My mother in 1957, England.
...very good mother? Not always and not in all respects, not in retrospect perhaps. There was also in her something a little mad, a little over demanding. She broke with close friends at the mere thought of one or other's thoughtlessness. She did try to be involved in, and if possible, control every aspect of our lives. She was manic in this regard. She had lost so much in life already that she was, I think, terrified of losing us. At two I suffered appendicitis. The doctor was called but was too busy having lunch so appendicitis turned into peretonitis (sad to say this experience of the medical profession has been repeated in various forms unto the present day). I was whisked off to hospital and, close to death, was operated on. My mother refused to move from my bedside until I was better. The hospital couldn't throw her out.
She would have killed or died for us, I suspect. She did, after all, say so herself. She liked to make us feel in debt. Guilt was her weapon of desperation. Much more could be said about this, running beyond the usual joke Jewish-mother syndrome, but I won't fill up space with it here. The point is we knew she meant well in doing so. She was a complex human being, as are all human beings, only more so. She was neither cook nor Virgin Mary - as if that was all the choice to be had! The terms never entered our heads.
In any case, I myself had no idea what else was possible. How could I? The Jesuits famously said that given the first seven years of a child's life they could form the man. John Bowlby, the Steinerians and others believe something similar. Whether they are right or not I don't know - nor does anybody else - but clearly the first seven years are important. In the traditional family structure most of that time would be spent with the mother, unless of course the parents were wealthy enough to employ someone else. Apart from the first couple of years in state crêches my chief memories are of her. I knew that mothers were often the last people called on by dying soldiers. I knew that to call someone's mother anything bad was the worst thing you could do, worse than hitting a girl, which was the second worst thing.
Perhaps that was the pedestal. Perhaps there should have been no such taboo, but there was only one person who could pass this taboo on, and that was her. We are, often, to a considerable degree, what our mothers make us. It's tough having that responsibility if you are a mother, but I am not sure how you would rid yourself of it, unless you decided to downgrade your contact with your children altogether. Some mothers do. You might well decide to do so. It isn't something on which I, as a man, have any right to a hard opinion. It may be that the period of pregnancy and the first period of contact with the new born child mean little later. Fine. Let the mother decide.
To put it briefly I have no clear idea what a good mother might be. Children take whatever is on offer, however complex, and my sense of life is that it is very complex indeed.
I wrote the post on fathers because, at Christmas with my children, and now ,grandchild, I couldn't help but consider the subject. In considering it I found no positive images of fatherhood in the public domain. Not one. None. There is a group called Families Need Fathers that would demonstrate by dressing up in Superman costumes and climbing high public buildings. They were generally derided and got a very poor press, from which I concluded that there was a fair body of opinion and opinion makers who felt that families did not need fathers. And if that was the case, where did that leave me?
The group still exists.
I imagine part of the problem for them was that their protests distracted from the problems of mothers. Women just wanted to say: Shut up and go away. We're not finished yet. This is about us.
And so you will find in the comments to my first post. This is not about you, it is about us, say a couple of comments.
I am not sure how I would choose between the traps of competence on a pedestal, and incompetence in the doghouse. I don't in fact think that - given the complexity of life and human beings - that is the choice. Binary choices are, in 99% of cases, wrong. Maybe it depends on which society you keep. Maybe if your society offers you only a binary you should find another society. There are very many societies within any society. Of the binary forms however only one - incompetent clown - seems to be publicly available for fathers, and I registered as much.
OK, I'm in the doghouse. It's just that this is my doghouse.
The poem on this or related matters? Various in Reel. This is how it seemed to me, looking back.
You know the feeling but can’t put a name to it.
All beginnings are the same and all are forgotten.
Forgetting is what you’ve done. You can’t undo it
Now or ever. It is the cast you put on
Inside you. You have wandered about her body
All your life, are aware of it as the hidden pattern
You follow. It is as if your life were a parody
Of something she once told you. You taste her skin
First thing in the morning. It is a heady
Delicate babyish smell you must have breathed in
At the outset, when you started forgetting.
Her hands. The bird hovering. Later, a thin
Wrinkled integument with the sun setting
Inside it. Time slips away like the toboggan
Your father once pulled for you. You were sitting
With your brother, clutching him, hanging on
To his arm, everything around you white
And blurred, the sky, the trees, everything gone
Or going, slipping dangerously towards night
Where life too is slippery and you must cling
To the moon or whatever is solid. You’re right
To forget this, to remember absolutely nothing.