I thought about the question for months. Why would anyone want to be a mom? From the outside, especially the up-close-and-personal outside that my sister saw, mothering could appear to be nothing more than fits and fights, dirty noses and dirty everything else — no matter the castles-and-fairy-tales sheen I had put on it. To the casual observer, the way I visited those castles — burdened with children on every square inch of my body — might represent motherhood more generally.
Mothers, it would seem, were restrained and restricted, held back and weighed down. And yet, excepting the occasional bad day, I didn’t feel that way at all about my life as a mother.
Many months after my sister asked me this question, I saw the answer. It lay in a painting on the cover of a book my husband brought home from the library. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “What is that!” I asked, excitedly taking the book from him. My eyes ran eagerly over the image before searching the jacket for the painting’s title. I let out an involuntary cry of elation when I found it: "Teach These Souls to Fly" by William Blake. I flipped back to the painting, captivated by the world of this mother and child. The beige muscles swelling across the mother’s back inspired my admiration first. A woman with such strength could perform any labor she chose.
Yet, the curve of her shoulder introduced a steady softening that ended in a touch on the child’s elbow. I saw the same combination of force and persuasion in the look she gave her child. This mother seemed in the same instant both to command and to invite, to compel and to persuade.
I found the odd trajectory of the mother’s flight as intriguing as the paradoxes of her person. She was definitely flying — that was clear by the way her robes hugged her body before swirling away. But her torso twisted back toward her child.
An outsider like my sister might have seen in this mother a picture of how children hamper and restrain. What heights could such a woman not have attained, had she been free to pursue the course she had started?
The question could be asked about most mothers. Watching this one — a woman whose strength convinced me she would fly despite the restraints — brought to mind many real-life examples: the mother who, during her teensy student-apartment years, resolved to learn all there was to know about house plants and went on to teach lessons on the subject; the pastry-loving mother who set a goal to bake one hundred pies, met her goal two years later, and became a master pie-maker in the process; the wife of an emergency medicine doctor who determined that her family would “be prepared” and gave regular workshops on the subject. These women flew, but none of them performed a solo air show.
When I heard the urban gardener’s 3-year-old explain the re-potting procedure for philodendrons, the pastry chef’s 2-year-old critique the flakiness of his pie crust, and the preparedness guru’s 4-year-old extol the virtues of powdered milk, I knew that in all these women’s aeronautics, their children, whether they knew it or not, flew too.
The child in the painting definitely didn’t know. He stared blankly toward me, not his mother. His chubby toddler arms barely reached past his head, and his feet rose behind him like two lazy balloons. While his mother seemed wholly devoted to some noble end, the child appeared merely present. This child flew only because his mother pulled him, but, like most children, he seemed oblivious to what his mother did for him.
I saw in this half-conscious little soul a reflection of my own children. Try as I might to expose the girls to classical music, they still preferred "Disney Princess Greatest Hits Volume III" to Bach’s "Mass in B Minor." They still craved preservative-laden chicken nuggets to my garden-fresh ratatouille, even though I had drawn neat little chalkboard diagrams to explain how my cooking was really much more tasty, nutritious and eco-friendly. And I wasn’t very amused at my daughter’s response when a co-worker at my husband’s law firm asked, “If I go to work, and my wife goes to work, and your daddy goes to work, then what does your mommy do all day?” “Oh,” she responded, shrugging. “She just makes my lunch.”
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