I Am Not a Mother: I Am a Human Being

Guest Post by Tania Runyan

“You’re not a good mom!” My ten-year-old daughter shouted as she stomped up to her room. “Good moms don’t throw paper plates at their children!”

Of course, this declamation can be proven false. A good mother would construct a Chinese kite out of a paper plate, toss it toward her daughter at the perfect moment of uplift, and watch her little girl revel in the kaleidoscopic tail. A good mother would cover a paper plate with cookies shaped like autumn leaves, gently toss the plate across the counter, and giggle as the studying child discovered the surprise.

In my case—a sweaty, hair-flying, early-morning rage—I picked up the first thing I saw (made of paper, thank God), and flung it at her: “I don’t like you!”

Following the rules of nature and metaphor, the plate flew back in my face. But that didn’t stop my daughter from crying, my young son from running away in fear, and my middle daughter from staring into space, escaping into the methodical chewing of her apple.

With just four minutes until the bus’s ungodly 7:15 arrival, I had a decision to make. Would I let the school bell ring on my wrath, or would I try to take something wrong, whatever it was, and turn it into something right?

I should have harnessed some fail proof strategy. But I had once again fallen into a tar pit of parenting confusion. I’ve never been into all the “mommy” stuff: magazines and playgroups; Pinterest and its neurotic cupcakes; disciplined, highlighted hair. Sure, I drive a minivan, but I’m quite certain I drive it ironically. From the moment I got pregnant, I determined to stay myself, a self who just happened to have kids. Just another poet and English teacher with a bouncy seat in the living room, and a dark, inner vortex of anger she never knew existed.

[Read more...]

Family, Friends, Honored Guests

Graduation season has come to a close now, and the above-said words have welcomed the last audience to the final pomp and circumstance. I went through the yearly routine, yet again, both on the bestowing end, at my school, and on the spectating end, watching one of my nieces.

I saw and heard mostly what I expected to see and hear. Somebody should write a satire on this day alone; it would likely spawn a rash of movie sequels: “Mortar Board III: The Deadening,” etc.

As far as the programs went, wishes were made, courage was infused, and thanks were returned in goodly measure. Impossible optimism and outrageous hyperbole were the touchstones.

Each class (like all the ones before it) was said to be the most remarkable ever tasseled, and was expected to achieve the most inconceivable ever attempted. It seems that, once be-gowned, even the most impenitent of knaves goes through a pixie-dust transformation. For those few hours, they all become intrepid geniuses, capable of extracting plutonium from Captain Crunch cereal, launching moon shots from backyard trebuchets, coining non-Indo European languages out of text glyphs—nay, nothing is beyond their grasp. [Read more...]

The Mystery Inside Me

For the past nine months, I feel like I’ve been at a standstill. A place in which I have no words, nothing to describe what is happening to me, and in me.

In six weeks, I am due to give birth to my first child, a son, and although I have had flashes of deep joy and extreme fear (often occurring in the same day), what has marked my life as an expectant mother the most is this sense of complete, undeniable uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I have no idea what to expect; I have no game plan, no hook of events upon which to hang doubts and anticipations.

All I know is that this little boy, whose feet twist into my ribs even as I write, is coming.

Labels have always been a source of comfort for me. As a child, I collected the flimsy certificates that teachers handed out at the end of the school year, the ones that said Top Achiever, Super Star, Best in the Class. When I moved onto my college campus, I introduced myself to classmates with a vigorous wave and the following words: “Hi, my name is Allison, and I want to be a high school teacher.” [Read more...]

The Marrow of Prayer

Early this year, Spanish researchers published a peer-reviewed paper considering the evidence of social learning in Middle Pleistocene hominids as indicated by patterns of butchery.

In the study, part of the Bolomer excavation under the auspices of the Prehistory Museum of Valencia, researchers examined bones to find that breakages during butchering to extract marrow occurred at unlikely places, indicating a specific intention, knowledge and practices transmitted through the generations from parent to child, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I tuck in my three-year-old at bedtime under a mural I painted for him of mountains and trees and animals from his favorite storybooks: Owl Babies, Curious George. I turn the lights off, and brighten the dimmer three clicks, just enough to see. Aslan—the lion from the Narnia books I can’t wait to read to Sam when he’s a couple of years older—emerges from the dark with a slightly punk-rock mane on the wall just above my son’s pillow. [Read more...]

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Well, somebody at Good Letters had to do it: Somebody had to go buy the incessantly-hyped volume Lean In by the stratospherically successful Facebook COO (and mother of two) Sheryl Sandberg, and figure out what’s behind the seemingly endless radio talk shows and online profiles—they have been following me, they have, filling up my car like clouds of incense and dinging on my phone with the book’s mantra-like subtitle, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I bought this part-memoir, part self-help book on a gorgeous spring weekday when, because I work part-time, I was supposed to be home anyway. Because the pollen was getting to me and I had woken up groggy, my husband generously offered to take the children to school on his way in to work, something that Sandberg would applaud: husbands who will assume major leadership at home are a major key in enabling mothers to succeed.

I stumbled around the house in my nightgown for a while, then finally got dressed and picked up Lean In at the Target in suburban Largo, Maryland, which at ten on a weekday morning, was as silent as a tomb. [Read more...]

Mother of Sorrows: Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary

Good Letters welcomes back former blogger Jessica Mesman Griffith, author of the new book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters.

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,” begins Colm Toibin’s novella, The Testament of Mary. “There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.”

Mary is describing the apostles who hound her as she hides from a vengeful world; they want her to confirm their Easter stories. But she could also be speaking of the angels—angels who brought her the news of her destiny carrying nails and a crown of thorns. It is this image of Mary the hunted that Toibin pursues from the Annunciation to her death. [Read more...]

Depression, Gift, and Legacy

For Johnny, of course

My mother has been dead a year now, and it has taken me this whole time to begin to find value in her faults as much as her virtues.

For much of my adult life, I’ve been in flight from just such a consideration: There’s a book called The Spiritual Advantages of an Unhappy Childhood, but I didn’t want to read it.

The short version of the story—as anyone who’s read my posts on Good Letters knows—is that my father died and then my mother fell apart, friends left behind and relationships squandered.

Her life shrunk to the dried husk cast off by a locust. She even began to speak in the past tense. My siblings were grown and gone, and I was with her in the house alone. [Read more...]

Coming Home to Fatherhood

I recently saw a brief clip of a ten year-old girl in her classroom who looks up to see that her soldier father has unexpectedly come home from Iraq. I confess that I am a complete sucker for this. I couldn’t describe the video to someone without getting husky voiced, which is just plain embarrassing. I watched it on Youtube a half dozen times, and then—because the Internet is of the devil—I was presented with the opportunity to watch other videos that the Youtube algorithm deemed similar to the first.

So of course I watched them all.

Some are exploitive—parents and principals and news anchors all conspiring in elaborate, hours-long hoaxes to maximize the surprise of children, and ensure that it’s all captured on high-quality film for consumption by suckers like me. Others, like the video that pulled me in, are simple and brief and lovely. [Read more...]