Let me tell you a story about a play-date in a park that I once had with another mother and her children. (Some of you are going to wince at the term 'play-date' - but bear with me). My daughter, a preschooler at the time, was sick of being trapped at home with an over-tired mother and a crying baby so I arranged this 'date'. He was my second baby so it probably goes without saying that I was coping better with 'the baby stage' than I had the first time around, but I was still struggling to - how shall we say it - keep my sanity. I arrived feeling quite self-congratulatory, with my hair brushed and a picnic blanket and bag full of healthy snacks, and I felt good right up until it came time for the children to sit and eat.
And this is when the other mother forbade her children to eat my food.
The hommus was not home-made, you see, I had bought it in a shop without reading the ingredient list, and even though the cucumber and carrot sticks had been chopped by my very own hands, they were not organic vegetables. She tried to be nice about it, but really, when you think someone is feeding poison to children how nice can you possibly be? Modern parenting involves a lot of these moments - being horrified at another parent's choices as discreetly as possible. We were both trying our best here.
I'm vegetarian, so I try to be sympathetic about other people's food rules, but the talk I received on additives, chemicals and hidden sugars was making me feel increasingly fragile with every mouthful of my carrot sticks. I heard a lot of other things about toxins in the environment, too, but the general suspicion towards polluters didn't extend to her own enormous 4WD. (Silently noting hypocrisy was helping my carrot sticks go down a little easier). She separated her choices neatly in her head between those that were good for her children and those that were not, but somewhere in the middle fell more complicated questions like whether it mattered if a car was safer for its occupants than for everyone else on the road and for that matter, whether responsibility for car fumes was as critical as responsibility for pesticides to our health.
Our conversation then skittered across a bunch of topics - birth, breastfeeding and baby-rearing - and while we had some common ground it was all so black and white for her. Her lack of compromise was a tightly coiled spring that made it difficult for us to stretch and relax in the exchange. Listening to her, parenting became a landscape dotted with irreversible consequences. One false move and you could inflict terrible damage upon your child or miss a vital course of action that would never return again. It was high stakes; a kind of parenting that must have required an exhausting amount of research, and I say that as someone who loves research.
These are the possibilities of 'earth mother' absurdity for you. It can take a lot of planning and control (and money) to be zen. Getting everything just right so you can let go. Following a very prescriptive path in order to 'be yourself'. And there can be elitism in being bare and natural, too, because returning to tradition and being anti-corporate can involve a lot of expenses.
Andrew Potter described this perverse situation as "meticulous Bohemia" in his book, The Authenticity Hoax. A situation where you can feel like you are rejecting the materialism of the mainstream but be chasing the status of subculture. Where you can tie yourself in knots by self-consciously trying to perform an authentic sense of self, and where you resist advertising phoniness but then fall for any dubious product with 'ethnic' attached to it. Where you want to be different, just like everyone else, which is why every hipster around the world looks the same and all parents use the word 'play-date' now. The danger is that you can become obsessed with obtaining authenticity at any cost. And it never really existed.
Is that what this mother was doing? Probably, but I feel a little protective towards her, too. So, she didn't want to eat my hommus.. you know what else can be elitist and ever-so-now? Being jaded with people's beliefs. I might not be able to make hommus but I can churn out a batch of cynicism instantly. I never embraced the 'earth mother' identity because I was too busy holding on to the 'not a mother' identity. If there was a product that specialised in ensuring you didn't look too motherly while doing the job of mothering then I was buying it. Such was my enthusiasm for this anti-identity that in the first year I dragged myself and my baby to an overnight bush rave, just to prove I still could. (I know a thing or two about chasing Bohemia). Camping, being designated driver, not getting any sleep, and keeping a baby quiet and happy in a rave can get very tedious, I discovered. Nothing can make you look more fondly upon surrendering to the limits of parenthood than finding yourself calming a cranky baby and a strung-out raver friend at the same time.
What can I say? Motherhood is scary. You're thrust into a level of dependence and uncertainty you rarely experience as an adult woman, and all of that can make you lose it a little. You face that fear in your own way. Some of us will find an ease with the role rather quickly, like a true earth mother, and the rest of us will fake it or fight it until we get comfortable. The risk, according to Potter, is that with this discomfort people never develop genuine connections because we are divided by competition and self-absorbed consumerism.
We have much in common that could unite us as parents. Organic food or not, we're all somewhat idealistic, all wanting to do the best for our children and all feeling slightly overwhelmed. Except, I can't help but notice that this mother's children and mine reside at the top of the tower of opportunity - they're afforded advantages, never earned, through race, class and nationality that will exceed any decision we make about their food. It is this fact that can make our preoccupations seem trivial. As much as we may wish to see ourselves as alternative, Potter is right, the blurring between what are our concerns and our taste is what marks that mother and I as both so very middle-class.
I have more perspective and more compassion when I remember this. I try not to agonise over my parenting so much these days, nor to get lost in evaluating someone else's. I know that my mistakes are numerous and the outcomes for my children will be as much about the world around them and who they are, as it will be about our efforts as parents. Now I am trying something different - I deliberately spend more time appreciating the parenting tasks I do beautifully for my children, and more time believing I will figure the problems out when they happen. In a way it's quite zen, this surrender, and it's as close to being an earth mother as I will get.