Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Praise of Modern Moms

The Late Barbara Billingsly as June Cleaver on "Leave It to Beaver"


The world continues to change and modernize at breakneck speed and with it the roles of all people--at work, at school, and at home. Technology has taken away the need for some jobs and created the need for many new ones previously unimagined. Didn’t the last Western Union telegram transmitter retire several years ago? I think it was in early 2006. There’s very little need for the once-essential telegram in our high tech age even though many of you probably sent or received a hand-delivered telegram that changed your life. Now, with email and house phones and cell phones, there is seldom the need to send a telegram; there are still a couple of companies that claim to offer the service, mostly it seems, in low-tech parts of the world. Anyway, you get my point.

In contrast, solar panel manufacturers and installers are new jobs that we need for the welfare of the planet. Some people are just now finding out about solar panels even though the technology is in its second, maybe third, generation. New job, new roles, ever-new world.

Roles at home have changed too, but what has not changed is the need for, the benefit of attentive parents who love their children with joy and abandon. Naturally, today we look at this matter in the context of Mother’s Day.

It’s much tougher to be a kid today in most places around the world, and that is one reason it’s tougher to be a Mom today. The two other major reasons Motherhood has changed in terms of role, not function, in the western world are the cultural movement that had the nickname, “women’s liberation,” AND economic pressures and demands.

It should be evident to you that I am not and never have been a Mother, though as most of you know I was a single Dad from the time my sons were 8 and 10 years old--one of the great privileges of my life. Because of this, one of my church members in Baltimore who was a single Mom used to send me a Mother’s Day card, though never a frilly silk night gown with matching house shoes. I’d return the favor on Father’s Day by sending her a Father’s Day card and one of the finest imported cigars to be found in Baltimore. On one level our annual exchanges were little jokes, but like many jokes there was a kernel of truth involved. Though we laughed about it, I have to confess that as someone trying to fill roles of both a father and a mother, the remembrance meant something to me.

My ex-wife who decided that neither I nor rearing children were her cup of te...quila is a lovely woman with many gifts and fine personal qualities. Dwelling within the land of reality isn’t one of them. OK. OK. Let me get by with one tacky comment this month. She really is pretty and effervescent; if you met her, you’d immediately like her much more than you like me...for a week or two. I know, so make it two tacky comments this month, and that’s my limit. Well, three; there’s one more. We haven’t been in touch much since the divorce was finalized 15 or 16 years ago; usually we see each other at events of concern to the boys. That works out fine. One day, a few years ago, however, she did phone me about something. I have no recollection whatsoever why, but I do recall that during the conversation she began to reflect on the “why” of our separation, and she said, “I’m tired of feeling guilty because I stopped being June Cleaver.” I bit my tongue, kept absolutely quiet, and let her continue with her reflection. The whole time, though, I was in near-disbelief, but bursting to say, “Oh, honey. You were never a June Cleaver so live your life guilt free.” Nonetheless, I honor her today as the mother of my children whom I adore, and I look back to the early years, when we both were on the same page about bringing up the boys and loving the day to day joys of being a family in which everyone was valued by the others and the children’s challenges and adventures were of paramount importance to both of us.

Some of you will remember the television character, June Cleaver, played wonderfully by Barbara Billingsly on the top-ranked television show of my childhood, “Leave It to Beaver.” June Cleaver was the perfect 1960’s mother, the ideal parallel to the perfect t.v. father, Robert Young in “Father Knows Best.”

June was a stay at home Mom. She kept a lovely, spotless home. She cooked all the meals, and they were never less than delicious. Despite that hard work, she was always immaculately dressed in a dress or a skirt and blouse; there might have been a few pairs of elegant slacks worked into her wardrobe, but I don’t remember them. She was unflappable, even with two sons who got into more than their share of trouble. She was calm and warm and understanding and patient. She was ever-forgiving and had the requisite maternal ESP. She loved her hardworking husband, Ward, and the highlight of her day was when Ward got home from work. She gathered her husband and sons around a beautifully set table ready to present the meal, the preparation of which she’d devoted a significant part of her day.

