When I was a (precocious, bratty, alarmingly widely-read) child, I used to call my mother “Mommie Dearest” to irk her. I didn’t actually understand what the big deal was, probably because my notions of the obligations of motherhood were yet unformed and because I lacked the experience of widespread judgment, censure, and equally inappropriate approbation and opprobrium with which perfect strangers feel entitled to shower us on the basis of our motherhood. So that little barb, coming from me, wasn’t an indictment of my mother’s parenting skills, kindness, or commitment to her family; it was just a way to make my mom grit her teeth and cast her eyes heavenward.

Now I am an adult, and my husband is an avid reader of Vanity Fair, so I understand a little more about the alleged sins of Joan Crawford. And I have to regret my callow callousness a little bit. But I’m growing up, you know? I’m realizing the depth of my insensitivity, my total failure to appreciate the pressures and circumscription that even my mother, a relatively liberated mid ’70s West Coast mom, experienced. Unfortunately, I have also realized that there’s probably no way to make up for the grief I gave her.

In Salon today, Phyllis Chesler writes about motherhood, parenting, second- vs. third-wave feminism, and Rebecca Walker’s public recriminations of her mother, Alice. It’s a piece worth reading. But what stands out in it is this rebuttal to Rebecca Walker’s public decrying of her mother’s failure to fill the stay-at-home mom role amply occupied by her stepmother, Judy:

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don’t want to do and can’t do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women’s rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

Chesler makes some important points about the fact that third-wave feminism may not always appreciate the oppression of motherhood and how it was applied to past generations of women. She describes the danger women risk when they try to do anything else but mother well. And she makes the revolutionary and yet entirely relevant, necessary observation that women are still measured by their success as mothers (and demonized for their failures at mothering):

However, great men are allowed every excess and failure; great women are never forgiven for making a single mistake. Great men are allowed their female mistresses, male lovers, wife-secretaries, binges — and they rarely see their children. Or they exploit and abuse them.

Are we conscious of how ingrained this kind of bias, this negative judgment, is in all of us? Is a writer like Rebecca Walker (whom Chesler damns with the faint praise of being “beautiful and talented in her own right” as opposed to Alice Walker’s “world-class talent”, and, having caught more than one essay, radio piece, etc. by the younger Walker, I have to agree) aware of the unfairness of the lens through which she views her own childhood? Did anyone ask how much time Obama was spending with his kids during this primary — the one where Hillary Clinton was accused of every sin of character in the book, not to mention “pimping out” Chelsea?

I doubt it. And that brings me back to what Chesler says, and what I said a few days ago: you can’t have it all. And you are crazy to even try. Sorry, kids — I know you were hoping that you could raise a beautiful family and have an organic garden and write thoughtful, above-average literary novels and go to your kid’s baseball games, but you can’t, or rather, you could, but who wants to write above-average literary novels? Nobody’s going to remember them in fifty years; above-average means that your date was polite and wearing a pressed shirt and could converse intelligently about current trends in the habits of the bourgeoisie (slow food, tap water vs. bottled water, David Sedaris, and anything else recently featured on NPR). Rebecca Walker is above-average. Rebecca Walker is making a living and has a following (probably of mostly white, upper middle class women too timid to question her assertions and regaled by the exoticism of her mixed-race ancestry and the fact that she named her kid after a Tibetan lama, but that’s another post).

But in love, as in literature, we’re not looking for above-average. “Good enough” is a phrase often tossed around as definitive in mothering, but not so in art. The date that’s adequately groomed and reasonably articulate is OK; we can survive on that, biding our time and confirming our assumptions about life until something sublime comes along, something that will sweep us off our feet and have us waking up, bleary-eyed and breathless, in Tahiti with a new and charming tattoo on our left palm — a tattoo we would never have considered getting, one that challenges our assumptions, one that transforms us.

Alice Walker is not above-average. Alice Walker will take you to Tahiti and to an unbelievable (and sometimes scary) tattoo artist.

In my own life, I’m a lot of things, impatient and stressed-out and caustic and supercilious being chief among them. But I’m usually not a liar. And I hope I’m not a coward. And I think I’m clear-sighted enough to say, again: No. You can’t have it all. Transformative art does not have a lot of respect for families, for stability, for parenting skills, for environmental quality, for regular and thoughtfully-planned meals. So if these things are important to you, make your choice — and that goes for men as well as women, because even if we still tend to blame women when the parenting isn’t up to snuff, men are no longer expected to supply nothing more than a dinnertime appetite and a paycheck.

And if you are lucky enough to be the child of a parent who maybe didn’t make nutritionally balanced meals and wasn’t around as much as you’d have liked, but who transformed this world and the people in it, think about this before you complain: think about how much bigger and more interesting your world is because of it. Think of how not getting the attention you wanted enriched you, even as it stung. Think of how your mother’s “failings” cannot be laid entirely at her door, but must be shared with your father and with every person in your life and in this world who expected the lion’s share of parenting to go to her.

Because the truth is that all our parents fail us, and none of them manages to always give us exactly what we need. And many, many children do not have the benefit of a mother who transformed the world. Many children, in fact, having nothing but human frailty to blame their parents’ failing on.

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