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:
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".
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."
'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.
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.)
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)
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.
"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.
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).
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".