You know those pictures that are made up, like a mosaic, of thousands of tiny photographs? They are a popular device in television and magazine ads. If you are very close to one of these things, you can see the detail of each tiny image, but can’t make any sense of the whole picture. If you are very far away from it, the tiny images blur into the one another, and the big picture comes into focus.
Just lately, I have been thinking that this is a lot like the lives of working mothers. When my mother was raising her children, the public image of moms was not a mosaic. It was a slightly grainy, black and white still of June Cleaver on the television show Leave it to Beaver. She wore nice dresses all the time, and while she might get a little cross with Wally and the Beav, she was never really mad. And she was always there. Putting breakfast on the table, offering up snacks and advice after school or at bed-time. Never distracted by her Blackberry, that nice Mrs. Cleaver. My mother didn’t watch much television, but if she had, this image of mom would have been pretty reinforcing. My mother looked a lot like a brunette, trouser-wearing version of June Cleaver. But what about the working mom who cleaned our house? What about the divorced mother who lived across the street? The East Indian mother two blocks over? None of those women saw themselves in this television icon of motherhood.
In the fifties and sixties, the culture had a more unified image of motherhood than we do now. Very helpful if you fitted the mold, not at all helpful if you didn’t. These days, instead of one dominant image of motherhood, we have a mosaic. Popular culture is full of dozens, if not hundreds of images of how to be a mom. Stay at home and make your own organic baby food. Go back to work and jog on the weekends with your baby in a zillion dollar stroller. Join a co-op day-care centre. Refuse to leave your child with anyone who does not share your DNA. Hire a nanny. Hire two. Recycle the baby clothes into a handmade quilt. Blog about cracked nipples. Have a c-section. Video tape your home-birth. On and on it goes.
For many of us, this feels like a giant mosaic on the side of a building. We are standing with our noses inches away from it, and all we can see are the picture tiles right in front of our noses. If we catch sight of an image that looks a bit like us, a bit like the choices we have made, that makes us feel better. But often the pictures in front of our noses seem to say we have made the wrong choices. If we are staying home with our kids, the images we see on television are all of women who have gone back to work, who have some money to spend and who are continuing to build their careers – and we are seized with doubt. If, on the other hand, we have gone back to work, our magazines seem to be full of reports on the deleterious effects of day-care and pictures of moms making muffins with their children and exploring farmers markets with them, teaching them about local, organic food – and once again, we feel we have come up short.
It’s really important that we take a deep breath and back up a few steps. Or a lot of steps. If we think hard, we can imagine that we are standing far away from that huge photo mosaic on the wall. And slowly, or perhaps all at once, we see two things. First, we see that there are actually thousands of different images in that mosaic of twenty-first century motherhood. We are in there somewhere. So are our friends, our neighbours, our sisters – even that bitch down the street who seems to have it all together and is unforgiveably flawless and cheerful in the schoolyard at 8:15 with her four – four! – perfect children. And second, we see that taken together, all those tiny picture tiles do form a wonderful picture. It is a picture of what it is to be a mom in the twenty-first century. It is a picture made up of a whole lot of women doing their best, loving their kids, contributing their gifts to the world. It is a picture of a woman, holding the hand of her child on one side, and the tools of her trade, on the other. Your tool may be a surgeon’s scalpel, or it may be a soup spoon. But if you show up every day, loving your kids, bringing your gifts to the world and remaining true to your values, then you are doing the very best you can, and you should feel great about that – even if you don’t get your mascara on before the school run.