Moms I want to know

I love to read good children’s books. They’re funny, wise, and soothing before bedtime. Lately, as I’ve been working through some of these jewels in my “to-read” stack, I’m focusing on a new character: the mother.

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There are all kinds of mothers featured in children’s books: some are clueless, some evil, some absent. I’m especially interested these days to read about the “good” moms and learn about them from the children’s perspective. Many of my questions go unanswered, but nevertheless, there are some lessons to be learned. Here are a few of the women I’d like to meet if I ever had the chance:

Caroline Ingalls. Last year, I really enjoyed reading through the Little House series for the first time since my elementary school days. Laura has such great stories to tell, but I found myself constantly amazed by Caroline in this read-through. How does she manage to sew clothes, clean house, bake bread, churn butter, milk cows, and wash diapers and nurse a baby? Laura paints a picture of her “Ma” as a thrifty homemaker, keeping her house immaculate, all while raising children that are kind, polite, and hard-working. How did Caroline Ingalls deal with temper tantrums? potty training? sleep struggles? And did the woman ever get a night out?

Susan Sowerby. Whenever I fancy myself living frugally, I think about Dickon’s mom from The Secret Garden. She seems to have raised dozens of cheerful, well-adjusted children on hot biscuits and fresh moor air, while still having enough energy to help a neighbor with her new baby and grow a vegetable garden. I’m sure there are lots of things she didn’t do much of — like write on her blog, for instance — which allowed for more time to churn butter and bake crumpets. But didn’t she also have to wash her laundry by hand? And beat out rugs? And sew clothes for the whole family? So why is it that, to prepare lunch for my family, I must either sit Lucy in front of Cars for 15 minutes or allow Rosie to be squished by her (only slightly) bigger sister? She’d probably say, “That child just needs a bit ‘o’ jumpin’ rope and the sky above ‘er.” And maybe she’s right, but it’s not really okay to send your toddler out into the fresh air alone these days in the city. Maybe if I just got her recipe for scones, I could figure it all out.

Mary Poppins. Now, I know Mary Poppins wasn’t technically a mother, but I have great respect for her parenting techniques (as I have for other nannies I know). We try to employ the “spoonful of sugar” principle whenever we can around here, and we are working on the reverse psychology of the song “Stay Awake.” But what I want to know is, how did Mary handle tiny, colicky infants? Did her patience ever run out? What about toddlers who ask for water 16 times before settling down for their nap? Or older siblings who hit the babies in the family just to get attention? Did she ever shout? And, if she didn’t, could she please teach me how?

Victoria Austin. Vicky Austin’s mom, Victoria, is by far the clearest example of my ideal of motherhood. I remember re-reading L’Engle’s Meet the Austins very early in my pregnancy with Lucy, literally taking notes while thinking through my own impending motherhood. Victoria seems to bring comfort and joy into her home in a variety of real, wholesome ways: loudly playing Handel’s The Cuckoo and the Nightingale while vacuuming, making waffles and cocoa on Saturday mornings, responding to naughty behavior with cool patience, welcoming unexpected guests with hospitality, shepherding all the chaos of her six-person household into simplicity and order. She sings and plays folk songs on her guitar when they are camping, she reads aloud from Charlotte’s Web when they are gathered around in a circle, and she leads her family in singing the Tallis Canon together before meals. But even in all her perfection, she exhibits some true emotional conflicts that keep her out of the untouchable Donna Reed category — anger, grief, even annoyance. I long to read her memoirs from her toddler-mommy days. How did she help older siblings adjust to new babies? Did she lose her cool when food was thrown on the floor? Or what about on those nap-rebellion days? How would she feel about the spanking/no-spanking debate? I’ll just have to work through these questions with my own imagination, listening to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto to try to catch some of Victoria’s superior mothering skills.

Helen Parr. Mrs. Incredible (a.k.a. ElastiGirl) may be a superhero, but in most other ways she is pretty approachable. I don’t feel quite so out of my league with her (superpowers aside). She’s not perfect — she shouts at times, she has to take back things she has said to her kids, and she’s not always a great listener — but she is working it out. You can see her joy in mothering as she spoons food into Jack-Jack’s mouth, and as she has a heart-to-heart talk with Violet about responsibility. The first time I watched the movie, I burst into tears watching her maternal instinct in play as she and her two older kids fell from an exploding plane — stretching out her elasti-arms in an instant, drawing them close to her, and flattening herself into a parachute. That’s pretty much what I always want to do with my girls — let them try different things out, but then to be able to pull them back into safety when they get too close to danger. I suppose I do envy her elasticity (what a useful ability!), but it’s just a gift Helen has. I’d be content simply to be in a mom’s group with her, trying to figure out mothering together.

