Motivated for Motherhood
"I can't wait 'til I'm a mom," said my 8-year-old daughter, Marie, one evening many years ago. Any assigned task would bring out her philosophical side, and she and her 4-year-old sister, Sally, were making a career out of clearing the dinner table, one fork at a time. My wife, Betsy, had taken the baby into the living room to watch Jeopardy, Betsy's favorite TV show.
"Why so eager for kids?" I asked Marie.
"So I can answer their questions," she said, "but not dumb questions like Sally's." (The day before, she'd heard Sally ask me whether feathers contain "flat meat.")
"Sally asks good questions," I said loyally.
Sally was ignoring us, making a big show of lugging a 1-ton container of milk toward the refrigerator, her impression of a Hebrew slave building the pyramids. The bowed back and shuffling steps were theatrical ploys, not signs of a humble spirit.
Milk stowed away, Sally asked, "Daddy, can I have a cookie?"
"Ask Mommy. She's in charge of that," I said.
Sally also wants to be a mother. But for her, it's all about power. She zeroes in on power like a babysitter closing in on your last pint of Ben & Jerry's. "What are you in charge of?" she asked.
Actually, I'm in charge of lots of things. Well, two anyway — the family finances and opening tight jar lids. But I retorted, "I'm in charge of you." An impotent lie, transparent to anyone. Sally imagines that her mother wields awesome power and pictures herself on the throne of a similar empire someday.
Although Betsy does reign over Sally, only Sally sees that as a glamorous job. Here's an oil painting of the queen lounging in her salon one Tuesday evening:
Marie is demonstrating to her mother how to write the entire alphabet in cursive, drawing each letter in the air. Betsy, trying to watch Jeopardy, is underwhelmed by Marie's relentless exhibition of aerial penmanship. Besides, she has her lap full of our 1-year-old, who is thrusting her face into Betsy's face, babbling insistently in Martian.
"...And this is how I do an F," Marie says, as if she has an audience. "Oh! I messed up," she says, wiping the air with her other hand, impressive as a talking mime.
Sally, who has recently been hollered at for knocking over the baby, sulks behind the couch, emerging every two minutes to remind Betsy, "I'm still not talking to you!"
Because I was at work while all this was going on, I had to reconstruct it from my wife's testimony and a couple of indignant phoned-in bulletins from Sally. On weekday evenings when I was home, I would keep the bigger kids away from Betsy for a half-hour so she could enjoy the quiz show and shout her answers at the TV set. While doing the dishes, we'd hear their mother's intellect running rampant in the next room. "The Grapes of Wrath!" she'd yell. Or: "Mussolini!"
Like Marie, Betsy thinks it's fun to answer children's questions, but each evening for half an hour, just for a change of pace, she wants the questions to be asked by Alex Trebek. During a commercial, it was my turn to ask Betsy a question: "Why did you want to be a mother?"
"I thought it'd be fun," she said.
That's like getting into a tiger's cage because you like stripes. You need a more compelling reason for such a big commitment.
I'm reminded of Biology 101 and its theme that all living things — germs, oaks, manatees — are here primarily to reproduce. All an amoeba wants to do is get big, then split in two. Bing! Biological imperative satisfied! For humans, though, the development of viable offspring takes decades and requires the expenditure of huge amounts of effort, emotion and money to produce someone who may or may not remember to text you on Mother's Day.
Biology causes parents to have babies when their reasons wouldn't even support getting a hamster. But once the children arrive, something wonderful happens — their own little selves become reason enough.
Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.