“Mother and Child”: Calling BS on the Expectations of “Silent Night”

I used to love how the carol “Silent Night” captured my image of the season: […]

Stephanie Phillips / 12.19.16

silent-night-2I used to love how the carol “Silent Night” captured my image of the season: peaceful, expectant, hopeful. Then I became an adult, and a parent, and Christmastime became anything but serene. I found myself singing words like “all is calm, all is bright” while looking around at other faces, wondering, “Does anyone else believe this nonsense?” When God saw fit to give me my own swaddled baby boy–then another–I related to Mary more than ever and felt that someone must speak up for her, because if I know anything about Christmas with a newborn (and I do; my kids were two weeks and two months old, respectively, at their first Christmases), it is anything but calm and bright and heavenly peace is a vanishing vapor. So allow me to speak for the mothers (and Marys) of the world when I call BS on “Silent Night.”

I thought differently about a lot of things before I became a mother, and when I was heavily pregnant back in 2011 as Christmas approached, I romantically noted the poetic nature of expecting a baby boy during Advent. The world waited, and so did I! Mary wrapped Jesus in blankets, and I would do the same with James! Our family would be an idyllic tableau of fulfilled longings and answered prayers. And the expectations didn’t stop there–I had a whole list of decisions I had made on behalf of my child: where and how long he would sleep (Mary did Baby Wise, right?!); how he would one day be disciplined, what food he would eat, what our days would look like.

Allow me to speak for the mothers of this world when I call BS on setting expectations for our children.

virgin-mary-holiday-anxiety-funny-ecard-oiaLong before I even met my husband, a friend with a young son told me about a clock she kept in his room that told the time in red when it was too early to get out of bed; the numbers transitioned to green when he was allowed to leave his room in the morning. What a great idea! I thought, adding this product to my growing list of Parental Hacks. Cut to my husband and me every single morning now, with a five-year-old planted firmly atop our comforter between us. He’s the clock. And his and his brother’s diets? Wretched. I actually uttered the sentence “eat more of your bread and you can have a cookie” the other night. All the “pleases” and “thank yous” I planned for my son to utter before age two were hurled to the backburner when he didn’t speak until age 4, as were so many other comparably minor considerations when he endured spinal surgery and faced innumerable challenges afterward.

And me? I would have parented so confidently were it not for all of this. So confidently, efficiently, and awfully.

When your kid is born almost a month early, gets surgery at 1 and 2 and a spectrum diagnosis at 3 and has no words until 4, your expectations take a flying leap. And for this, my younger son gives thanks. As do I. The mother I would have been has died a slow death, and with her all the fear-motivated, law-abiding gracelessness that would have characterized her relationship with her children. And I can’t help but wonder if Mary, about two decades younger but no less human than I when the angel interrupted her own plans, experienced a similar death. If, as her husband and a bunch of smelly shepherds and livestock and some overdressed fragrance-counter reps huddled around and no doubt destroyed her first quiet moments with her boy without even asking if she wanted coffee or wine or anything, she heaved a big sigh at the smashing of her prior image of motherhood. I wonder if she was angry? Sad? In need of a hot bath? One thing I do feel sure of: if she did experience any moments of peace that night, they were interspersed heavily with every other possible emotion.

The Mother I Would Have Been would not have had the grace to see how complicated that night may have actually been. The Mother I Would Have Been would have been too busy trying to make this year our Best Christmas Now! The Mother I Would Have Been exhausts me and saddens me and occasionally makes guilt-inducing visits via her ghost, but I’m getting good at exorcisms…and letting go.

xmasI’ve taken my kids to see Santa every year they’ve been alive, and this commitment may at times resemble a vestige of The Mother I Would Have Been, with my appointment-making and outfit-choosing and husband-coercing and children-forcing, but it makes for a good story and a funny picture, so we’ve kept it up. Each year’s visit has brought with it a greater understanding of my children and myself, and this year my older son was not feeling it. His anxiety radiated from him in a way I’ve finally grown to recognize for what it is, and not willful insolence. As we approached St. Nick, James fought it. He wanted to circle the perimeter of the scene, watch the elevator rise and descend, engage in the activities that help lower his panic. (One day, I’ll introduce him to wine.) I’m not going to lie my ass off and tell you that I handled all this with poise and aplomb and perfect maternal warmth, but what I can tell you is that this year, I did not melt own beside him like The Mother I Would Have Been surely would have. I offered him a deal, and we brokered it with only a few tears, and within minutes I had my picture and he had his elevator. It wasn’t pain-free or perfect. It was messy, and I was sweaty.

I bet Mary was sweaty on Christmas night.

I read recently about how many kids on the spectrum likely have a deficiency of something called mirror neurons in their brains. These neurons help us recognize the meaning of others’ facial reactions and therefore promote appropriate responsive behavior in social settings. When I considered this information, I felt an inordinate weight threatening to crush me as The Mother I Would Have Been’s ghost sidled up and whispered nonsense into my ear. How the hell am I going to become a mirror neuron for my child? I actually thought, my charge to teach and love him twisting once again into a graceless compulsion to fix, and be, everything. I took a deep breath. I said a prayer (my favorite one–HELP). I came upon some more reading–this time by Heather Havrilesky, with its reminders of the inanity of our collective expectations:

Mothers in particular are seen not as sentient beings with their own needs so much as always-smiling, activity-loving, craft-obsessed lunatics who hover around the clock like a hazy cloud of maternal memory foam on wheels, one that not only separates the vulnerable child from the harsh outside world, but also makes sure that child can block a goal, swim like a fish, play the piano, and understand long division.

It’s true! I think. And so ridiculous! I add, and The Mother I Would Have Been points out that neither of my children can play the piano or swim.

swimmer-flips-off-his-dad-before-every-race-x-photos-2This guy can, though, and when I stumbled upon the story of how he and his dad flip each other off before every race because it was his dad’s way of teaching him not to worry about what everyone else thinks, I felt a surge of hope that The Mother I Am may be exactly The Mother I’m Supposed to Be–if the language laxity around our house in any indication (you see, when your kid finally speaks at the end of his preschool years, you come to care less about avoiding certain words and more about embracing all of them, and cleaning up the messes later). When your plans are shattered and your reputation ruined, you write fewer lists and more letters like this (ht JA). You drive through tornado warnings and dance like an asshole not because you’re a hero, but because you love your children nearly to the point of insanity–which was not even on the radar in your prior plan.

Besides, my kid is learning to swim. And he gives high-fives to all the senior citizens at water aerobics. And afterward, we always ride the elevator. 

Motherhood doesn’t make my life, or my Advent, perfect. But it has made it more sacred. I bet Mary’s was too.