle-aged Mary so the opposite of her as a young mother, trying to smile, but not making it. I saw it must have been one of those "not good enough days": Her arms were braced around two young children, one of whom already looked abject– purely disconsolate.

It didn't take more than twenty-five minutes to read the entire magazine, cover to cover. Lost inside the stories, I can't locate the exact moment when Ingrid Bergman evaporated, but she did. She was replaced by Mary Tyler Moore and Judy Collins, both of whom neglected their kids for their work. Both kids later committed suicide in their twenties.

Curiously, each woman had recovered. Relatively late in life both were living inside extremely happy marriages, so they reported.

All I knew was I would never be happy again. I would not be interviewed in People Magazine after working it out in therapy. I would not be lounging around beautifully furnished rooms photographed with my glamourous late-in-life husband, after successful recovery at Hazleton. I would probably not be alive five minutes after my daughter departed this life, if I chose work rather than give the little attentions, the quantity time that is the only way to find quality time.

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"I wasn't there for him"; "I'd do it all differently today"; "I missed so much": these phrases rang in my ears as my daughter, (beautiful, stubborn, graceful, moody) came home from school, running around the house shouting "Moma, GLUE. MY HALLOWEEN COSTUME NEEDS GLUE. WHERE IS THE GLUE?"

Obviously, I'm no Ingrid Bergman, but then my kid is no independent Isabella Rosselli either, not a child who flourishes without the minutia of maternal attention. Good enough; not good enough. Parenting is full of delicate judgement calls, the results of which won't be tallied for years. We have to know our very own kids, how much absence and distance he or she can handle any given month or year, as we juggle their lives with our needs.

That I'd have been in hog heaven with my mother out of the house means nothing to my daughter, who is happier by far when I stay put. Again, picturing that predictable look on her face if I began to pack my bags, I did not pack. I called the editor, canceled the trip, fell into a long disappointed afternoon nap.

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We have a small, a tiny routine. When she comes in after school, I say: "a hug, a kiss, a murmel." She says, very slow and deliberate: "Hug" (and we hug). "Kiss" (and we kiss). "Murmel", and we both shout "Murmel" (though neither of us remembers from which book the word came from). Today the kiss, the hug and the murmel also whisper: `Why risk this month? Her Dad didn't show up. She's getting used to me being home all the time. She's finally blossoming here in the suburbs, even as I'm dying. She's only nine. Maybe next year.’

I'm writing during those weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving when the grey clouds not only blanket the sky, but invade my soul. I am not in sunny Amman,Jordan attending the Economics Peace Summit. I am not in Gaza interviewing the Jihad or Hamas nor the PLO. I am not watching the Israeli troops withdraw from Nablus in the West Bank, nor wandering around Jerusalem’s old city. I am not free to work for two blessed weeks, immersed in grown-up talk, writing and witnessing that peace process to which I once gave the same detailed attention I now give the red scissors, the glue, the dentist, the play dates. That I have relative youth, relative beauty, relative good friends, means nothing at all when it comes to this urgent need to escape a hollow emptiness, a life I barely bare, & have to navigate. While other days the details of mothering seem simply: fine, my real life. (Kiss, hug, murmel).

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There's a young mom outside my window. She’s coaching her three year old on her tricycle. Her voice is cheerful, one might say too cheerful. She is not faking it but sounds truly excited, inside mothering with gusto, what's easier when kids are only three. "Peddle left, Sweetheart." she says in a perfectly sing-song. "Wonderful. Keep steady "

Her voice rises: "Amy is riding her bike." Then  I hear the squealing rejoinder, "MOMMY, LOOK, AMY RIDING BIKE".

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As a daughter of a scandinavian woman, I will suggest that American women are guilt tripped to death to be 100% available and doting on their children - by schools, by other parents, by their own family, by society in the form of magazines and psychologists and school counselors. European women have significantly more freedom in their lives, and children are taught this early on. They are encouraged to be independently active. Most scandinavian women are educated and work outside of home, and for the most part, their children are very well adjusted and also highly self responsible at an early age. What MTM and Judy Collins were probably missing- as were their children- was support to be self actualized outside of the role of mother.
Go follow your dream, you daughter will live through it. Teach her now, before it's too late, that you have a life of your own. She'll be more likely to want to go abroad and do interesting things if she sees you do that.
Orkoki--your response was about culture and that is what is key. I'm talking about the culture of highly educated moms in the big cities in USA or suburban as well. I think your response deserves a much better answer than I can cook up now.

