Scene I: Teen-ager, in which thousands of tuition dollars have been invested, sitting in living room chair.
Teen-ager: "I need something to read. Hand me TV Guide."
Scene II: Child, a former altar boy who originally wanted to be an eye surgeon.
Child: "I want to live in New York with a gorgeous girl and be a male model."
Scene III: Family at supper table prettily set with candles and fresh daisies.
Child I: "Do I have to eat next to this nerd?"
Child II: (expletives deleted)
Child III: "I want to move out and get my own apartment."
Perhaps one of these charming scenes is familiar to you. We know who you are if your entire life, with all the mistakes you made that led up to one of these sorry passes, floods your brain. You're a parent -- more specifically, a mother. And Lynn Caine has written a book for you.
It is a wonderfully unbalanced book with a great deal of reassurance for all those mothers who insist upon blaming themselves for everything that goes wrong with their children -- from learning disabilities to drug addiction. Caine emphatically marches right up and whips you smartly off the hook. But the endearing, undoubtedly unintentional, impression between the lines is that Caine feels as guilty as the next mother.
Taking the reader on a brief trip back through the history of how motherhood has been regarded, Caine reflects that early American pioneer mothers were rightly revered as women who literally fought off the Indians (or, in the case of Indian mothers, settlers) for their children's survival. But it has been downhill since.
We hadn't recovered from Philip Wylie's "momism," when Dan Greenburg ("How to Be a Jewish Mother") told us mothers were purveyors, not just victims, of guilt. And now we have another category of mother, says Caine, "the wimp mother" -- "an ineffective, indecisive person who is in thrall to her family and her children." That category rings a bell. She is the mother who sags in and out of family counseling sessions, sits up late at night reassessing her instincts and is as full of guilt as a silo is full of corn.
Caine, quite rightly, sets "wimp mothers" straight, citing personal experience with her children (no angels), psychological data ("I have found a growing body of evidence that suggests that mothers may have only a limited influence for good or for bad") and the tales of other mothers to support her view. Put simply, it is that mothers have been inordinately burdened with guilt toward their children.
Caine asks all the right questions: Do most fathers agonize over their influence upon their children as mothers do? Should mothers feel this burden of guilt? Are there any special-interest groups that speak for or encourage mothers? Can anybody really predict the way a child turns out? The answer to all of the above, writes Caine, is "no." But where Caine keeps her book from being simply an unwieldy amalgam of facts and opinions is by starting and finishing with her own story.
The single (widowed) mother of two children, she has certainly earned her stripes as a mangled mother, and I don't mean by suffering through the anxiety of whether Suzie will pass her SATs or Bobby will ever learn to put away the garden tools. These are real children who know how to horsewhip each other and their parents as effectively as the next child.
Caine regularly backs off to examine her own life and others, and scrutinize some of the myths that keep mothers guilty and children manipulative.
Do you believe, for instance, that your children will be overtaken with catastrophe if you are not always watching them? Caine asks you to contemplate another guilt-related emotion -- grandiosity. Mother power can be narcissistic. Our "magical mother's eyes" will not, Caine claims, keep your children from all harm. This section of the book is, in my opinion, the most trenchant. I did, however, come away from reading "What Did I Do Wrong?" with the feeling that writing it was to a degree the act of a mother trying to exorcise her own feelings over what did not go as right as she had wished. Her children, she tells us, are wonderful, thriving creatures now. The nightmare is over. If only she knew then what she is telling other mothers now, some of the nightmarish aspects of trying to raise children would have been mooted. But guilt kept Caine from operating from strength.
I got the message. I will apply it. Today. But somehow the harrowing story of Caine's own parenthood sticks in my mind longer than the themes that inspired her to write it. Deep down I don't believe there is a real cure for a guilty mother except becoming a grandmother. But that is Caine's point -- guilt goes with the territory. Our task is to shrink that territory down to size.