Let me tell you a secret: everyone misses their mother.
It doesn’t matter who you are, how old she is, whether you live near or far away, or even how well you get along. You just do.
Don’t tell anyone. We’re not supposed to talk about it. Especially boys.
Our culture works hard 364 days a year to make motherhood something of a pathology. Think I’m kidding? Consider this: in order to provide new mothers the right to return to a job after the briefest of leave, the U.S. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had to categorize pregnancy and nursing motherhood as a kind of disability. Mother is a word we make insults out of on the playground. It is who we are teased for “running home to” when times are bad, literally and figuratively. Somehow, “mothering” connotes weakness.
All of this belies a truth we find too scandalous to tell: like it or not, human beings are social creatures, dependant upon intimacy. The simple biological fact of motherhood is proof positive that everyone, high-born or low, has only come into being through a connection to someone else. In a marketplace of people aspiring to be self-made, this makes us very nervous. We simply cannot become, all on our own.
One of the earliest psychological tasks of the developing child is to become aware of themself as something separate from the mother, literally learning where “mother” ends and where “I” begin. That is why early bonding with a caregiver is so important during that first year: holding, nursing, singing, touching, looking into the eyes, rhyming. In today’s economy, families everywhere are challenged to find the best way to provide children sufficient access to their own mothers, as the mere 12 weeks offered by the FMLA falls woefully short. Like so many, our own family has made tremendous sacrifices so that our own two sons could benefit from their mother’s presence for as long as possible after their birth, and I will always be grateful that my wife made them the priority that she has.
Now that our youngest is two, we are entering new territory as I become the daytime caregiver for a few months while my wife tackles new consulting opportunities. Though it has been a beneficial arrangement, it takes some getting used to for all of us.
For instance, always a fan of “Little Critter,” my youngest son has suddenly settled on one book as his favorite naptime reading: Mercer Mayer’s “Just Me and My Mom.” Over and over again. Since my wife typically manages his evening bedtime routine, this gentle book offers something that he needs during the day to be reminded of his mother’s presence while relaxing with me. As anyone who has read “Little Critter” knows, the fun comes from Mayer’s playful contrast between the text and illustrations. Little readers instinctively get the difference between what Little Critter says and what he actually does, because it is often a reflection of their own thinking. “The city was very busy,” says a fearful Little Critter on his special day out with his mother. “I held Mom’s hand so she wouldn’t be scared.”
The playful, cartoonish style Mayer is best known for is very different from his early work. Another household Mayer favorite, “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet” from 1968, is so different from his work today that even adults fail to recognize they are from the same author. The prose, however, clearly comes from the same voice. If you close your eyes and listen, the funny story about the little boy frightening and befriending the monster in his closet might just as well be a Little Critter book. But instead of anthropomorphic country critters rendered in boldly inked lines, we have realistic suburban children in the detailed cross-hatching style that was typical of the day. Clearly, five years after “Where the Wild Things Are,” publishers wanted Maurice Sendak for their house style. In fact, I think I see a family resemblance. I have often wondered if Sendak’s fierce, yellow-eyed Wild Things from 1963 gave birth to the adorable Little Critter just 12 years later in Mayer’s “Just For You.”
This is ironic, given the wild difference between each author’s take on childhood. Where Mayer tackles important childhood transitions with idyllic humor, Sendak famously dives into the shadowy unconscious and insecurity of childhood. The stuff mother doesn’t want to know.
In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.
-Maurice Sendak with cartoonist Art Spiegelman in the New Yorker.
But there is more than a little wild thing in Little Critter, whose sweetness comes with a heaping dose of puckish misbehavior. And though he never idealizes childhood, Sendak’s towering mothers are always an essential force of nature: stern, unbridled love. Consider Sweet Adeline in “Bumble Ardy,” his 1970 collaboration with Jim Henson.
Even in “Wild Things,” Max’s revenge fantasy after being sent to his room without any supper may be cathartic, but after sailing back into the night of his very own room he finds his supper waiting for him “…and it was still hot.”
That firm maternal tenderness can be easy to miss in Sendak, because it is so understated, but it is what ties his Wild Things to the world of Little Critter, and all the children’s literature that follows in his wake.
After all the bedtime stories have been read, there is one theme that keeps emerging: the search for the mother as the search for the self. Typically in this type of picture book, a small animal goes searching for its lost mother, encountering one species after another until it finds someone it resembles. I first noticed it in “Are You My Mother?” a lesser known work by Dr. Seuss’ protegé, P.D. Eastman.
But there are many more. One recent example is “Little Owl Lost” by newcomer, Chris Haughton…
…again in Julia Donaldson’s “Where’s My Mom?”…
…and of course in the greatest “Who’s Your Mommy?” book ever written, Robert McCloskey’s “Blueberries for Sal.”
The theme is so prevalent in children’s literature, it almost goes unnoticed. Sendak even parodied it himself in his first pop-up book, “Mommy?” In it, a small child searches for his mother without fear in a spooky haunted house, until the surprise twist at the end reveals why.
Now more than ever, we need books about mothers. We need our own connection restored, and we need to forge it fresh for our own children all year round, after all the Mother’s Day cards have been taken off the shelves. It takes more than Hallmark platitudes to forge character. The bleak realism of Sendak’s books is an answer to the modern cynicism that tries to segment the mother into disposable or marketable stereotypes (“soccer mom,” “tiger mom,” “working mom,” “blogger mom,” etc.) In children’s literature, “Mother” means a return to civilizing love. She is how we remember who we are and find the way home.
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