Being a teacher and spending my days with young children has taught me to embrace living in an imperfect world. The lives of children are often messy and complicated, but that messiness is usually short-lived and turns into joy and exuberance more quickly than we adults anticipate. I am always amazed watching children make mistakes as they are learning or as they are navigating the social world of the playground because I am also witnessing them build resilience and their inner strength, which I know they will carry into their adult lives. Watching them build their resiliency or come to accept when their ideas don’t work out as planned makes me remember it’s okay to exist in a place that isn’t always neat and tidy, where it’s okay to fail because we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.
We love the way that Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, can create a biographical moment in one image, sometimes with as little as one sentence. HONY began as a catalogue of the people of New York. It became an internet success (nearly 10 million followers) and now Brandon is travelling the world with the UN, telling stories from developing nations and nations in conflict.
Inspired by HONY and its piercing brevity, we wanted to pay tribute to some of the teachers in our kids’ lives and ask them about their work.
Stay tuned as 4Mothers1Blog puts the spotlight on teachers for our back to school theme week.
Please head over to Toronto Mom Now and check out the other nominees. Lots of great reading out there!
We love what we do, and we are so grateful that one of you nominated us for this award. (We’d love to thank you in person if you’d like to send us an email!)
Please check out the blogs on the list, and vote for your favourite three. Voting closes on Monday, July 14.
I hosted a Mad Mums’ Martini afternoon for some other half-day Kindergarten kids and mums. This is the aftermath:
Note that the jello salad is almost all there, the spam is untouched and the vodka … well, not untouched.
One of us wore pearls and heels. One of us wore a twin set. One of us wore one of 200 dresses in her closet from the fifties.
All of us had fun.
Because sometimes in this crazy journey we call motherhood, we have to make a detour for the carnival.
Oh, the glories of book shops! Where you can go along of a summer evening and listen to a group of interesting and funny women talk about books, and mothers in kids’ books to boot.
Kerry Clare and some of the other contributors to The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood gathered at Parentbooks on Harbord Street to discuss the representation of mothers in children’s books. They brought books and food and insights and laughter to share and it was a wonderfully intimate discussion about finding or not finding mothers on the pages of our kids’ books.
Kerry began by telling us that one inspiration for the topic was a blog post by Liz Harmer about how, at one point in her parenting life, the picture books she was reading to her children were more helpful to her as a struggling mother than parenting books:
in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.
At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become.
And so, we began to talk about mothers and parenting and how they unfold on the pages of children’s books. What do we find there and how does it speak to or about us?
Heather Birrell read from her own childhood copy of Pippi Longstocking and talked about how, while her own daughter is rather indifferent to the book, as a writer and a mother, she loves the fact that Pippi is motherless. She is successfully independent as an orphan of nine, and a lot more likeable than the kids up the street with intact families . The absent mother in kids books, a remarkably frequent thing, allows kids independence, freedom from rules and from cloying love or authority. Pippi’s mother, so Pippi imagines, watches her from her perch in the sky through a little hole in the clouds, and Pippi is always able to assure her that she is doing perfectly well. As a writer herself, Birrell said she is always killing off mothers in her short stories. It’s just so much more convenient to the engine of the plot and character development to have them out of the way.
We agreed that it was wonderful to find yourself, as a mother, celebrating books that did away with mothers so that kids can bloom, because isn’t that what we want for our kids, after all?
Amy Lavender Harris talked about how grandmothers often fill the maternal role in the Eastern European tradition, and she read from Rosie’s Dream Cape by Zelda Freeman to illustrate the multiple roles that the grandmother fulfills; she is the figure of authority, conscience, forgiveness, generosity and connection to the old world and to the missing mother.
Heidi Reimer read from one of Sarah Garland’s Eddie books, Eddie’s Kitchen, and made the wondenderful observation that the illustrations enable a kind of covert and underground conversation, mother-to-mother. The illustrations are wonderfully lush, and the house is packed and cluttered. The mother in these books exemplifies grace in the chaos of family life, though the illustrator is also careful to portray her outside of her role as mother. At one point, she is huddled on the stairs, alone, speaking on the phone to a friend who is having a rough day.
Patricia Storms chose Tomi Ungerer’s No Kiss for Mother from which to read and reveled in the illustrations that would never pass muster today: a depiction of kids smoking stolen cigars and parents punishing their kids (with canes no less!). Originally published in the 1970s, the book has been reissued by Phaidon, and perhaps the fact that the family in the book is a family of anthropomorphic cats makes it possible to publish it again today. She admired that the conclusion of the book does actually provide a conclusion to the tension between an adoring mother and a son who does not like to be coddled and kissed. They compromise; each gives ground. The ground has shifted for both of them by story’s end, and the rebellious child is not simply drawn back into the normative family fold. That family has had to change, just a bit, to accommodate him.
