Why are you acting like this ???

As mothers, we know our children so well we can read their small disappointments and their pleasure with a single glance. When apart from them, we may see a photograph, a small toy, a book, and think, “oh, she would just love that!” Yes, we think we know them. Yet, there are times when we are so very, very wrong. Like when a 2nd grader lays his head on the table and weeps inconsolably because his pre-school drawing of a turtle cannot be found. Or when normally docile children cannot stop themselves from throwing crayons while waiting on their dinner at a restaurant.  Or when a child just won’t quit whining. In these moments of crisis, many a modern mother could find herself astonished, thinking, or even saying, Why are you acting like this?!” Or, “Why are you doing that?!” Hungry, tired, wanting attention are obvious answers, though the more basic reason is because he’s 2, or 5, or just not an adult yet. A third, more philosophical answer, would be that children are individuals, each with his own quirks and inner life, which we may never truly know. Or, to quote C.S. Lewis,"what can you ever really know of other people's souls - of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles?" Whatever the reason for her child's actions, the well mannered mother can rest assured that science may eventually succeed in reversing the aging process, but it may never unlock the mystery of why sometimes not getting “the red one” can lead to a sustained tantrum.

Vacation, all I ever wanted?

For many mothers, summer “vacation” is no holiday. Never is this more true than when she decides to take a trip (yes, a “vacation”), say, for example, to a beach house filled with her own extended family. She is lucky to be there, lucky to have access, lucky to spend time at a scenic waterfront spot. Lucky indeed. So, how can it feel like such drudgery? Is it the endless cycle of changing into swimsuits, applying sunscreen, preparing snacks, dragging chairs, buckets, bags across the sand, supplying drinks of water, supplying clean towels, wiping sand out of eyes, and then cleaning everyone and everything up only to do it all again the next day? Is it the difficulty (exacerbated by the new setting) of keeping track of all the swimsuits, coloring books, hats, sunglasses, and favorite stuffed animals? Is it the exhaustion of letting the kids stay up later than normal, only to have them wake with the sun, ready for another busy day of vacation? Whatever it is, it can leave a modern mother feeling fatigued and, well, in need of a vacation from her vacation. But of course there is no time off from motherhood. Perhaps the modern mother can take solace in the fact that she is not alone, and the U.S. has recently been called “No Vacation Nation” for the paltry vacation time Americans typically receive and take from their paid jobs. Better consolation might be found by curling up with her digital camera after everyone is in bed, and flipping through the photos of the day: frolicking in the surf, sandcastles, learning to body surf. Her children’s happiness in the photos should help put the schlepping in perspective. These luminous and gritty days at the beach are quintessential childhood summer memories.  The modern mother can cling to their brightness and shake off the fatigue as she shakes the sand out of her beach bag.

Am I Your Mother?

In addition to the many wonderful things about being a new mother there are also a few challenges even for the most well mannered of modern mothers.  One of those challenges can be, for some mothers, redefining her place in the world.  Instead of fabulous girl about town, elegant bride about town or poised and still trendy pregnant lady about town she has now become mother with screaming child about town in some exhausted state of her former self. 

So when the new mother manages to get herself and her recent offspring up and out to a doctor's appointment or any other remotely public setting, the VERY LAST THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD that she needs is for a grown man to call her "Mom."  She may be pushing a stroller.  She may not have showered that day.  She may have one or more small children attached to her body.  She isn't his mother!  She is a once and future stylish, put-together and, dare we suggest, sexy lady.   And the very last thing she wants to hear from her pediatrician, barista or husband is "Here you go, Mom!"


 Have you noticed how this word has crept into the modern mother's vernacular in the past few years?    "I'll pick Winifred up at 3pm. "  "Perfect!" texts your friend on the other end.  At the grocery store you catch yourself  in response to "May I help you out with your bags?" saying "Perfect!" when what you really mean is 'Thank you, that would be very helpful.'   In the doctor's office "Here are the forms you asked me to fill out in triplicate."  "Perfect" says the perky receptionist.  While these things are helpful or necessary or mundane they are far from "entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings."  So, what goes on here?

Is it, perhaps, the quest for perfection in all things that has driven the misuse of this word?  Surely every modern mother knows a few people in search of total perfection or some variation thereon.  The perfect house jumps easily to mind.  This abode is flawless inside and out with absolutely no sign that a family of 6 actually inhabits the place full-time.  The perfect body is being sought in cities and towns across America as never before.  Modern mothers spend hours working out or instead choose the surgical alteration option.  The other perfection your gentle authoress notices being sought by many a modern mother is the perfect childhood for her offspring.  It is as if these mothers have forgotten that childhood is bumpy and anything but perfect.  If they haven't forgotten, these mothers want to somehow smooth it over and repackage it like a snapshot in a glossy magazine rather than the real, messy, and at times solution-less process it really is. 

