Every few years in homeschooling circles, people seem to grasp onto one book or another and it becomes the thing to do to sing its praises. Fourteen years ago, when I started the homeschooling adventure, it was Peter Rabbit and all things Beatrix Potter. Moms gushed about tea partied in their gardens and how they were bringing this beloved classic to life.
These days the fad seems to be the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moms everywhere I go seem to be gushing about the manliness of Pa and the virtues of Ma. Caroline Ingalls is held up to be a sort of paragon of motherhood and a model for us all to follow.
Yesterday at co-op, I said something about needing to clean my house when an acquaintance of my said knowingly, “You know, Ma didn’t clean her house every day.”
I was momentarily confused. Ma? Was she talking about her own mother? Her grandmother?
She must have seen it on my face, because she said with a tinkling laugh, “You know…Ma Ingalls?”
“From Little House on the Prairie?” I asked skeptically, but then she nodded her head with a smile.
First of all, I’m pretty sure that she’s wrong and Ma cleaned that tiny cabin every single day except Sundays. Can you imagine the mess of all of those children and a farmer husband in one room? You’d have to sweep it out, at a bare minimum, every day. Plus, there’s absolutely nothing in those books that leads me to believe that that woman ever slacked off and let things slide.
Ma freaking Ingalls. To be honest with you, I never liked Ma. She’s right up there with my least liked literary characters, and is one of the moms I most don’t want to be. Have these people even read these books? Ma was the reason I stopped reading them when I was a child, and is one of the reasons why we hurry past them when we cover Westward Expansion in American History. (There are other books. I promise.)
So why don’t I want to be like Ma? Here’s a few of my top reasons (but certainly not the whole list)
1. Can we start with the fact that she was a racist? Ma hated Indians. Hated them. Even when they saved the Ingalls’ skin, and Pa and Laura begged her to be nice to them…she hated them. “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks. “I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,” Ma said.
You can talk to me about how she was a product of her time..blah, blah, blah…but we’re not talking about then, are we? We’re talking about the people who absolutely adore and admire her now. She was a big old racist. We can debate over whether or not that was okay when she lived, but it’s absolutely a moral failing today.
2. Does she ever hug those kids? Does she ever just snuggle up and love on them? There are all kinds of stories about her teaching and training them, and worrying about their morals and manners, but there’s not a whole lot of cuddling going on in the Ingalls household. It’s surprising to me how many attachment parenting moms, who believe so strongly in the value of physical closeness and affection, idolize this woman who seems to embody the opposite of what they espouse. I want to be the mom who loves on my children and lets them smoosh into me for comfort. I don’t want to be like Ma.
3. She flipped out over hair ribbons. Do you even remember her reaction when Mary and Laura switched ribbons so that they could each try out a new color and Ma acted like the world was ending and she was the worst mom ever? Seriously. They were hair ribbons. Did it really matter that the girls wanted to wear each other’s for the day? Who did it hurt? Nobody. Who ended up getting hurt? The feelings of the two little girls who just wanted to swap. (If you don’t think they cared, remember that Laura wrote about the incident in her memoirs. She cared. I promise.) I don’t want to be like Ma. I don’t want to waste time worrying about the small stuff.
4. How have they forgotten CHARLOTTE!?!?
Do you remember Laura’s doll Charlotte? Her ONLY doll? The one that she took immaculate care of? (P.S. My kids don’t have any toys that they take care of the way that Laura did Charlotte. It’s clearly time for a toy purge around here.) What happened to that doll? Do you remember?
Another family came to visit with their young daughter who unraveled Charlotte’s hair and loosened one of her eye buttons, and then threw a major temper tantrum when it was time to go because she wanted to keep Laura’s doll. And then? Ma made her give Charlotte to that bratty kid.
Then, later in the story, Laura found Charlotte frozen in a muddy puddle all bald-headed, one-eyed, and with half of her mouth gone!!!!!
(I’d like to add that I am not a fan of the other girl’s mom either. Who lets their kid behave this way? Why not send the beloved doll back or pass it on to someone else when it was obvious that her own child didn’t want it?)
I could go on, but after Charlotte, what’s the point?
I’m not trying to say that I think Ma Ingalls was a horrible woman. I’m sure that she was a fairly typical woman in her time. I think that she was absolutely doing the best she could in amazingly difficult circumstances. (The isolation and constant upheaval by themselves would be enough to level most of us.) I just don’t think she’s the amazing example of motherhood these women are holding her out to be. (Laura skipped her mother’s funeral for a reason.) There is much in her example of sheer will and determination to succeed and survive that we can benefit from today. Her relationship with her husband is a testament to the bond of marriage. But the exemplar of all things woman? I just don’t see it. I don’t understand the infatuation with Caroline Ingalls. (From the books. The TV show Ma is a whole different woman.)
While we’re all free to pick our own heroes and set them upon our own pedestals, she’s never been, and never will be, one of mine. When looking for heroic motherhood, I look a little closer to home – The Blessed Mother is the girl for me. All others don’t even come close.