The Central Paradox of Motherhood


Boston. -- My young friend will celebrate her first Mother's Day a little ahead of schedule, or at least ahead of her due date. It is going to be a prenatal event. Her table will be decorated with a sonogram, and her labors toasted with something decaffeinated.

Like many women her age, 30, and this age, 1992, she has planned for this parenthood, although "planned" is far too lame a word. My friend has nested with more attention to detail than the robins on my walnut tree. Her child will come genetically tested, gender-known, prenamed, untouched by a drop of alcohol or single pesticide-infested piece of fruit.

She and her husband have readied their son's first environment with the same degree of attention. They have been through an entire EPA list of dangers. They have tested the house for radon and the nursery for lead paint and checked Consumer Reports for the ranking of cribs and high chairs. They have installed an intercom and read up on everything from breast-feeding to the safest sleeping position for infants.

I watch their attention to the details of this birth with affection and memories. They are creating a world in which their boy will be both safe and central. Soon enough, my friend will be wearing the dazed look of new motherhood, honed to every cry of the child now housed happily in its own contained unit.

We are programmed to pay such attention to our newborns. In our species, it isn't so much the survival of the fittest as the survival of those with the fittest parents. We are expected to circumscribe our adult world to the space within earshot of our infant. As a society, we give new mothers some dispensation from the wider world, some maternity leave from worldly concerns.

But my Mother's Day carries different thoughts. I am on the other end of motherhood, beyond the nursery, the fingerpainted pictures, the sticky trays of breakfast in bed.

My daughter is now a young woman on the other side of the continent and the other end of the phone line. I cannot design the world she sees from her window in Los Angeles, a view of a city gone up in smoke and rage and alienation.

We talk this past week on our AT&T; intercom as two adults. Incredulous at the Rodney King verdict, dismayed at the violence, conscious of the painful irony of being at risk from people whose sense of injustice we share.

I remember I was pregnant when Martin Luther King was killed and the streets erupted. Nothing has changed, she replies. I tell her what is different. She tells me what is not. We do not disagree much.

In our conversation, I think about how much time and energy in life is focused on the private venture of child-raising. The dirty little secret of motherhood is that if you gave us -- me too -- a choice between saving a building full of people or saving our own, we would walk away holding our own child's hand and breathing a sigh of relief.

Most of us start out like my pre-mother friend, with the central illusion that we can raise our children in the womb of family life. They are our private property. We will protect them, raise them according to our values, fully-formed and ready to install. We believe that if everyone raised their own child right -- lighted just one little candle -- we could change the world.

But we also learn, the hard way, as our children leave the consumer-tested crib one by one, that we have to follow them. It isn't enough to worry about grades if the schools are falling apart. It isn't enough to feed our children vitamins if hazardous waste is dumped in the ground. We can't build a fence high enough to protect them from the stench of racism or the reach of war.

The central paradox of motherhood is that while our children become the absolute center of our lives, they must also push us back out into the world. Today's much-heralded return to the pleasures and pressures of family life sometimes seems like a retreat. But motherhood that can narrow our lives can also broaden them. It can make us focus intensely on the moment and invest heavily in the future.

And this Mother's day I want to tell my friend, the pre-mother, as she puts the very last elaborate touches on her son's nursery: don't forget the world. Before you know it -- take my word for this -- it will be his world.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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