But I think you also already opened what I wrote by making it so much larger and thank you for that. True, Ingrid Bergman had a large extended family in Italy and you too sound really in a great or lucky culture.

We here in USA are often isolated with our kids or become friends with only our kids' friends' families. And there is much much less freedom. To be continued tomorrow. thanks O...
This essay strikes so many chords...I get the wanting to do what I can, what I am meant to do...there is no easy answer and, formyears, I wished there was. You express it eloquently, Wendy.
This essay strikes so many chords...I get the wanting to do what I can, what I am meant to do...there is no easy answer and, formyears, I wished there was. You express it eloquently, Wendy.
Perhaps the reason Pia forgives her mother is because she had a wonderful, loving father who did not tell her what a witch her mother was. I see that in divorce today, the injured party telling the children how bad the other is. How lucky you are to have such an interesting life and to have a daughter who knows you love her.
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My life is not as exciting as yours so maybe that is why I don't feel so good about not having spent as much time with my kids as I would have liked. Not travelling the world as a journalist or an acclaimed actress, I was just an exhausted teacher. It was not a good trade. I know that as a mother I was better than good enough, though, and that is a comfort.
Being a travel writer while my kids were growing up, I certainly identify with this. Since I was divorced, I was able to leave when my sons were with their father. But it was never easy.
I think the isolation that mothers in the US experience is what makes it even more difficult. That isolation isn't just a phenomenon of the urban areas of the country. I think most mothers would be surprised to learn that how they feel is shared among more mothers than want to admit it. Great piece. Thanks.
Thanks for your comments, I expected none. Maybe because this phase of life ended for me in the last years of my kid's (my only's) happy high school years, though even then I still was a prisoner of her life much of the time.

Oryoki, I'm sure you are absolutely correct re: moms in Scanadavia. I remember a couple from Norway? almost getting arrested in NYC for leaving the baby in her stroller outside the restaurant. That incident stayed with me because we American moms or those I knew in Cambridge MA from whence this story comes, had to be super vigilant esp in smaller towns, about kidnappers. They were rife in the early 90's and if a few kids on one block were playing in the snow there were at least 4 mom's or babysitter's or both watching intently from the windows even though the snow hill was about a foot from our collective homes. In Vermont, I found one toy store where there was no back entrance, and I paid someone in there to watch my daughter for 1/2 hour. We were a panicky bunch and no wonder! Being such a non-homgeneous country, random kidnappings still happen. The feeling shared by many was total vigilance.

Living in Israel or even in Jamaica WI which I did for a long time, I relaxed almost completely. In Jamaica, for all the murders and crimes, kids are seen as precious and you don't have to pay anyone to attend to them as they wander wherever one deems is safe. Ditto, in Israel I remember the feeling arriving at the airport that I was surrounded by relatives and that no one would hurt Miranda and in fact, I went to a woman's room alone and was dazzled by the comparative freedom. In such safe-seeming settings, of course mom's are more free. But here in USA it's all so random. So we are paranoid about leaving the kids. Ditto: psychologically, what do we have? No strong nuclear families as the majority but a lot of shattered families, where if you as Lea said, have a co-parent even at a distance you are lucky. We are mostly single moms or we were.

Of course, this is a huge subject best handled in a discussion group.

Mypysche --so glad this spoke to you. It was written for you in that sense. Also: Lamm Chops. YES the isolation and the difficulties are huge and yet each mom sometimes feels so alone with it.

Romantic P: I actually met Pia Linstrom--we were at the same hair salon the hour that Sadat was murdered. She seemed less secure than her Italian family in a subtle way but yes, she had one parent and that he didn't rat on her mom is beautiful. I did not know that.

They say and I believe that all a kid needs is one person unconditionally in their corner, on their side, loving them attentively. If you are divorced and the dad disappears for years at a time, well, no matter if you have great friends with kids in the house, an insecure kid watches you like a hawk and if you are her one person, leaving is hard.

Miguela, I think the operative word you used is kidS. One kid and one parent is a whole nother kettle... Also, may I BEG you to not idealize anyone's life. I cannot stress enough how the single thing I learned in my long life and as a shrink was that envy or imagining anyone else as more interesting is truly remiss and dangerous. No one is on easy street and though yes I had some special times, years even, my life surely is no more interesting than yours. (This is a huge thing I have about envy. Rememer that poem about Richard Cory? The man who has 'everything' and commits suicide that most of us read in high school? Well, you know the "taste of yourself" but truly, no one knows the taste of another's self and hell, I've known charismatic elegant souls who were so miserable, what one would never guess. Being a teacher is a great thing. Basta. (I mention Pia Lindstom above bec. it was a huge day... but that doesn't mean at that hour you weren't having a far more intimate conversation with a great friend. basta!!!