Everybody wanted June Cleaver for a mother, or, rather, everyone wanted a mother who had all of June’s qualities. I read and heard interviews with Barbara Billingsly across the years, and she spoke of how she would get fan mail from mothers in her viewing audience seeking her advice on how to handle a real-life motherhood challenge.

Not many modern Moms with children still at home can live up to June Cleaver’s standard, and maybe June couldn’t be June if she were a Mom in the real modern world. There are new demands and expectations. Again, I say that the number one reason the roles of Mothers have changed is because of new sets of cultural demands and expectations on their children. While I’m trying to defend Mothers who couldn’t do the traditional Mother thing for whatever reason, I’m also criticizing many Mothers who along with many Fathers have contributed to some of these new demands on kids. Every child today has to be in training for something related to the arts or sports or both before they are as tall as the bat they’re expected to use or before they can hold and manipulate a musical instrument crafted to its true size so we get mini-violins, mini-cellos, and mini-drum sticks.

I’m certainly not opposed to giving kids opportunities to enjoy and gain skills in a sport; I am opposed to the vicious tension related to competitiveness drilled into the heads of little girls and little boys from teeball on. I am absolutely in favor of giving a child who wants it the gift of music; some few of them will know as soon as they begin to play the instrument that, “This is my life,” but all too many of them are pushed along by parents who want successful children so that they, the parents, can receive acclaim as the ones with the vision to get their kids into music at an early age so that they can manage and use for themselves the money that their prodigy-children earn with their extraordinary talent. I could mention Leopold Mozart, Joe Jackson, and a long list of stage Moms who help their children become famous as they help them lose childhood too.

In some of the apocryphal literature about Jesus--that is the literature about Jesus, among others, which was omitted by those who decided what would be in the Bible and what would have to go (Catholics and Protestants coming out differently on end results)--there are stories about little boy Jesus already having supernatural powers and using them to entertain his friends and to kill off bullies. What if those had been historic accounts? They aren’t, of course, but what if they were? And Mary and Joseph had decided to market the powers of little Jesus to their financial advantage? That would make them wealthy, perhaps, and their son famous! Jesus’ whole life could have turned out differently starting with his desire for the spotlight and his preference for rubbing elbows with the higher ups in society. There likely would have been no special attention to the poor and the needy and the struggling; his male and female inner circles wouldn’t have been seen by him as coworkers and fellow-laborers, but rather as members of his entourage whose jobs would have been to keep him happy and looking good.

Mary wouldn’t have been running around telling people in reference to Jesus, “My son means well, but he’s a little crazy,” which we are told in the Gospels that she did. Instead, she’d have been pushing Jesus to be in the public eye more and more, doing what thrilled the people--namely feeding them and healing them--so they’d keep coming back for more, and the baskets being passed around wouldn’t have been food baskets making sure hungry folk were fed, but rather baskets for collecting money to make her rich and famous as the Mother of the prodigy. Instead of keeping all of Jesus’ traits that amazed her silently in her heart and pondering them there, she’d have been on the interview and scroll-writing circuit too at the expense of her firstborn child’s childhood.


Are Canadian Mothers more stressed than American Mothers these days? An article by journalist Erin Anderssen certainly gives the feel that that’s the case. I hope she’s a Mother, or else I don’t think she has the right to write on Motherhood the way she has. While making some very valid, some very important points about modern Mothers, she clearly thinks of Mother’s Day as primarily a day when Mothers stop to say, “I am MOTHER, hear me roar,” rather than a day for honoring our mothers whether or not we ourselves happen to be Moms.

Oh, to be free of the guilt, the worry, the hand-wringing! No more waking up in the middle of the night fretting about forgotten homework. No more calculating the sodium content on a cereal box. No more planning weekends of “enrichment” while eating lunch at your desk. Just this week, researchers warned that children who don’t have family dinners get fat – heartening news to working parents in this country. (The research was unclear on whether sandwiches in the car speeding to soccer practice count as a family meal; let’s assume, this being Mother’s Day weekend, that they do.) But then, as the growing mound of “science” tells us, the misguided Mom has already doomed her child to a beer belly, or depression or violence, or long years on a couch in the basement. Who can blame the Modern Mom for fantasizing about breezy afternoons sipping martinis on the patio with absolutely no idea what her kids are up to. As one 1970s Mom reminisced this week, the conversation used to go something like, “My kid’s a brat. What do you do with your brat?” Today, there are no “brats,” except the ones we whisper about.

