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.
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.