Becoming a mother is like being born over or going through some kind of phase change. I didn’t have my children until I was in my mid-thirties. I had a fun time in my twenties living in a big city and dating a lot, I pursued a PhD and the publications necessary to land an academic job, and I didn’t marry until after 30. I like being in my thirties, and as forty approaches, I expect to like that, too. The older I grow, the more I know who I am, my likes and dislikes. I feel increasingly able to draw boundaries and be declarative about the kind of people and experiences I want to make up the texture of my life: No to shopping “parties! Yes to calling my elected representative! No to light sexual harassment! Yes to going to going to bed at 9:30! No to ladies at Sephora who insist redheads wear brown!
But despite this more confident sense of who I am, like the many women who have come before me, I’ve realized that motherhood opens up a huge new identity category that requires its own definition, and that will change and develop over time. I’m only four years in, but it’s already becoming clear to me that there are forms of motherhood I am more and less interested in pursuing as well as forms I am more and less capable of.
Which brings me to the bowls.
Yes, the bowls.
If you haven’t seen the Saturday Night Live sketch “Back Home Ballers,” stop reading and fix your life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmWH1F-caM8). My friend Sunny recently reminded me of it, and man, is that three minutes of pure delight. The sketch features a bunch of young women home for the holidays rapping about how they are treated like stars by their parents, describing the way they are flattered, waited on, and fed delicious treats: “I’m a back home baller, and gramma says I look taller.” Midway through the performance, Leslie Jones breaks out with a Missy Elliott-style catalogue, but rather than Missy’s list of “Boys, boys, all type of boys/Black, White, Puerto Rican, Chinese boys,” Jones tells us about the bounty her mother spreads before her: “Bowls, bowls, all type of bowls. Chips, and mint, and seashell bowls. My mom’s got bowls for everything: potpourri and nuts, and everything…”
There’s something comforting about a bowls mom, and I find the video hilarious, but, if I’m honest, I’m not a bowls mom. I wasn’t raised by one, certainly, but I don’t know that it’s environmental, because my sister is one. Bowls moms are wonderful hostesses, my mothers-in-law are both bowls moms, in slightly different styles. At each house, guests and family experience a kind of welcome and feeling of ease that’s created through the work and attention to detail of these mothers. The holiday decorations, the festive treats put out on tables around the house, all of that is an expression of love and care that children may register (but probably not enough) and form wonderful family memories and traditions. When done without this authentic impulse and for social pressure, however, this type of care for others, especially at the holidays, can curdle, becoming, as writer Gemma Hartley observes, “exhausting, and… unending”(https://www.huffpost.com/entry/emotional-labor-holidays_n_5a1ec905e4b0d724fed5588a ). But, for many of the women in my life who put out bowls for their loved ones with grace and joy, it’s also a part of their identities in which they take pride and pleasure.
I have tried to be this kind of mom, a bowls mom, but it just isn’t me. Sometimes I feel guilty about the raggedy state in which my girls go off to school. A teacher recently asked if their dad dresses them. No, dear teacher, the answer is no. What you are seeing is the all-hands-deck efforts of two adults and the input of a very opinionated four-year-old. That particular color combination took a village.
I repeatedly make resolutions like “go big for the holidays” and end up scrambling to pick up $20 Halloween costumes last minute at Target or end up with my contribution to festive foods in the house being something gross and too weirdly specific like peppermint-flavored Coffee-mate (this did happen this year, and my stomach is punishing me). Being a bowls mom is enough of a thing to inspire an SNL skit, and I often feel myself pressed to perform in this role despite my demonstrated ineptitude, and, four years in, apparent disinterest. For example, this morning, at 6:30, I ordered 20 holiday photo cards to be picked up later today. In the most perfunctory way, I punched in a few pictures from my phone to populate the card and sent in my order for the minimum quantity. Why am I doing this? Not because I’ll be mailing them out (sorry, sorry), but because it’s part of a daycare holiday week activity that seems to assume I’ve got quantities of these things on hand.
My lovely sister, on the other hand, sends a lovely holiday card each year, with beautifully posed photos of her family. For her, it’s an act with meaning and which she undertakes with pride and affection. Sometimes, my failure to muster these feelings and inhabit this particular version of motherhood feels like a crisis of identity: Why can’t I do these little things? Don’t I love my children? Do I not enjoy motherhood?
The answer is clear enough that I don’t enjoy this particular form of it. But, thankfully I also have a model in my own mother—definitely not a bowls mom—that there are other forms of maternal love and identity that work, for moms and kids alike. My mom is a pretty special thing—a scientist mom, a naturalist mom. This means that though my sister and I consistently look a wreck in childhood pictures, we’re doing things in them like feeding wild chickadees, and though it’s not much of a subject for holiday cards, we spent a memorable weekend picking through owl pellets and reconstructing little mouse skeletons. I’m not a science mom. On a recent trip to Hawaii, it became painfully clear that I’d lost all knowledge of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks as my husband and I had an idiots’ argument about the geologic formations. But, what my mom has given me is a different model of a mother’s identity. She was also a political mom, taking me out of school to boycott the first Gulf war and dressing me up as a bunch of grapes in support of the United Farm Workers. As I inhabit this new identity, and, through marriage, join other families, I’m gathering a collection of models for identity in motherhood, sometimes it looks like lots of bowls, and sometimes it looks like taking your kids to march in the streets, but all the best forms share a root in the authentic expression of love in the forms through which we’re able to express it.
In the Fusco-Watson household, we have a disaster of a holiday card this year, though it’s also my first ever, and I have a bad feeling about the “holiday pajama day” that’s part of the unrelenting disciplining of motherhood that takes place at the daycare. We were supposed to send the girls in green earlier in the week, a mandate to which Eloise responded firmly, I don’t like green. What have we done: well, we’re singing a lot of holiday songs. I love Christmas music in a silly, stupid way, Blake is obsessed with the Peanuts Christmas songs, and both girls like dancing. It doesn’t look like anything in particular, but it does fill our messy little house with laughter and joy.
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