Out of the Mouths of Babes

Hester Velmans

MOTHERHOOD: Not exactly what you expected, but stick with it.

They say that every woman is afraid of turning into her mother. But what they don’t tell you is that as a mother, you’ll be crushed if you find out that your daughter is nothing like you.
Less than twenty-four hours after my daughter was born, she started to turn blue. She was torn from my euphoric, besotted arms, thrown into an ambulance and swept into an operating room. We were told her odds of survival were less than ten per cent. And yet, seeing her lying in her incubator, her perfect little body rudely poked, prodded and intubated, I knew she would pull through. Her entire stance was that of a fighter, a stubborn, determined baby pugilist. And I remember thinking, That’s so not me. I’d have acquiesced, given in. I’m such a pushover.
And so it was: my daughter was nothing like me from the start. We were reduced to helpless laughter as our two-year-old earnestly and patiently explained to us, over and over (because we didn’t get it, apparently) that “You do’s what you wants to do’s, and I do’s what I wanna do’s.” (So different from me, a goody-two-shoes always deferring to others.) I don’t know, really, what made me expect her to be a clone of me. Maybe being an identical twin myself has something to do with it. When our second child was born, I had no such illusions. He was supposed to be different: he was a boy.
As a schoolgirl my daughter was ruthless about who would be her friend and who would not be; at her age I felt pity for the underdog and always tried to be “nice”. She is the one who taught me that being nice isn’t always the best solution: gentle healers make infected wounds. In my teens I was a shy, coquettish flirt; she took charge of her relationships, navigating the shoals of young love with feisty aplomb. I kept wondering, how did I give birth to such a fierce, self-assured being?

It was clear “the Bonz” (as we called her) wasn’t going to follow in my pussyfootsteps — an impractical dreamer, an armchair bookworm, a scribbler of stories. Instead, now that she is grown, she is making her own intrepid way in the world, a no-nonsense champion of human trafficking victims and a shoestring non-profit entrepreneur bringing renewable energy to women in remote parts of the world (check it out: www.Empowergeneration.org).

Yet I can’t help thinking that once she has children of her own, maybe she’ll turn out to be a bit more like me — in one way at least. Because one of the most important things about motherhood is that it confers on you an obligation to be a spinner of tales. To pretend to be magic. A defender of the tooth fairy, SpongeBob SquarePants, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Your children expect it of you. And how can you resist? You are given a free pass to invent, to step away from reality, to pull the wool over their gullible little eyes.

But then, as they grow older, you start to feel uncomfortable about it, because you’re getting in deeper and deeper, and the lies — because, face it, that’s what they are — are getting more difficult to keep up. That’s when it hits you: what sort of example are you setting? Are you trying to keep them from growing up? Shouldn’t you be teaching them to value honesty above all else? Shouldn’t you be opening their eyes to the real world? You’re torn — you hate to disappoint them, to shatter their illusions; but you feel that it’s wrong to prolong the deception.
Even though it broke my heart, I followed my kids into the reality-based world when they were ready for it. I had to give up what I think is the hardest thing for a parent to give up — your child’s wide-eyed trust in whatever you tell them.
When all’s said and done, I have to thank my kids for making me such a brazen liar. Without them, I might have remained stuck in an all too sober grown-up world. It was plunging with them into their made-up universe that unleashed my own imagination, and made me want to catch and pin down all the wild stories that, thanks to them, came bubbling up to the surface.

I guess that’s the main thing my own mother and I have in common: my mom is also a scribbler. (Her book, Edith’s Story, a memoir of WW2, has moving passages about her mother.) And so who knows, maybe some day my daughter will find herself turning into us.
Although it will be something she’ll try very hard to resist.

Hester Velmans is the author of two books for children (Isabel of the Whales and Jessaloup’s Song) and a translator of literary fiction. After years of building up a career in magazines and TV news, she quit cold-turkey to devote herself to motherhood and “scribbling”. Today she lives with her husband in the Berkshires, Western Massachusetts, content to watch what her kids are making of their lives from a respectful distance.
She also has a website: http://www.Hestervelmans.com .

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