Lea, this is not idealizing your plight because it must have been hard leaving the boys. However if the ex is competent and not nutso, one's kids have a leg up, yes? Thanks all. Nothing easy about any of this or not for me even now..
I dreamed of running away, late night on my suburban porch watching the rain, many many nights, as the kids slept. I didn't have anywhere exotic to go, just knew I wanted to go somewhere. I enjoyed the kids as you enjoyed your daughter, but I am happy it is behind me also. Great writing on an interesting and complex relationship: mothering.
* Hug *
* Kiss *
* Murmel*
I love that. I'll share that with my "little ones" (ages 15 and 16) tonight.

It's getting almost too late, but they're still affectionate; and still outraged when I'm away... but that only when it inconveniences them....
Congrats on the E.P. It was the female Paskistani Prime Minister who famously quoted: "When I'm at work, I want to be home with my kids; but when I'm home, I want to be at work." A constant push-pull. I was a pretty hands-off mom; I was always there for him but didn't disrupt myself to make sure he got EVERYTHING. I saw other mothers around me doing this and I swear I could see their cancer cells already starting to duplicate. Good piece!
Maybe living in the city is easier. Between the time the school bus picked up my son in the morning and dropped him off in late afternoon, I wrote a monthly magazine column and zipped around NYC doing research for it; also wrote a novel. During the hours when her kids were at school, a good city friend wrote a play produced on Broadway. Another friend wrote for the NY Times, beginning in the years when her kids were at home. Yet another built a career as an art historian. It must be much harder if your professional passion draws you away from home during hours when your child is at home, and perhaps living in the suburbs is more of a challenge, too. Very interesting piece.
What a riveting piece!
When I was growing up I used to wish my mother worked outside so that my sisters and I had time by ourselves without her constant supervision. I don't know what that would have been like. When I was a working mother, I took time off for my son and daughter to reach kindergarden age and then my teaching hours made it possible to be with them when they were at home. It's not always an ideal situation and often one doesn't know until one looks back to the whole story.

I didn't know about Ingrid Bergman's other children or that she preferred being an absentee mom most of the time. Thanks, Wendy.
♥R
Can someone answer me this if anyone drops by, why do we answer to people who touch us with their responses when they'll likely never see the answers. You know? Unless you stay on your blog, I for example never go back to see how a comment I made was responsed to. Right? So I think we should have a new rule: emails to those who say anything and that we want to respond to. Which is what I'm going to do with recent comments. Thanks and I'll be writing those I haven't answered soon. But do you get the prohlem with responding to those long gone????
I go back and look, Wendy. Maybe it's a personal thing. Sometimes I wonder if people even read a post completely before they comment. Just my humble opinion.
Wonderful, layered writing.
Wendy, this melted my heart. It is so good to see a blog of substance and keys to life sewn into its fabric. My favorite?? "One voice says: 'It's good for kids to see their mother fulfilled'. The other voice knows 'Any kid, given a choice, would rather have her mother home, even in bed, even quasi-suicidal, than halfway around the world."' This, my friend, is my cross to bear even now. xoJ
I loved your article!

"Good enough; not good enough. Parenting is full of delicate judgement calls, the results of which won't be tallied for years. We have to know our very own kids, how much absence and distance he or she can handle any given month or year, as we juggle their lives with our needs."

Motherhood is such juggling. Constant questioning: "Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much?"
I think there are thousands of mothers who go from one extreme of emotions, like you describe, to the other. And there we bounce....in between. It's just not many that can put it in such fantastic words as you.
Wendyo- Thank you for your thoughts, comments on being "good enough." I remember long ago, sitting in a creaky wooden rocking chair parked next to a window looking on a bleak Northern winter landscape, breast feeding my younger daughter. In one moment I was so glad to nurture her and in another I yearned to be free. I ended this back and forth argument in my head since she was not my first child but seemingly my last, with the thought that feeding her/holding her close this way was finite, as was her all encompassing need for me. She sits beside me, now age 28, and despite my divorce she's found her way to a relationship with me, about which I am eternally grateful. Life is so precarious that each luscious moment should be savored. That's how I try to live, that I hope my children see and take in for themselves. That and a positive attitude and the will to speak up against atrocities is, I hope, my legacy. We all do what we can to the best of our vision, insight and abilities. And hopefully with love.