So along comes Mother’s Day, a day upon which most women, when surveyed, desire neither flowers nor pancakes in bed, but a break from being Mothers. Who can blame them? Mother-bashing has a long history, but never has the sniping felt so ubiquitous, the advice so dire and conflicting, both inside the Mom circle and beyond. Judging Mothers is not just permissible these days, it’s obligatory, as if a spanking will bring us all around. “We have one day to celebrate Mothers, and then we lay a trip on them the rest of the year,” observes Gillian Ranson, a sociologist at the University of Calgary. In other words, the roses are nice, but they come with (apron) strings attached.

But before you poke your eye out with the pencil that you are currently using to complete your daughter’s science project, here’s some consolation: the Mommy wars may yet shift in our weary favour. Demographics are on our side. More women are becoming the primary breadwinners in Canada – that was the case for three in 10 families in 2004, even before the recession gutted many male-dominated industries. The next crop of Moms, busily surpassing their future husbands in university degrees and ambition, are unlikely to accept the lion’s share of the laundry burden – and more men taking paternity leave suggests fewer Dads willing to be demoted to “assistant” in their children’s lives.

There will be a Father’s Day sermon next month so we will leave those thoughts for the moment and get to two biblical images, among a fairly long list, of inspiration about motherhood.

The first of the two deals with the maternal qualities of God Godself, and take into account what a stretch, perhaps a risk, it was for a writer in a decidedly patriarchal collection of cultures to dare to write of God as having maternal qualities. Well, Third Isaiah dared to do it. We have one biblical book called Isaiah, but there were materials from three different Isaiahs living in very different times from each other whose works were eventually collected onto a single huge scroll called Isaiah. In Isaiah 66:13, Third Isaiah puts these words in the mouth of God speaking to beleaguered Jews, downtrodden and feeling hopeless: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Some anti-female biblical interpreters, and there are probably more of them in the world than there are biblical interpreters who fully affirm women, say that God has chosen to speak in this manner because the Hebrew/Jewish men in ancient times didn’t exhibit softer, gentler emotions, which in the eyes of some make them look weak. Thus, say these anti-female scholars, the image of God as female is only used because the people to whom Isaiah wrote would have no understanding of a big butch God who exhibited emotions such as comfort; that was woman’s work, if you will. Really!?

Scholars who say such things either aren’t really scholars, like those predicting the end of time and judgement day in less than two weeks, or they intentionally ignore the obvious. There were plenty of Hebrew scripture daddies who doted over their children. Isaiah didn’t have to manufacture a feminine, maternal motif to give God a means of offering comfort to those regarded as children of God. If comforting those who hurt made God maternal, well, I have to tell you, God was very much maternal. Thinking of God only in masculine, patriarchal ways devoid of sympathy and profound concern for all people is to miss the whole of the message about God in both Hebrew and Christian scripture. It was clearly Isaiah’s God who said, “Children, I am your mother, and I’m going to comfort you when you are discouraged and afraid.” God, our mother.

King Solomon, son of King David, making Solomon the third King of Israel in its history, was--according to legend--an exceptionally wise man. Was his great wisdom connected to genetics, or was his relational life so enriching that he had remarkable dual hemisphere brain functioning, making him one of the wisest people in ancient times? What I mean is, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Did that enhance his wisdom? The poor Mormon guy on the recently ended television show, “Big Love,” had three wives and I think briefly a fourth; and he just about went nuts trying to keep everybody happy. Well, you can form your own opinions about why Solomon was such a smart guy.

The biblical writer who most wanted to stress and illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, told this phenomenal story. While he was in power, he alone was the supreme court. If lower level authorities couldn’t settle disputes to the satisfaction of all involved, the cases got kicked up to the King himself.