So when presented with someone elses' idea of perfect  what's a well mannered modern mother to do?  In most instances a little oohing and aahing should do the trick.  "My goodness are those cabinets Wolf Range Knob Red? How did you ever get such a perfect match...?" and so on.  For the more disquieting examples some gentle tongue biting might be in order.  Far be it from us to delve into the psyche of any modern mother, but is it possible that this quest for perfection may be an attempt to compensate for something? 

The International Order of Sympathetic Parents

A modern mother may one day find herself in need of a few PVC fitting to make a small household repair. Though she considers herself competent in many areas, this particular task, involving plumbing fixtures and possibly some special glue, falls decidedly outside her core competencies. After striking out at the local hardware store, she sighs and resigns herself to the no man's land of a cavernous big-box retailer. She'll have to figure it out for herself, and with a toddler in tow.

And so, she finds herself, standing in front of a seemingly endless wall of elbow joints and minimizers in every possible size, with her toddler screaming and kicking in frustration that she won’t let him scale the wall of pipes nearby. She shuts out the wailing and hurriedly picks PVC pieces, trying to fit them together and make a match to the broken fixture. Nothing fits; nothing matches; child continues screaming. Like a mirage, a salesperson materializes, “What are you looking for? I heard the crying baby and figured you must need help.” She extends her arm, her hand cradling fragments of a fixture. He takes a look, plucks a fitting from the many, many bins, says “be back in a sec," returns with another piece, puts the two together and voila, a match. “I’ve got three of those screamers at home myself. I know how it is,” he says. And there it is – an invocation of the international order of sympathetic parents.

For all the times a crying child in a public place garners withering looks of annoyance and disgust, we hope our well-mannered readers encounter a kind and understanding fellow parent, grandparent, or other adult. When a parent recognizes, remembers and comes to the aid of another, temporarily struggling, parent, he joins the order of sympathetic parents, a lifetime membership. So, thank you to Jay at the Home Depot. And, thank you to the many mothers and fathers (and others) who hold the door for mothers carrying small children, help carry strollers up and down stairs, and stop parents on airplanes and in restaurants to compliment them on the behavior of their (mostly) well mannered children. Thank you all for your magnanimous civility.

I'm not here to make friends!

The early years of motherhood can be lonely for a mother who stays at home, and she may find herself frequenting parks, toddler music classes, and the public library, partly for the benefit of her child, partly to meet some like-minded mothers and probably mostly just to get out of the house. Like a young, single man going for a “run” with a puppy, this mother is ready and available for conversation. (Understandably so.) Unlucky for her, then, when she runs into another variety of mother, a mother of many children and/or older children. Out for a jaunt with one baby or toddler, this mother may be enjoying time with her youngest, who can not yet ask questions like “so, how exactly does the baby get out of the mommy’s belly?” (“Birth canal,” of course.)

When the new-ish mother sidles up to chat about diaper bags and preschool, the more experienced mother may be thinking, “oh please, please, don’t make me engage in small talk! This is boring enough already.” Whereas, she once would have welcomed the interaction of an informal mother’s group, now, she just wants to watch her child play/dance/explore and possibly sneak in a little time with her Blackberry. So what is the well mannered mother to do about this? Clearly, acting like a reality TV contestant and declaring "I'm not here to make friends!" is out. Packing up and heading home is also not likely an option. Instead, she could politely indicate a disinterest in conversation by keeping her answers short and questions few. She could casually mention the older children. Or, she could remember her own boredom and loneliness as a new mother, smile, and chat. In no time at all, she may find herself enjoying a casual conversation with her husband's college roommate's sister's friend, with a former buyer for Bergdorf's, or some one who used to clerk for a supreme court justice. She may even find the whole experience a bit interesting, fun, or informative. And, all while watching the her child giggle and clap his chubby hands or scale a playground ladder for the first time.

The Organized Mother

There she is at school drop off -  blackberry in hand - busily tapping away.  She is focused, intense and from the serious look on her face, about to cap off the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico or bring long-lasting peace to the Middle East.  Almost.  That particular morning she was putting out a fire of another sort.  Somehow, despite having taken all conceivable measures to avoid this sort of disaster, tomorrow's acupuncture session overlapps with her tennis lesson by 40 minutes.  How could this have happened? How did she drop the ball like that?  What else has she 'screwed up'? 

Alas, the well mannered modern mother knows better than to laugh at this or point out the champagne nature of this problem.  For the mother suffering at the moment is her "Organized Friend."  Most every modern mother has one.  The friend who holds it all together via precise, meticulous organization of every facet of family life.  At the center of it all is the schedule.  Kept on the family computer, the master calender is easily edited by her wireless device and her husband's secretary.  The day's agenda is printed early every morning and posted in the kitchen and mud room.  Each family member has his own color on the calendar which corresponds to his laundry basket, back pack, toy bin in basement, the tape on his hockey stick and the tabs on her files about him in her desk.  Lessons, tryouts, travel, medical appointments, the next time she can wear that dress to an event, hopes, dreams and aspirations are all in that calendar.

Knowing this about her friend, the well mannered mother offers a few kind words and heads off on her day happy that she doesn't even know what she might be forgetting at that very moment. 

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