who's your "messy and magnificent model of motherhood"?
finding inspiration in unlikely places as we enter the season of (mom-produced, right?) holiday magic
Welcome to good creatures, a newsletter about the history of our bad ideas about motherhood and the emerging science and social science that can help us learn to think mothering differently. If you think your actual kids are (mostly) great but being a mom is kind of a scam, I think you’ll love it here.
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Hi there. It’s very nearly the most wonderful time of the year! I love the holidays—and I also know this can be a high-pressure time of year, especially for folks with complicated families, or kids, or jobs that ramp up right as the holidays are getting going.
So this year, a modest holiday proposal: instead of looking to the mom who’s doing the most and feeling bad because our light display/holiday whimsy/elf on the shelf/ etc etc etc doesn’t live up—let’s find a messier role model and aim for that.
I wanted to share two (fictional but beloved) moms I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
For Catapult, I wrote about Home Alone’s Kate McCallister (played with impeccable 90s shoulder pads by Catherine O'Hara) as a model of a kind of messy, chaotic approach to motherhood that I think we should look to for encouragement now:
All things considered, Kate McCallister probably isn’t a “good mom” by the standards of our time, or hers. But her example shows the shallowness of those standards. She loves her kid. She proves it. While the rest of the family fritters, she’s doing what I’ve always understood moms do: fighting with gate agents, snatching the last seat on a flight to Scranton after failing to bribe her way onto a direct flight with all the cash in her wallet and the earrings and bracelet she’s wearing. She spends a good bit of the movie driving across the Midwest with John Candy and his polka band in the back of a box van. There’s nothing she won’t do to make her way home to her son.
The piece is also a love note to my mom and aunt, who were single moms for most of my childhood and who raised my sister, cousins, and me with no-nonsense, unwavering love. I’d love it if you would click on over to read.
And one more nomination, for another unlikely mom inspiration: Ash, from Catherine Newman’s really phenomenal new novel, We All Want Impossible Things. Ash is kind of a mess. Her best friend Edi is in hospice, and she spends much of the novel caring for Edi and remembering their long friendship. But Ash isn’t as saintly as that might sound: she’s separated from her husband, sleeping with a handful of slightly inappropriate people, worrying about her teenage daughter, Belle, who’s skipping too much school, but not really doing anything about it. Even as she’s flailing a bit in her own life, though, Ash is truly present in the lives of those she loves. She drives over to Edi’s hospice in the dark of a New England winter to take her outside to see the snow. She walks in the woods with Belle. I don’t think she cooks a single meal in the novel—Belle is a remarkable cook, and Ash’s husband Honey frequently shows up with takeout—but they all sit down together to eat. Ash tells her family that she loves them, and she shows it with her attention.
I spent a long time re-reading the novel and trying to find a scene that would capture Ash as a mother. It’s hard to find one excerptable passage, because what I love about her is the quality of her attention. She has such wonder and love in her descriptions of her daughter as she cooks dinner or lounges on the couch with their cats. Perhaps I’m projecting, but it feels to me like Ash loves her kids the way I’ve always felt my mom loves me, the way I aspire to love my own kids: not as children or as extensions of herself, but as their own wondrous people.
(Also the book, for being about the death of a dear friend, is hilarious. I laughed and cried through almost all of it, something that’s a special skill of Catherine Newman’s.)
Cindy DiTiberio just wrote a great piece for Mutha Magazine, When the Icons of Motherhood Fail You, about how the books she read as a girl taught her that “motherhood was letting others’ needs subsume you.” She closed by arguing that “We need more depictions of mothers who are allowed to be human and have lives apart from their children. Mothers who are flawed and fallible and yet still loved; mothers who are ambivalent and yet still present. Mothers who are mothers and also themselves.” I love this line of thinking, obviously, and I’d nominate Kate McCallister and Ash.
Who’s your literary or pop culture messy motherhood role model?
