Motherhood is no job for saints. Just look at St. Jane de Chantal.
St. Jane lived in 17th century France. She married and bore ten children, at which point she discovered her calling as a nun, and—this was my mom’s favorite part—stepped over the wailing bodies of her children on her way out the door to the convent.
For this the Catholic Church elevated her to sainthood.
I used to think that living in a convent was a fate worse than death. Now that I have children of my own—and have read up about those medieval convents—I kind of get it. There were libraries and herb gardens in convents, servants who cooked and cleaned. Often the nuns were women who, like St. Jane, had left their marriages behind. The convents tended to be conveniently situated near monasteries and this being France there was a fair amount of, shall we say, social intercourse.
Nowadays Jane would be thrown in jail. Just look at the mother who let her children out of the car and drove off without them. She went home and was arrested. She probably just should have headed for a convent.
It’s ironic that in the 21st century, when we have a full range of options and lifestyles open to us, we have reverted back to biblical times in terms of how we view motherhood. Mothers are Mary again. That would be the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ, and the Whore Mary, Mary Magdalene. But this idolization of motherhood has nothing to do with sex (does it ever, except maybe in Europe?), and everything to do with the pursuit of perfectionism.
Good Marys feed their children organic strawberries, worry about their child’s carbon footprint, go to online confessionals and mea culpa for having served their five-year-old juice in his toddler brother’s sippy cup. Seriously—someone wrote about this. Even better, it was published in a book. I will not be buying this book because I don’t want my sons to know that children can develop self-esteem issues around cups and glasses. It would interfere with my quest to get them to wash the dishes.
Anyway, not only do Virgin Marys beat their breasts, they beat up the Mary Magdalenes of the world—that would be anyone whom they think is not a good mother. Troll any parenting or women’s site and I guarantee you will find some variation of this headline: “Mothers We Hate.” These mothers usually include the Octo-Mom, Angelina Jolie, and Sarah Palin. Virgin Marys do not discriminate on the basis of party affiliation or job status—their only target is mothers whom they perceive to be not perfect.
Now these women know that they themselves are not perfect. They blog about the fact endlessly. But they are like reformed sinners—the confession of their imperfection makes them somewhat perfect. All I can say is, it feels a bit like the Spanish Inquisition to me. And not the one with the soft, fluffy pillows, either.
I’m not sure how we got here. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and I know my mother and her friends weren’t that interested in pursuing perfectionism. One of my favorite childhood photos is of the first four (of six) of my siblings eating dinner in the backyard, in the middle of summer. It is a black-and-white photo, but you can see the dirt on us. We look as if we just spent hours crawling around in the yard—especially my sister, who is blissfully eating food off the high-chair tray with her dirty fingers.
My sister ended up writing her doctoral dissertation on nuns.
Another image in my mental scrapbook is of my mother and a group of about five of her friends on the beach. They are sitting in a wide circle in their faded bathing suits, talking, knitting and laughing. There must have been thirty kids among them, but they seemed unconcerned about where we were or what we were doing. If we needed a snack, they pointed to the picnic baskets. If someone was crying further down the sand, they sent an older child to investigate. I remember standing outside that circle and watching them, thinking, it must be pretty fun to be a mom. And for me, it has been and it still is.
To be fair, a lot of these Inquisitors are the mothers of young children. They still think they have total control of their children and who their children will become. Mothers of teenagers know differently—that you can be the most sainted of mothers and still end up raising an axe murderer, or at least someone who returns the car with the gas tank on empty. Because kids aren’t perfect either. They will not always listen to you or foreswear corn fructose syrup or eat a balanced dinner or keep their dirty feet off the sofa.
They’re not saints. But I’m not either. I have more of a Mary Magdalene streak running through me. I forgot to pick up Wally from kindergarten one day and he had to sit in his cubby ’til I got there. I once set my chair up at a little league game and watched for four innings before I realized that none of the kids on the field were my kids. They didn’t know how to read when they entered first grade. I missed their birthdays because I was on business trips and I still can’t remember what their favorite vegetables are and how they like them (but George does).
I’m not a good sinner. I don’t feel badly about myself as a mother because I did these things. My sons survived them as I did. We did other things too—like reading endlessly on the porch on lazy afternoons and building snow forts and going on puddle walks around the block and catching fireflies in jars on summer evenings and once, when there was a full moon on the winter solstice, dancing in the moonlight in the snow.
We no longer read on the porch in the summer, but we sometimes hang out on the porch and smoke a cigar. We no longer chase fireflies but we do watch disgusting movies on the Horror Channel and bad reality shows on VH1 and sometimes we go on long bike rides where they end up leaving me behind in the dust. We enjoy each other’s company. I like the adults they’ve become—they are happy, healthy, funny and relaxed. And I hope that they carry the same philosophy of parenting forward when they have their own families—that saints belong in convents and Mary Magdalene is a lot more fun to have around.