Kerry finished off the night with a discussion of one of Shirley Hughes’s Alfie books, Alfie Gets in First. Kerry remarked on how wonderful it was to read about another mother struggling with the mind-numbingly boring but immensely difficult negotiations of motherhood: how to get the stroller through the door and up the stairs, ditto with baby. Predictably, Alfie gets into the house before mother and stroller and baby and locks himself in and them out. Panic ensues. Kerry was grateful for the feeling of solidarity she felt with the mother in the illustrations and how she felt a lot less alone reading those books to her children. Again, the illustrations are lush and chaotic and depict the clutter and detritus of the busy family home.
Kerry finished up with a reading of Stephany Aulenback’s lovely If I Wrote a Book About You and talked about how motherhood enables creativity and productivity and how finding solutions to the stupid problem of the stroller on the sidewalk and through the narrow door could be worthwhile in and of itself as well as leading to all manner of other kinds of creativity.
There’s something I’ve noticed about the way I occasionally think about and judge myself as a parent. I love structure and order and discipline, and for the most part, I stand by the parenting decisions that fall under that category of order and predictability. Sometimes, though, sometimes the further outside of my comfort zone I stray, the more unlike my usual self I am, the more I feel that I deserve some kind of a parenting gold star. It’s as if by not being myself, I am being a better self. The hard work of keeping life on schedule and enforcing rules of civility actually feels pretty effortless to me. It’s allowing the rules and the schedule to relax that feels like hard work. To be honest, sometimes fun feels like hard work, and that’s when I most doubt the parenting path I have chosen.
I let the kids splash in rain puddles, I give myself a pat on the back for not freaking out about the mess (while secretly freaking out about the mess).
I say “yes” to letting the kids dog-sit, professing a kind of generosity of spirit while feeling anything but generous.
I let them stay up late to watch the hockey game, and for most of every minute past bedtime, I’m on edge, but I congratulate myself for being able to let fandom prevail over clock-watching.
More troubling, I herd my children home from the park for bath and bed and watch other parents letting their little ones stay up later and get dirtier than my kids (ie. letting them have more fun) and I wonder if they are doing it better. Do those Other Mothers have more gold stars? Are the mothers who say “no” less often better in some essential, incontrovertible way?
Fruitless feeding of the mommy guilt machine. It’s the dark side of empathy: moving so much outside of yourself that you begin to question that self and all it holds dear.
The really refreshing thing about reading many of the essays in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, was that I could really immerse myself in other ways, in others’ ways of being and simply enjoy that otherness without thinking, “I have to be more like that.” It was glorious to look into that kaleidoscope and feel as much myself as ever; it was wonderful to look at difference without feeling the need to be different.
Carrie Snyder’s wonderful essay about reveling in being a mother of four did not make me feel like I had to have a fourth in order to keep up. I simply enjoyed her telling of her tale of motherhood.
Heidi Reimer’s essay about adopting her infant niece made my heart fill with joy that there are such generous and daring people in the world, people who can let love into their lives, and make it multiply, in spite of the enormous emotional risk.
But I was most affected by the essays by women who are not mothers, by choice. It’s dangerous territory, walking with the happily child-free. It’s not like I, a mother of three, could ever go there. Would they make it sound too appealing? Would their profession of their child-free bliss, their certainty, open some part of me to gnawing jealousy or doubt? Would my hard-earned share of parental satisfaction be diminished by opening myself to their stories?
Not in the least. As certain as they are about being childless, I am certain that motherhood, and the way I am practicing it, is exactly the right choice for me. It was the best kind of exercise in empathy. It was a chance to have a privileged perspective on another way of being without feeling in the least bit diminished by it. On the contrary, I felt enlarged by reading these essays, I felt certain about my own choices without the least trace of smugness or self-righteousness.
Sometimes what defines us is what we are not. Sometimes that’s a tricky thing to negotiate. In this collection of essays about motherhood, in all its manifestations, nothing felt tricky. None of the stories about what I am not made me think less of myself. Some of the essays were difficult to read because they tackled difficult topics, but they did what good art does: it moves you, it purifies and purges the emotions and offers renewal and restoration.
