BE TRUE TO THINE OWN SELF

By Ann White Lewin-Benham ’60

I graduated from Bryn Mawr at age 20, married five days later, became pregnant in five months, and when the baby was a year old moved to Boston so his dad could attend the Harvard Business School. In the mid-1960s, mainly men attended the B School, which was hard on marriages and children. The school demanded a good 20 hours daily from my husband, which left me home alone with a baby turning toddler. I had no experience with babies or children. While I adored my son, our hours together, day in and day out were unrelieved. We could not afford a nanny or even an occasional daytime baby-sitter, and at times my patience wore thin. Worse, I knew nothing about child development, so relied mainly on what I had been told or remembered about my own baby and childhood.

I remembered my mother’s telling me that from the earliest age I had been good at puzzles. My son wasn’t! At that time, I did not know about the differences among young children, had no sense of how to determine a baby or young child’s natural proclivities and no training in observation. If I had been good at something as a baby, surely any child, and especially my own son, should. So, I was tense and impatient when he failed to put together a simple four-piece puzzle! Did this mean he was not intelligent?

Two decades later, I would learn the theories of some cutting edge psychologists and understand something about children’s differences: That, according to Dr. Howard Gardner, there are multiple intelligences, that one of them is visual/spatial, and therefore not all children should be able to put a puzzle together easily. That, according to Dr. Daniel Golson, emotional intelligence means that, long before they are verbal, children “read” a parent’s emotional tenor, and therefore my son more than likely knew that I was impatient and frustrated by his “failure” at puzzles. That, according to Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, the most important factor in learning is mediation by an adult, and therefore my skill in presentation and mediation would have had a major impact on how my son performed with puzzles.

By the time my son was turning 3, we moved from Boston to Washington, D.C. for my husband’s first job, and I took a position as the administrator of a Montessori school. I enrolled my son in the school where I worked. As administrator I had access to the school’s four classrooms and could observe the progress of the 140 children who were enrolled, a horrible opportunity for a mother of a first child.

The situation was seemingly ideal: I worked where my son went to school, we came and left together, we could see each other whenever we wanted—the kind of situation many of today’s experts recommend for working moms. But I still lacked understanding of child development and had what I now recognize as “first child syndrome,” a disease in which a mother’s self-worth is determined by how her child performs. I observed that my son was not learning to write letters or to recognize them nearly as quickly as the other 139 children. This time instead of impatience or frustration, I felt sheer panic. Was something wrong with my child?

A decade later a new field that dealt with various kinds of learning disabilities would burgeon, but in the early 1960s it was barely emergent. So I struggled alone with what appeared to be my child’s terrible failure, particularly in a Montessori school, which is especially well suited for children whose alpha-numeric abilities are strong or emerge at a very young age. There was little literature on my son’s problem, and I was too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone. His teacher made matters worse. In an early parent-teacher conference, she referred to Danny as “hand-retarded.”

In response to Danny’s early school experience, I spent the next 35 years in the field of education, mainly trying to create alternative educational environments. In my 20’s, I took part in expanding a Montessori school from two to four classes, spearheaded its expansion into an elementary school, ran a day care center in the inner city, founded a private junior high school, and established a pre-school program in a public school system. In my 30’s, I worked to establish and for 20 years ran the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C. In that facility, staff and I founded Options School, which served 100 students chosen by the D.C. Public Schools as most likely to fail, and founded and directed the Model Early Learning Center, a preschool accredited by the Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. The preschool was the pinnacle of my career because there we finally achieved what I considered to be a superb educational environment. Ironically, it is the one that no longer exists.

The work was engaging, enraging, challenging and, in at least two of the decades, all consuming. At this writing Danny is 37. After a first career in theatre, he completed an internship for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Yale’s Child Study Center in June 1998 and is currently engaged in a research fellowship at Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh. At this writing, I look back on our paths—mine as an educator negotiating with broken and unresponsive educational systems, his as a student negotiating the same kinds of systems—with a hundred regrets for what I didn’t know then and the wish that today I could plant what I have learned in the heads of all new mothers. Here are some of the things I would say:

My son might have fared far better in his schooling had I not been working, but my temperament would not allow me not to work. I would guess that many Bryn Mawr graduates also have this temperament. If you are a working Mom, know that the pros and cons are complex, that there is no right and wrong or simple answer. If you work, don’t beat yourself up with guilt. If you don’t work, be thankful that you have the opportunity—and the temperament—to raise your child yourself. Be true to thine own self, and to heck with the Joneses or anyone else.

If you do not work and can afford it, hire someone to give you time to yourself to do whatever you want: wash your hair without a knock on the bathroom door, shop or write a dissertation. Hire as much help as you can afford. If you cannot afford help, establish a pattern for the use of time in which your child(ren) know(s) that a particular period in each day is sacrosanct and belongs exclusively to mommy.

