My kid was tossing around his baseball in the house tonight, which he does ad nauseum these days. This time it was after dinner, when he was supposed to be putting on his PJs. I was out of steam, as I so often am after dinner, and I must have asked him 42 times to please put the ball away and get undressed. Then all of a sudden he tossed it up, missed where it landed, and completely lost it somewhere in the depths of our living room. He looked for it for about 12 seconds before declaring that he needed me to find it. I searched to no avail before letting him gently know that I didn’t think we had time to look hard before bedtime, and I’d look more before morning. Because he is truly obsessed with baseball these days, this sent him into a worried tizzy, thinking his ball was lost forever, his 5-year-old brain fully believing that our carpet had swallowed it into the black hole below our couch. Not easily bearing his distress, I fed him a popsicle and kept looking, and looking. And looking. Twenty-odd minutes later I extracted it from a hidden spot behind our couch, triumphantly. He sheepishly thanked me and hugged me several times and my Heroic Mama status was returned.
I have a lot of parenting moments that consist of me letting myself know what a bad job I’m doing. So, considering my usual M.O. of parental self-contempt (which seems to be the M.O. of so many working mamas – at least I’m in good company) the moments of patting myself on the back are substantially rarer. True, part of the reason behind that is the impossibly high bar I set for myself; the other part is the pervasive cultural narratives about all the things I’m supposed to be to them.
My son (the baseball fanatic) is just learning to read, so the whole family is even more into books these days than we usually are. I couldn’t be happier since I secretly want them to be avid book lovers, as I’ve always been. But, something’s been nagging at me as we return to classics that I still adore, and crack open new ones that we fall in love with together. There’s a stock character that seems to recur no matter how new or old the story – the Heroic Mama.
The Heroic Mama is sometimes just there as the central caregiver, to read the bedtime story, or make sure the child has a hot dinner, or a warm bath. In many books, she’s the only parental presence – any other paternal figures are apparently not significant enough to the story (or to the protagonist child) to mention. Sometimes the Heroic Mama is the Fixer, the only one who can make whatever it is better. Sometimes she’s the Sage, dispensing calm wisdom or soothing reassurance. Other times she’s the Gentle Enforcer, with a balanced and non-yelly approach to discipline, which works every time.
When we read beautiful books like The Snowy Day or Windows, I let the absence of any other family members go unmentioned. When Blueberries for Sal or Owl Babies are the chosen stories, I put on my fun voices and brush aside the annoyance that the kids (and bear cubs and owlets) in the stories are so utterly dependent on their mamas being within sight at all times – but seriously y’all, why can’t Daddy Owl babysit while Mommy Owl is out looking for food? Even in our beloved new favorite Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, her mommy is the one helping little Katie Honors lick her wounds when she calms down after a tantrum. I’m just gonna hope that Daddy is busy doing laundry, or her other Mommy is off conducting brain surgery, and those details just didn’t make the editor’s cut.
This is what my feminist mama brain asks itself when we read: Where is everyone else in this kid’s life? Obviously, this doesn’t happen in every book, and admittedly, our home library is pretty heteronormative which is probably part of the problem. Hey, single moms by choice are also a new normal, but I have a feeling that’s generally not the default family structure in an author’s mind when omitting other parental influences. I could count on one hand the number of books in which there’s a paternal figure but no mention of a maternal one; in fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of a single story we own in which that’s the family scenario. Heroic Mama is a cultural icon, and is the bedrock upon which so many of our impossibly high standards for ourselves, and for the mothers around us, are built.
I don’t want to lose these stories from our lives, but do they have something to do with the fact that when my son hugged me for finding his ball, I hugged him back and whispered, “I always want to help you fix things that are bothering you…”?
Here’s the real sticking point, though: for a mama who otherwise is often made to feel like I’m not measuring up (which my feminist brain is also aware is not all in my head – thank you, America) the Heroic Mama tropes at least paint a picture of me that reassures them I will always be there, even when I’m not always there. While the rickety pedestal they set up is unnerving, it’s also sometimes a welcome maternal ego stroke. When, after the owl babies have been fretting the whole book about where their mother has gone, and they all close their eyes and wish together that their mother would come, she appears with the line:
“AND SHE CAME. Soft and silent, she swooped through the trees…”
…back to her kiddos – I get goosebumps every time.
She’s their superhero. She literally descends on them like Batman while they squeal with relief and delight. Every parent wants to be their kid’s hero at some point, and we certainly don’t hold this esteem in the eyes of our children forever. I remind myself constantly that this adoration is fleeting, so I should revel in it. Grab onto it and store it up for when my kids are teenagers, embarrassed to be seen with me. These seemingly anti-feminist narratives might actually be doing me a service in some ways – while unquestionably doing my husband no favors. He is the Daddy Owl that babysits when Mommy Owl goes out to dinner with her Owl college friends, and drinks a lot of red wine and overspends the “dining out” budget for the month. Maybe my problem with these depictions is not so much the pressure they put on me to be all these wonderful things, but the non-existent expectation they place on him. He is so frequently given no representation, so he needs to build his hero status from scratch.
I suppose considering the many narratives missing from the dominant stories in our culture, giving men (hetero, cis men at that) more representation is not what I’m arguing for. I don’t think I’m arguing for anything, really, because while the stories that uplift a mama’s role in her children’s lives sometimes feel like they are deceptively incomplete and wildly simplistic, they are also reminding us how important mothers are in the stories of us and our world, and no part of my feminist brain would dispute that. Do I want that to be the sum-total of what I am expected to measure up to, as a mother? Heck no. But, do I actually want to give up the possibility of my kids seeing me as a hero, a fixer, a sage, and a gentle enforcer – even for a few more years, and even if I’m not really any of those things? Selfishly, also heck no.
They’ll have plenty of time to discover how disappointingly human I am once they’re old enough to read their own books, and the ones about owls and bears begin gathering dust on our shelves.
Until then, I’ll take what I can get.