Our guest post this week is written by Farah Allen, the founder of Mellowed Mums in Burlington, Ontario.
This is the story of how and why she founded her mother’s group.
What is it about this day and age, where we are most connected with our phones, ipads, social media groups and twitter, that we feel so disconnected? Where is our sense of community? Who is our community?
These were the questions I was asking myself everyday when we packed up our family of 6 and moved from Toronto to… the burbs. My community has always been my working colleagues, my friends and family. But as a mom on maternity leave and living in a new city, who is my community now?
My kids are too young to be in school where you meet other parents that you connect with, my friends are in Toronto are going for walks in the Beach or having coffee on College St., and my hubby is working. So where does that leave me? Isolated? Trapped?
Too often I have spoken with other moms and they tell a sad story of how lonely and frustrating their year of maternity leave really was, and even more so after their second child is born. Having a new baby and a toddler is really hard. Trying to get out of the house can be an epic battle some days and more often than not it just doesn’t feel worth the effort. It is sooo much easier to just stay home. But as days of staying home turn into weeks and then (gasp) a month…you start to lose a part of yourself. For me it was my mind! I wasn’t the same person. I wasn’t fulfilled. If I can be honest, I wasn’t happy.
What was I missing? What was I craving?
The time had come to make friends and build the community I wanted for myself and my family. Making friends sounds so grade school, something you did on the playground as a child and not something you do as an adult, not as a mother of 4. Or was it? I have always worked and had an active social life, but now being at home with a couple of toddlers and newborn twins while learning how to live in a new city it was time to brush off these “making friends” skills and put them to work.
I started a meetup group called Mellowed Mums using the meet up web tool. The intro I wrote in the about us section reads like this:
Like many of the finer things in life… we mellow with age.
The same goes for motherhood. Whether you have 1,2,3 or more children in your life, your mummy style changes with every child, adapting to their different needs and personalities. This is a group for moms who have multiple kids with multiple interests. Or one kid with multiple interests…
I have had one too many playdates for my 8 month old, only to have my 3 year old bored to tears (and then I`m in tears). Let`s get together to find local activities that appeal to the varied ages of our kids. Burlington is an awesome city with family focused events that we can enjoy together that are fun and economical. Or if you need a night or afternoon away from your kids – we can do that too!
I am still surprised at the response. In under 6 months we are now 128 Mellowed Mums strong and growing every week with over 130 meetups under our belt. We do all kinds of things: taking trips with the family to the local farmers’ markets, exploring our local parks, going for walks, going for drinks (without the kids of course), organizing book clubs, wine clubs, attending kite festivals, Canada day parties, pajama and movie days, St Patrick day crafts at someone’s home… and the list goes on and on.
The response to my group tells me I am not alone, there are hundreds of other moms out there searching to fill a void, to find their community, to make friends.
I can honestly say that those lonely days are long gone… I continue to build my community, explore my new city with new friends and along the way I am finding pieces of myself around every corner. So for any of you out there… moms or dads… who are feeling isolated and don’t know how you are going to stand another day stuck…check to see if there is a meet up group in your community… or start your own – I think you’ll love it!
This week at 4Mothers we are participating in a blog hop about why and how we write. We were invited to participate by Kristina Cerise at Defining Motherhood, whose blog is one of my all-time favourites. I love the combination of the polished and provisional in her posts: she begins with just a word, and it’s a word that could take her anywhere, and I’m always curious to see where her essay will go.
I feel like I have a bit of a split personality in answering these questions. I do two kinds of writing: this blog, which is fun and effortless, and essays, which take a lot more out of me and are, therefore, often left to languish.
I write essays about motherhood because reading essays about motherhood saved my sanity. For two years after having my second son, I was unable to read for pleasure. I was still teaching university English, and at the end of the day, I was just too tired. It felt like grief. Then I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, and it was so filled with exactly the right phrases for so much of my joy and trouble as a new mother. I wanted to make sense of that joy and trouble with my own words. I get enormous and indescribable joy from reading. Writing is … less joyful. What I’m aiming for is the sense of satisfaction of having worked something out. I’d like one day to achieve the sense that what I write is as important to me as what others write. I’d still much rather read than write, not having reached the point of believing that what I can write could make a reader as happy as I’ve been made by others’ words on the page.
I write a blog about being a mother because I love the community it makes. I love the women I write with, and I love that it’s introduced me to so many other women to admire. I learn a lot from this community.
How is my writing different from others in my genre?
What am I working on/writing?
