Get Real: Holiday Snapshots of Motherhood Not All They Seem

There are a heap of holidays cards accumulated in the past few weeks stacked in the wooden Christmas card basket with the carved Santa and reindeers on the handle. One at the top is postmarked from a nearby suburb; a photo from a smiling mother and father accessorized by impeccably attired grown children.

Designed in joyful gold, red and green, the card is accompanied by a neatly folded, single-space, 11-point, typed letter of accomplishments, graduations, promotions, vacations, awards, retirement, new home and other fill-in-the-blank pronouncements.

This is not my life in this equinox of a year. I will turn 60 years old and my oldest son turns 30; 2018 will mark for the first time that I have spent more years of my life as a mother than not. It is an identity I consistently struggle to place in perspective as it shifts into unpredicted shapes. Popular culture does not seem to offer solace, hope or recognition of myself.

The mothers I witness portrayed in the holiday-timed movies that played this season are either strictly demons, saints, or just plain fools. I cringed and cried — along with most every other mother or daughter watching Lady Bird — alarmed by the phrases that sting and stab, seeing what honestly I could and have done, but knowing that the severest of scenes I could not emulate.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut received the highest praise ever for a film from Rotten Tomatoes, prompting my conviction that a lot of mothers out there are connecting to a mother character whom they regretfully resemble or one they assure themselves they will never be. Particularly when Marion, the mother, in passing says to her daughter, “Well, my mother was an abusive alcoholic.”

It’s a mother mic drop.

In I, Tonya, the film about figure skater Tonya Harding, her mother, LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, is a hate-filled, relentless abuser. Janney apparently elicits an eensy slice of empathy amid the horrors she extends by exclaiming to her daughter, “I hated my mother too, you know!”

This is not exactly the traditional script for the commercials featuring U.S. Olympians’ moms serving milk between practices to their proteges.

Not abusive but more ridiculous are the mothers in the let yourself go and all will be fine mom comedy niche that was A Bad Moms Christmas. The premise for the all-white, middle class Yuletide tale of back to back generations of dysfunctional motherhood offered me no redemption.

Mimicking the road trip films of yore and the bad boy movies of forever yesterday, today and tomorrow, I do get that the genre is not meant to be literal. But evenings of moms bonding at male strip clubs while throwing back shots are personally not my form of release; I tend to consider DUI charges and personal safety threats as deterrents.

Popular culture, literature and history are filled with many strands of bad mothers, including perhaps the most notorious mother enshrined in the Bad Mother Hall of Fame, Joan Crawford, whose daughter, Christina, penned the memoir Mommie Dearest in 1978. Later turned into a film starring Faye Dunaway, the phrase, “No wire hangers!” bore the longevity of terror for a generation of mothers to be.

Centuries earlier there was William Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, who recites: “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me./ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you/ Have done to this.”

Yes, it is true that some mothers may turn out to be monsters in fiction and in real life. I do not condone or apologize for their choices, but perhaps it is good to have their legacies serve as  cautionary tales. “A perfect life is a perfect lie” is the tagline for HBO’s Golden Globes six-times nominated Big Little Lies, launching this spring into its second season. It is a timely reminder.

On the other side of the naughty chart, many more of us will never be the saint moms who overcome all odds and meet impossible struggles with grace. Such was the character played recently by Julia Roberts in Wonder and also Tiny Tim’s mom in A Christmas Carol, the patron saint of maternal selflessness for  the past 174 years of holidays.

Those millions of us flawed mothers with children — adopted, foster, by birth or by circumstance — know that there is a spotlight on us as mothers at this time of year. Whether the light is cast on us by a police flashlight or the headlights of a patrol car, or whether we throw the spotlights and candlelight on ourselves, we are perhaps all just looking for some clarity and recognition of the nuanced complications of motherhood.

I agree that many of us are hoping to make life as blessed and joyous as it looks in the holiday cards we pose and send from November through January. We bought more than 1.6 billion holiday cards in 2015, according to the Greeting Card Association. That’s a lot of cheer posing as reality. Perhaps what many of us have done in this snapshot greeting has been seeking a sense of forgiveness — not for any crime against our children — but for any crime against our own unrealistic standards of perfection.

I sent my own holiday cards again this year  — a photo of myself with my three grown twentysomething sons in front of our fireplace, itself an emblem of privilege. I spared everyone a letter, because some years, like this one, the joy uploaded from my camera phone does not reveal any difficult transitions or upheavals that preceded or followed that moment.

On my list of friends to whom I sent the stamped, self-addressed card (not just a Facebook greeting) are mothers who are dear friends who have lost children to suicide, accidents, violence, or illness. I cannot imagine the hollowness that pervades every cell of a mother’s body from that erasure. I wondered if it was wrong to send a photo of my own family smiling in the face of another family’s impossible recalibration. I sent them anyway.

My sons’ handmade ornaments that hung on our Christmas tree made when they were in grade school remind me of the holiday pageants in the 1990s where each of us mothers stood beaming from the auditorium seats in our shoulder-padded Christmas sweaters, none of us really knowing what lie ahead or exactly how the decades of motherhood would rewire us.

Perhaps the cards that tumbled into the mail slot and landed on the side table in our front hall were not meant to convey that these moments of bliss represent the total picture of a mother and her family.

But what may be more useful is acknowledging that all year long and all life long, good mothers do behave badly. And bad mothers do behave well. The danger is when we are locked into normalizing the extremes.