8 Replies to “Moms I want to know”

  1. yes! My thoughts shifted the same way after having kids, with many of the same books.

    and Susanna Wesley (John and Charles Wesley’s mother) who used to make a quiet spot for herself by throwing her apron over her head and praying. How did she stay sane?

    and if you get a chance, check out the little kids’ book The Seven Silly Eaters. The story isn’t that great (silly with nice rhymes), but the pictures are wonderful – you get to watch the family grow up together, get to watch the mother be the perfect mother sometimes and lose patience other times – I love seeing her look longingly at her cello and sometimes try to practice throughout the book, and the scene where she loses it and everyone’s outside watching her nervously from the windows. ;o)

  2. The big shift for me was in watching “Father of the Bride”. When it came out I was newly married and completely sympathized with the “kids” who were getting married. I watched it again about 10 years latter and I was all Steve Martin asking for the “cheaper chicken”.

    It’s funny how our perspectives change.

    Brad

  3. I LOVE this post. Books ( and movies) are such wonderful vehicles for helping us find ourselves in all the noise and confusion of our real lives. Getting immersed in a book for a while shuts things out and allows one time to process issues circling in our own subconscious. The trick is to not allow the artifice of the book to make us feel guilty! The real Mary Poppins probably hated babies and I’ve heard some folks critique Ma Ingalls as an enabler who repeatedly shouldered the weight of Pa’s irresponsible and capricious business moves.

    But I always love the moms like her who make a house a home with food and traditions and curtains and China figurines. L’Engle goes too far for my taste when those super-homemakers also find time to discover ground-breaking physics theorems while making hot chocolate on the Bunsen burner.

  4. Don’t forget Little Women, the ever patient Marmee (sp) and then Little Men and Jo’s Boys when Jo learns some of the same parenting lessons. Those always make me feel so behind!

  5. I love this post. I too have be watching out for the different moms. I have come to the conclusion that with the speed of our time (computers, need for two working parents, lack of community involvement in the raising of all children…) it is unrealistic to do it completely like they did. I am a little embaressed to say that I really admire the dugger family (they have 18 kids in todays’ society) and something I have seen with them is that they really reduce TV, Video games and the such and are very involved with the kids. But lets face it we can’t all be stay at home moms/dads and $$$ make it. So just how do we do it? When you figure it out let me know. Also let me know how to tame the “shouting” or temper…man when I am tired, this is hard and who isn’t tired when they have two little ones?

    Thanks Ann for your thoughts (by the way you must be the world’s fastest reader, it takes me months to read one book!)

  6. What beautiful writing, Ann. I certainly agree with Mom when she said that she hopes you will pursue this and write an article developing this theme. It would appear that there is an endless supply of ‘Moms’ and that works in your favor. Good heavens, I’ll even suggest Ivan Doig’s trilogy about the family growing up on the east side of the Rockies in Montana. True adventure, but it was (almost) always Mom who held everything together. Thanks so much for your thoughtful approach to parenting. I am so grateful that you are now my daughter. Love to you all….

  7. What a beautiful post Ann! I have often not thought about the mothers in books. But there have been a few that have inspired me.

    The Mother rabbit in the picture book the country bunny and the little golden shoes. I like the way she takes stock of her life in the present and uses it to make plans for her future. I hope that I can train my children half as well as she did hers.

    And then there is Mrs. Weasley (from the Harry Potter books)…..perhaps it is the red hair, or the fact that she is a mom of twin boys….or has a large family…or is an avid knitter(which is a new passion of mine)….or perhaps it is that she is not perfect….she is scatterbrained….but she love her kids and takes Harry under her wing not worrying about her already full house. She does mom thing like make cookies and sweaters. She is wacky and believable.

    I am looking forward to a new perspective as I look at mothers in the books that I read. And I pray that I am never like Mrs. Bennet.

    Blessings on your mothering journey, my friend.

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