In addition to this blog, I’m also working on a collection of essays about how becoming a mother brings us back to childhood, in good and bad ways.
How does my writing process work?
When I’m writing an essay, I begin with just the kernel of an idea, an image or a phrase. This was true of my university papers, of my doctoral thesis and of the essays I write now. The main idea is always the last thing to appear. It’s counter-intuitive, but my thesis is always the last thing I write. (This is not advice I would ever give to my students.) When the paper comes together in the final stages, it feels like magic, and I have to make myself believe that the magic will work every time I set out to do it. I begin with an enormous amount of procrastination and doubt and work towards faith and a final product.
It was not long ago (last week, actually) that I thought that I just could not face the unmet needs of another living creature. Then my three little living creatures went away without me for a while, and the space that opened in my day and in my mind began to welcome the idea of a dog.
(I would much, much rather have a cat. I like their independence, their aloofness. I like that they don’t need picking up after. But we have allergies in this house that will not permit feline company.)
For so long I felt swamped by the needs of my children, but I have begun to look up and look about me. I can do more. I can take on more. I don’t feel in constant need of rescue, and, in fact, I feel perfectly able to help others. A tip of balance has taken place, putting me up above the morass of maternal obligation, giving me a wider view. I could welcome a dog. I could do it.
And then a little voice inside me says, “It’s a trap! The kids are nearly all at school full time. This is your time. Do not take on the burden of another young thing.”
When does the balance tip between feeling burdened by the dependence of a loved one and so enriched by it that you forget the obligation?
We are close, very close, but it will not happen soon. My eldest son, 12, just returned from a winter camping and dog sledding trip and is all enamoured of dogs. He came upstairs the other night, after dinner and hockey practice and showering and doing homework, with a speech ready to persuade us of his ability to take care of a dog and of all the merits of having a family pet.
“Hold on,” I said. “Before you begin this speech in earnest, have you taken out the garbage?”
“And have you, by any chance, emptied the dishwasher?”
“Good point. I will be right back.”
I believe his speech will take some fine tuning. I did not say, “no.” Instead, we gave him a research project to find out the best options for breeds, adoption, etc.
In the mean time, my husband and I bring up the topic occasionally, and weigh the pros and cons. Looking, looking for that balance, that moment when things will tip us into the realm of canine love and dependence.
Carrie Snyder, at Obscure Canlit Mama, has a tradition of choosing a word of the year at the beginning of each year. It is a word that serves as a theme, or an inspiration, a goal or a summation. Last year’s word, for example, was “stretch,” and here is what she had to say about it in retrospect:
Every word that occurs to me seems to whisper its shadow, its opposite, which I do find sometimes happens with words of the year — one ends up exploring the dark side of, say, stretch, my word for the past year. At times I cursed the choice, feeling stretched way beyond comfort (twisted ankle, head injury) or stretched too thin. But then I reminded myself to stretch, literally, and that felt good. And I did stretch, grabbing onto goals that once seemed out of reach. I wonder how that’s changed me. That’s what I’ve been wondering about most as I think about a new word: how have I changed, and how do I want to change? What do I fear and why? What do I want to give and why? What do I hope to accomplish and why? (The “and why” seems as important as the “what,” even if the answer is very simple, like it was with last year’s word. In order to keep running long distances, I need to stretch, I reasoned. Seemed practical at the time. Still does, I suppose.)
I have found myself thinking about this tradition of hers and her meditation on it quite a bit in these new weeks of the new year.
I love words, and to choose one, just one, seems impossible at best. But there is something about the exercise that I can’t resist, and I keep circling back to the word “citizen.” Of my many and diverse goals, one thing that I want for myself and for my children is for us all to be good citizens.
The idea really came home to me while I was kicking myself for letting the winter get so far on without us all having had our flu shots. I am not avoiding it, or dreading it, nor do I think it’s not necessary. I just haven’t made the time for us all to go and get our shots. And while I was berating myself for this neglect, and telling myself how good I will feel once it is off of my to do list, I realized that what makes me feel so good about getting flu shots is that it makes me feel like a good citizen. I am protecting not just myself and my family, but contributing to community health. Every year, I get a sense of satisfaction not just from having crossed it off the list of things to do, not just from having eliminated a task, but more from having contributed to something.
My definition of citizenship, then, means mostly that we think beyond ourselves and our own needs and think about the bigger picture. It means finding out how we as individuals can maximize our positive impact on our community. It means finding strength by thinking of others.
So “citizen” will be my word of the year this year, and it will be my goal to push out and beyond myself into something bigger.