Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guilt about the Royal Wedding and Motherhood

Daughter Eleni, who studied Folk Lore and Mythology  at Harvard, recently launched her blog “The Liminal Stage”. (As she explains: “Liminal stages are psychological thresholds, times of transition when we stand ‘betwixt and between’ one state and another. The biggies are birth, marriage, death.”)

 Yesterday she posted about the Royal Wedding under the title “Will Kate Middleton Eat My Daughter?” (She was riffing on the current best seller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein.)  From the topic of the Royal Wedding, she segued into pregnancy and motherhood and how  guilt is an inevitable ingredient in these major liminal stages—especially in the United States, where everyone is so uptight about what a pregnant woman should or should not do.

 Eleni began her post with the story of how I apologized to her for not watching Diana and Charles’ wedding with her 30 years ago, and maybe that's why  I found her essay hilarious while at the same time very wise and insightful about what a guilt-ridden state is motherhood these days.
So I got her permission to reprint her post today on “A Rolling Crone”. 

Now you’ll know why we’re not getting up at five a.m. tomorrow to drink tea and eat scones together, although we both  hope—along with every other woman waiting to see The Dress, that Kate will find her marriage guilt- and worry-free, unburdened by all the expectations and complications that Princess Diana dragged down the aisle along with her 25-foot train three decades ago.

Will Kate Middleton Eat My Daughter?

April 27th, 2011

That Royal Wedding, July 29, 1981, Getty Images / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive (borrowed from an page on Princess Diana's wedding photos).
This morning my mother apologized. It’s a rare occurrence, but what was even more remarkable was the topic about which she felt guilty. “I was reading somewhere a woman remembering her mother waking her up to watch Princess Diana get married 30 years ago, and now the writer is going to wake up her own daughters to watch the Royal Wedding on Friday,” she reported. “And I felt sort of bad I didn’t wake you girls up.”
I told Joanie not to worry, that I actually thought it was a good move not to teach her five-year-old daughter (not to mention my then two-year-old sister) to fetishize a 19-year-old girl marrying a laconic older man who was in love with someone else.  I didn’t watch that royal wedding and I didn’t grow up expecting to marry a prince, ride around in Cinderella carriages and grace the covers of magazines.
In fact, in light of the current culture of princess parties, and Disney domination (its darker sides are discussed in Peggy Orenstein’s bestselling book Cinderella Ate My Daughterand the fact that I’m due to give birth to a baby girl on August 19th, I’ve decided to try to keep my daughter in the dark about Disney princesses for as long as possible. I don’t want her wearing clothing or diapers that advertise a film franchise if I can help it, and I’m guessing that I’ll still be in charge of what she wears until she’s about three.
Does that sound naïve? Defensive? Hypocritical, given the fact that the bandaids in our house already have Elmo on them, in anticipation of the baby’s birth?

Portrait of Amalia of Greece, by Joseph Karl Stieler
The truth is, I have no issue with princesses, real or fictional. The name we’ve picked for our daughter, Amalia, was the name of the first queen of Greece. (I’m not a Royalist, I just like the way the name sounds, that you can say it in Greek, English and Spanish—Amalia’s key cultures–and I have very positive associations with the name, as it also belongs to a dear friend of mine.)
Baby aside, and back to Kate Middleton, I’m taking advantage of a local spa’s Royal Wedding special—half price manicure/pedicures all day, plus they’re serving tea and crumpets! And I am excited to see what Kate wears—I hope it will put to rest the 15 year tyranny of the strapless wedding dress, and offer future brides more interesting options.
But the whole Royal Wedding brouhaha, and my mother’s guilt over opting out of the first one, has got me thinking about motherhood, and how a mom starts feeling guilt and fear before the baby is even born. Part of this is biological I think….I can’t read a People magazine without worrying about bringing a child into a world filled with tsunamis and wars and sex traffickers.
But I think part of the motherhood guilt is cultural, given the way American doctors tell us not to let anyone know we’re pregnant for the first trimester (if something were to go wrong, I’d be devastated either way, plus I’d want the support of my family and close friends–so whose feelings was I safeguarding by staying mum?).  In my first trimester I was painfully aware that something could go wrong at any moment—and then I realized that I will never again be free of that fear—at 96 I’ll be worrying about my 60–year–old baby.
Then, there’s the American culture of blame when it comes to every single thing you put in your mouth. In England, Kate Middleton will be glad to know, food safety is so good pregnant women get to eat sushi and smoked salmon and turkey, whereas here undercooked fish and smoked or cured fish or meats are strictly off limits. A Greek friend’s doctor told her she should drink a glass of red wine a day for the antioxidants, whereas here we’re not even supposed to have feta cheese, much less booze. I think all these US rules are overcautious, Puritanical and just plain wrong (for all our rules, the US has a higher infant mortality rate than most industrialized countries), but of course I’m following them—I couldn’t handle the guilt if I didn’t and something went awry.

Pomegranate--a lucky fruit--from
But I remember years ago, an Indian friend’s mother told me she ate a certain fruit or spice during each of her pregnancies, to ensure that her first child be handsome, her second joyful, her third brilliant. And I can’t help but think that is such a healthier, more positive attitude for mothers and babies—believing that by carefully choosing what you eat you can give your child blessings before they even greet the world, rather than fearing that if you put the wrong hors d’oeuvres in your mouth you are dooming your child to a lifetime of failure.
Once the baby’s born there’s the culture of competition—the race to the smuggest, to see who can feed (or diaper) their child more organically, shoe their baby’s tiny toes with the smallest carbon footprint. Before that there are so many loaded conversations about birth itself…I’m the only person in my prenatal pilates class giving birth in a hospital, and I have to admit that fact makes me feel wimpy.
The mother of Amalia the elder (not the Greek queen, but my BFF) likes to say that being a mom means being a punching bag—it’s part of the job description. And while right now I feel that quite literally—Amalia II likes to kick my hand off my stomach if I rest it there while watching TV—she means it figuratively; whatever choices you make as a mom, some of them will disappoint or hurt your children, and they’re sure to blame you. Just look at the first two lines of this blog for an example.
In the end, all you can do, I guess, is try to make the sanest, most loving choices possible, and forgive yourself for the times you fall short. And try not to judge other moms for not seeing parenting exactly as you do.

My non-royal, but rather princess-y carriage
So Joanie, thanks for not raising me expecting to become Princess Diana; it turns out she had a pretty hard row to hoe, despite the lovely tiara. And even though at 19 I was busily pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology and blaming my mom for making me wait until I was 13 to get my ears pierced, although my younger sister got hers pierced the exact same day—what’s that about?—I’ve had plenty of princess moments in my day.  I did marry a prince among men, eventually.  And I rode to the first of our two wedding ceremonies in a horse-drawn carriage, because we wed on the island of Corfu and that’s how they roll.
As a commoner without a title (until she’s married), Kate Middleton will ride to Westminster Abbey in a Rolls Royce (although she gets to leave in a carriage). Nevertheless, I hope she is surrounded by just as much love and laughter on her wedding day as I was on mine. I hope the little girls who get up early to watch her wed never forget doing so, and that those who sleep right through it have pleasant dreams of futures that don’t depend on the man they will marry, even if those dreams involve them turning into mermaids or having mice and bluebirds or seven little dwarves sew them fabulous couture gowns—and even if those gowns are strapless. Maybe Kate will have a daughter less than a year after her wedding, too. And when our daughters grow up and blog about us—and they will—I hope they will be kind.

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