So, the story goes that two women claimed to be the mother of the same child. There were no DNA tests, of course, and evidently the father of the child was no where to be found so the truth rested somewhere in the testimony of one of these women; one was telling the truth, and the other was lying. Women who want children and can’t have their own have been known right in our own day to steal a child from her or his biological mother. Anyway, what was the wise King to do?

He ordered one of his security guards with a huge sword in hand to cut the baby into two equal parts and give each claimant one of the halves. Immediately, the true mother said, “I lied. The baby is hers. Send the baby home with her, and I’ll accept whatever punishment I must for having lied to the King.” Solomon, of course, never had any intention of harming the infant, but he knew that the true mother would do anything not to have the child harmed, even if it meant letting him be taken by someone else to raise. I love that biblical Mom!


I think good Moms have always had to be adaptable, and I believe that remains very much the case for today’s Mothers so I have taken that word, “adaptable,” and used it as an acrostic to describe characteristics of a successful modern Mother.

The first letter, the first A, in the word “adaptable” stands for “AWED.” I see the most successful modern Mothers as having some kind of spiritual searching going on in their lives or some kind of spiritual foundation on which they feel some grounding.

What I have in mind has nothing to do with any set of doctrines or any religion. An effective modern Mother may only be able to think of God, in Karen Armstrong’s words, as the Great Mystery, may only be able to conceive of God as the collective sparks of divinity that rest in all humans. She knows there is something more to life than what we can see; she may have no idea what that “something more” is, but she is AWED at the prospects; she instills in her children the freedom to search for that “something more.”

The AWE may come from something like Patricia Barrett describes: “Connection with gardens, even small ones, even potted plants, can become windows to the inner life. The simple act of stopping and looking at the beauty around us can be prayer.”

The “D” in “adaptable” reminds us that effective modern Moms are DILIGENT in the practice of parenting. They should get breaks; they need breaks, but they never stop being Mother to their child or children. Motherhood has nothing at all to do with what is casual or happenstance. Strong Mothers do not sit back simply hoping that the wind will always blow their children in the best directions.

Good Mothers, and I’m very grateful that most of the Mothers I know personally are good Mothers; good Mothers catch on very quickly that in additions to all the joys and all the richness that accompany the privilege of being a parent, there is much hard work. That work changes over time as the child matures. The early maternal sleep deprivation needed to tend to a baby’s needs day and night gives way to practicing basic first aid skills. Then, along comes the work required to help a child learn to socialize effectively while understanding the critical capacities for staying safe at every level. Don’t walk too near the street, and don’t ever give strangers your name. These are just beginning points.

A high quality modern Mom is APPROACHABLE; the second A in the word “adaptable” has us thinking about how important it is for a Mother to be APPROACHABLE where her children are concerned. The groundwork for this is laid in very early childhood where a child learns that her or his questions and needs are not secondary to anything and everything else a Mother might be doing.

Not being able to interrupt an important phone call or refusing to allow a child to butt in to a conversation in which the Mother is already engaged are not signals to a child that her or his Mother is now and will forever be unapproachable; however, if the Mother always seems to have something more important to do than stop and give her child her undivided attention, then the child will learn that Mom is not approachable.

My Mom used to say to my sister and brother and me from time to time, “Please don’t out and get in trouble, but if you do you hurry right home and tell your Daddy me. We may not be pleased with what you did, but we love you; and we’re going to help you.”

The P causes us to keep in mind that a great Mom is PROTECTIVE of her children. There’s a difference between “protective” and “over protective,” and we’re talking about PROTECTIVE here. The potential dangers to children are unprecedented in our high tech world. A Mother, a parent, must be PROTECTIVE. There is no environment in which children are automatically safe. Some children are not safe in their own homes. Some children are not safe at their churches or in their schools. Some children are not safe spending the night with a friend.

