On Mother's Day, think of the Medeas

The Baltimore Sun

If productivity was down in your workplace last week, you can blame your mother. All across the Baltimore area, employees lingered through their lunch hour in card stores, reading and sighing. Buying a Mother's Day card is not easy.

For some, the card that says, "Mom, thanks for being perfect," is fine, but for the rest of us, with complicated mothers and complicated relationships, the search for the right message is tough.

But even as children (of all ages) struggle to summarize their maternal relationship in a card, those on the receiving end have mixed feelings too. Most mothers know that we don't come close to the platitudes in those greeting cards. What is a good mother? Do we measure up? On this day that celebrates kindness, patience and sacrifice, many of us squirm, remembering our less-than-ideal maternal moments. We wonder if we've done something really bad along the way and worry whether our worst day as a mother damaged our kids.

The topic of parents who hurt their children is a painful one, and, fair or not, this seems particularly true when the parent in question is female. The reality of mothers' hostile impulses against their children is old news in psychological circles and parenting books, but we rarely allow parents to admit those feelings.

Thank goodness, the vast majority of us don't act on our thoughts, but some mothers have struggled with the limits and lost. When we hear about them, many of us suspect - in the privacy of our hearts - that it was just the grace of God, good friends, perhaps a reliable baby sitter that kept us from taking their place (not to mention the blessings of a good education and money in the bank).

So maybe we should, especially on Mother's Day, spare a moment's thought for those women who did the unthinkable by hurting their own child.

Every mother who at least once has said or done something she swore she never would (and isn't that all of us?) can be grateful for everything that keeps her from crossing over to the territory of the terrible mother. We can count ourselves lucky and a little grateful that most of us have slapped but did not scald, screamed but did not hit, or cursed but did not kill.

We can't talk about monstrous mothers without mentioning Medea, the mythological woman who killed her kids to punish their philandering father. But Medea got to her breaking point after a world tour of abuse, abandonment and humiliation. After being dumped in a strange country with no way home, she lost it and she killed. Medea's story is a myth, but as with all myths, it points to something real in the human psyche.

When we read about women who hurt their kids, a healthy mother has to stop and ask herself, "How did that woman get there?" Nobody starts out wanting to kill her children; nobody starts out thinking scalding is reasonable discipline. It's baby steps all the way.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, wrote: "If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and we could separate them from us and destroy them, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." That includes yours and mine.

So today let's thank the good mothers, remember the struggling mothers, and offer a measure of compassion even for the Medeas of the world, who in their tragic solution to life's problems remind us where we must never go.

Diane Cameron is a writer in Guilderland, N.Y. Her e-mail is dcameron6@nycap.rr.com.

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