Ringing Out the Year: Reflections on Motherhood and Life

Hello my dear readers, and once again apologies for a longer-than-normal silence.

I wish I could say I’m on book leave, but I am not, in fact, making much progress on any meaningful writing. My accomplishments this year are more modest: Churning out a steady stream of blog posts about hair restoration and liposuction, gaining a smidgen more knowledge about those dual sinkholes of WordPress and Google Ads, and improving my tennis serve. Oh, and Kilimanjaro Diaries came out as an audio book, but I already bragged about that elsewhere.

Tonight I’d like to share some of the thoughts I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks. I’m not sure if it’s the looming year-end that put me in a reflective mood, or perhaps the realization how futile all our pursuits are, no matter how hard we try. Every year the holidays bring out a frenzy of activity, but what do we have to show for our bone-crushing holiday efforts afterwards? Just a few more pounds around the midsection curtesy of too many Christmas cookies, and a house cluttered with new stuff we didn’t really need.

One of my presents, however, is truly cherished, and it’s also the one that inspired me to write this blog post: Becoming, by Michele Obama. It’s kind of funny: We have three copies strewn through our house. I gave both girls a copy each, and, in a surprise twist, they gave me one as well. We, our family’s feminist contingent, are now all reading it simultaneously and comparing our favorite anecdotes.

There is much in it to make you think about life, our roles in society, and our roles in our families. What does it mean to be a woman, a corporate lawyer, a mother, and in her case, black? Why do some of us have the need to try so dang hard to prove that we are good enough, that we belong?

She had me already with the opening paragraph. “I used to tell people that when I grew up, I was going to be a pediatrician,” she muses. She quickly learned, she said, that it pleased the adults around her when she said it. Much of her ambition in life – and she achieved plenty with it, entirely on her own merits before becoming First Lady – was fueled by the realization that she craved the approval of those around her. Only much later did she come to realize that this wasn’t enough. “Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.

There are many other nuggets of pure delight in these pages. Michelle Obama is incredibly relatable. Perhaps that is why she is such a popular – THE most popular – figure in our country in these polarizing times. You feel like she is telling you her story over a cup of coffee, just like when you are chatting with your best friend and each of you is nodding your head vigorously in light of your shared experiences. Much of what she says is sound and reasonable, always delivered in easygoing prose and often laced with exquisite humor.

Another person you immediately fall in love with when reading Becoming is Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson. A woman who “would never be rich but was always crafty,” she comes across as that solid rock each family would be fortunate to have. Loving but firm, never overindulging her children but always supporting them, she saw her goal in life to instill good values in her children and give them opportunities she herself didn’t have.

“My mother maintained the sort of parental mind-set that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate – a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality,” muses Michelle. “She wasn’t quick to judge and she wasn’t quick to meddle… Her goal was to push us out into the world.” There were guidelines, not rules, she explains. No curfew, but expectations and trust. “‘I’m not raising babies,’ she’d tell us. ‘I’m raising adults.'”

My mother maintained the sort of parental mind-set that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate – a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality.

I love everything about this paragraph. Not only does it distill volumes of wisdom from all my favorite parenting books* in one tidy summary, it also gives me a belated sense of achievement. I have tried to live by exactly that parenting style with my own children, and seeing it praised by someone I truly admire gave me a gratifying sense of pride. All too often, we treat parenting like a side show. There is so much else to do every day, so much else to achieve. Parenting is just something that happens, and we neither expect, nor get, any feedback on how we’re doing. We just plow along day-in day-out. For the vast majority of us, our daughter won’t one day write a bestselling memoir extolling our accomplishments as a mother. In some ways, Michelle’s ode to her mother stands in as a hymn of praise to all the mothers out there.

For anyone with an interest in the 44th President, Becoming offers a wealth of information in its second part. I loved learning more about Barack, the man, as seen through the eyes of someone who is everything that he is not. “Barack Obama was late on day one,” is the first thing we learn. We get an idea of her husband’s character simply by hearing Michelle tell us that she is his opposite. “I was a box checker,” says Michelle, “marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result – a devoted follower of the established path, if only because nobody in my family… had ever set foot on the path before.” Barack Obama, we thus learn, is not a box checker. He is a breath of fresh air (and sometimes a terrifying tempest) in Michelle’s well-ordered life. He doesn’t do things because they look impressive, he doesn’t get stopped from doing something meaningful because he is busy doing something respectable, he doesn’t “endure misery for the sake of appearances.” She compares him to a circus performer juggling plates: “If things got too calm, he took it as a sign that there was more to do. He was a serial over-committer.”

But I digress a little. I didn’t want to turn this into a verdict on our last president (plus, his successor is rendering that verdict beautifully as a perfect study in opposites). I also haven’t finished Becoming, and there might be a lot more in it to discuss.

I simply wanted to share what I’m thinking of these days. My kids are growing up, ready to go out into the world to make their own mark, and I can only hope that, like Marian Robinson, I’ve given them a good foundation to build upon. I hope that they know that growing up is never finite. That the joy in life is that you never stop learning. That the goal is not “becoming” something and being done, but using our passions to pursue meaning. That they are good enough, no matter what path they choose, because there are a million different paths that are “good enough.” For my girls especially – that women bear a bigger burden balancing families and careers is a recurring theme in Becoming – I hope that they will find that elusive balance in life, learning how to pursue personal goals while also raising a family with a firm but graceful hand.

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