We can’t leave our children in the care of any person or group unless we know those into whose care we entrust them. As children grow up, they become annoyed and get embarrassed that their Mother is so nosy about every place they want to go and which friends they want to hang out with. Sad to say, nosiness may be the only thing that keeps a kid safe--away from those who would do them physical harm, who would draw them into the world illegal drugs and drug addiction, who would steal them from their parents and put them to work as street or internet prostitutes.

Effective Mothers are TRUSTWORTHY. You don’t tell your child one thing and do another. You don’t make promises to your children that you don’t keep; same for Fathers, but this is Mother’s Day. My impression is that children who find their parents untrustworthy will find trusting others for the rest of their lives difficult or impossible. That’s a serious wound--a very serious wound because ultimately to get along in this world we have to trust at least a few key people.

Steve Kroening makes three excellent points about what happens to kids whose parents break commitments they have made to their children. First, this behavior teaches the children that it’s ok to do what they see their parents doing so from there on out those kids who become teens and then adults still believe it’s ok to make commitments and not honor them. Second, breaking commitments made to children steals their hope; world events and circumstances make it hard enough to hope in this world. Third, and this is the worst, breaking commitments made to children teaches them that they don’t matter.

An effective modern Mom is AUTONOMOUS; she is an independent woman. She doesn’t lose herself in the relationships in which she is involved, even in her relationship with her children. When I think of adult relational autonomy, I think of self care. To use an overused example, on a plane, just before takeoff, the flight attendant lists steps to take in case of unforeseen developments. If the cabin pressure drops, oxygen masks automatically drop, and parents or other adults responsible for children are told to get their oxygen first and then make sure the child gets her or his oxygen. The two most obvious reasons for this are that the child needs less oxygen than an adult and that if the adult konks out she or he will not be able to care for the child.

An AUTONOMOUS Mother, if she is married or partnered, doesn’t take orders from partner or spouse. Couples who love each other negotiate--some more loudly than others. An AUTONOMOUS mother also does not take orders from her children; she honors their respectful requests. She can only be the best Mom she can be when she is clearly the master of her own fate.

I think a successful modern Mom is BOLD. When I use the word “BOLD” here, I have in mind appropriate assertiveness. There are too many bullies and too much red tape in which any one of us can get lost in this country, in this world. Those best able to be heard and seen are those who speak up for themselves or who have someone to speak up for them, a parent for a child; a friend or relative for someone who is ill.

When someone does you wrong, you don’t need to burn down a house, but you should let the person know that you’re not pleased with it; and by the way it had better not happen again. Children can only learn to be bold and assertive by observing their parents being appropriately assertive or by watching “Judge Judy” every week day afternoon, of course.

There will come that day, joyfully anticipated by some and thoroughly dreaded by others, when the kids will leave home and work toward independence at all levels of adulthood elsewhere. The best skill that can be packed up and taken along is a comfortable BOLDNESS learned by observing Mom or Dad.

The best Moms are LOVING Moms. One wonders if the words “Mom” or “Mother” can or should be used for one who births a child only to be unwilling or incapable of showing the child any love. Maternal LOVE is both a necessity and a given. A Mother doesn’t have to work to LOVE a child; a Mother can’t help LOVING her child, and in many, many cases a Mother would or has put her own life on the line for the wellbeing of her child.

Great American novelist, Washington Irving, wrote: “A Mother is the truest friend we have. When trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavour by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”

LOVE does not, cannot forsake. I have visited a few people in prison--friends, church members, and so on; in those lines for visitation, I believe I have seen more mothers lined up to see an incarcerated child than visitors of any other stripe.

A great Mom is an ENCOURAGING Mom. ENCOURAGEMENT isn’t the same as love; some loving Mothers don’t have it in them, don’t know how, to ENCOURAGE. Perhaps they lacked paternal ENCOURAGEMENT in their growing up years. These are Mothers who seem never to be able to celebrate an achievement with her child or say to a discouraged child, “Go out there, and try again; I know you can do it, and I’m behind you all the way.”

Kids of all ages, you might do well to remember that Mothers need encouragement too. As time moves on, you may well do much for your Mother that she, somewhere along the way, did for you. One thing you cannot do for her, however, is to give her life the way she gave life to you.


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