I’ve been thinking about all this in connection with another essay I read recently, Sarah Hunter Simanson’s Taking on the Feminine Labor of Creating Holiday Magic. It’s a really moving tribute to her late mother, and it’s about finally realizing as an adult how much work her mom put in to making their holidays magical. In her essay, Simanson describes how, as she became a mother as her mother was dying, she took on the labor of holiday magic:
One of the last nights she was alive, I sat by her bed and breastfed my baby, using my phone to order everything that she would have ordered. There were stocking stuffers and gift-wrapping materials and, of course, presents. As my mom was slipping out of consciousness, I found myself unconsciously slipping into her role as the matriarch, the family glue.
Which is why, not even a week after she died, I was wrapping gifts and tying bows and making her brownies and peppermint ice cream for Christmas Eve and preparing her casseroles for Christmas brunch and setting out a few presents from Santa for my infant daughter—even though she’d never remember it.
And listen: I’m not here to judge anyone’s parenting or holiday rituals, and I’m certainly not here to weigh in on how anyone should mourn. If a holiday ritual brings you joy, go for it. But those rituals can easily become one more burden for moms to carry alone.
When we talk about holiday magic, I think we’re often lumping together two pretty different things. On the one hand are the beloved family activities that make the season special. Those might be ones passed down from one generation to the next, like the advent candles we lit in my childhood or the roast beef my grandmother brought every Christmas Eve, or invented on the fly, like my and my sister’s ritual of stopping for free coffee at Sheetz on Christmas Day as we drove across Pennsylvania from our mom’s house to our dad’s. Activities like those are done together. You can see your loved ones’ faces while you do them. But on the other hand is the invisible labor of the holidays—the presents purchased and wrapped, the special meals cooked while the rest of the family relaxes, the planning that’s underneath all the holiday wonder. And that kind of holiday magic is meant to seem effortless, created in the wee hours of the night, in time stolen from sleep or leisure. The children go to sleep and wake up to find Santa’s arrived. A wand has been waved to create holiday wonder while they dreamed.
For Simanson, and for many daughters and mothers, I suspect, the holiday magic is proof that
My mom did love me so damn much and proved it—especially at every holiday. No matter how many hours she had to bill by the end of the year or how many boxes of Hamburger Helper we’d been eating to save money, the holidays (particularly Christmas) were an Ozian season of homemade shortbread cookies and twinkly lights and tissue-paper-wrapped ornaments and extravagant presents and elaborate meals.
But you know what? I, too, love my kids so damn much, and I think there are lots of ways to prove it. I’m already a mom; I don’t want to be a magician or a house elf. And I don’t want my kids to think that’s what love looks like. I don’t want my kids to think that maternal love is the same as self-sacrifice.
So, two questions for this holiday season:
What parts of the holiday are really meaningful for you and your family? Are there things you can let go? There might be some traditions that are more stress than they’re really worth, or ones you can re-imagine in a lower-stress way. My kids like making gingerbread houses, for example—but I for sure buy a cheap kit from Target, rather than baking the gingerbread and mixing up the royal frosting and laying out little bowls of individually selected candies for decoration. Will we ever end up in Martha Stewart? Nope, but that’s not what I’m aiming for anyway.
Are there places where you can share the labor? Can you make some of the invisible labor visible? Earlier this year, Virginia Sole-Smith wrote about Family Meal Planning—basically, getting each member of her family to pick a meal for the week, rather than doing it all on her own—as a way of making the invisible labor of meal planning visible, and I bet you could do the same with much of the holiday magic you’ve been making on your own.
I’d love to hear your ideas and how your holidays have evolved. (Unless it genuinely brings you joy, we can probably all quiet quit Elf on the Shelf.)
And remember: as long as you don’t leave a kid at home as you jet across the Atlantic, you’ll already be ahead of Kate McCallister.
Do you have an unlikely motherhood role model? A great tip for managing holiday expectations? I’d love to hear from you. You can always reply to this email, comment below, or find me on twitter (@nancy_reddy) and instagram (@nancy.o.reddy).
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