Learn to modulate your voice so that you never whine. Don’t plead either. Legitimate exchanges are conversations, suggestions, negotiations or commands.

When you give attention to your child, give 100 percent. Anything less will frustrate both of you, and children are particularly keen in understanding when they are not being heard. This does not mean that you give attention whenever a child asks for it. That will depend on your nature and your child’s. But, if the question, situation or demand is important, it is worth your full attention.

Schools differ vastly and so do teachers. Your child may have a horrid teacher in a good school or a superb teacher in a mediocre school. Reputation means nothing where your child is concerned. Trust your own judgement in determining whether a school or a classroom is right for your child. If the teacher stinks, make sure your child is put in another class. If the school’s philosophy and yours differ, put your child in a different school.

Read many different authorities on child development, books better than articles if possible. But make up your own mind about what is right. The morning drive-time expert is probably diametrically opposed to the expert in the morning newspaper who is equally at odds with the evening news authority. You, not the experts, live with your child, for whom you are the ultimate arbitrator—and the best one. Stretch your understanding by reading about emerging ideas in human development, cognition and other areas of psychology, but try not to compare your child to specific examples in the literature.

Today, at age 59, I believe life’s most important, rewarding and difficult task is raising an emotionally healthy human being. I feel blessed that I was able to have a child, sad that I had only one, satisfied that the work I did may have brought joy to some number of parents and children, and conflicted over whether my son would have been better off if I had been home for him instead of out trying to make better schools. I always said my second child would go to the public school on the corner instead of to some school I had established with countless hours of effort. But there never was a second child. Danny had to suffer through all my first parent idiocies, and I bless him for being my best friend, trusted confidant, and greatest source of humor on almost all occasions. I hope he and his bride have babies soon so I can watch the process again.

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THE SAVING SENSE OF THE RIDICULOUS

I have been thinking back on the job decisions that shaped my life as wife, mother and college teacher. I always taught after I was married, but there was no maternity leave in the early 1960s. When you left your job in late pregnancy, it disappeared. My decision, as the mother of toddlers, to return to graduate school at 26, to become a Ph.D., and to teach at the college level, was based on the need to put my mind back to work. If I didn’t do that I thought some essential part of me would die. But I was strongly influenced by the 1950s ideal that had shaped my adolescence: the stay-at-home Mom whose husband was the main source of the family’s support. It would have made me uncomfortable to have focused on a career path, rather than on a “fulfilling job” (which would not unduly upset the family balance). I told myself that once my children were in school, I would concentrate on a career. I am aware now that I made my youngest, learning disabled child the excuse for my reluctance to do so. In truth, at some subconscious level, I was probably grateful for the limits he placed on me. I now believe in a mental thermostat which sets a “comfort” level for the choices we make. I believe each of us has this thermostat and it’s difficult to change the setting. Even the turmoil that raged inside, which I believed would not have been raging had my son’s demands on me been less great, was seductive. Turmoil can be a creative place. I wrote poetry. I taught with passion.

And oh, that saving sense of the ridiculous. I still recall the afternoon 30-odd years ago when, sick with intestinal flu, I crawled (feverishly) down the upstairs hallway—if I stood erect I was going to throw up—with the baby’s bottle wedged under my armpit. The infant’s cries of hunger from his crib blended in with the shrieks of his 2 and 4-year-old sister and brother who were apparently striking each other with pots and pans in the (unsupervised) kitchen. I remember leaning my throbbing head against the wall—“For this I went to college. For this I am enrolled in graduate school”—and the blessed laughter rising.

—Frances Stokes Hoekstra, Ph.D. ’75

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A MOTHER'S METER

By Mary Maxwell ’81

No one could really be prepared for that serial whirlwind of the unexpected which is the day-to-day parenting of a young child. Certainly I was unrealistic about how easily I would be able to continue my work as a writer after my baby was born. In my pre-maternal ignorance, I’d made the judgment that mothers who chose to set aside their artistic careers merely lacked the resolve necessary to maintain their aspirations. But as I soon discovered, while motherhood is astonishingly difficult, it is also utterly fascinating and (forgetting for a moment all the practical obstacles to accomplishment it involves) as deeply fulfilling as the pursuit of creative achievement. For me, the decision to put my professional activity temporarily on hold—or more accurately, into a very low gear—had surprisingly fruitful consequences, even as this apparently barren downtime caused terrible vocational anxieties.

I found my daughter’s first years particularly tough. Though I well knew how fortunate I was to afford the lifestyle of a full-time, stay-at-home mother, I was also discouraged by how very little time was left at the end of the day to read, let alone to write. A natural tendency towards melancholia, combined with postpartum blues, contributed to my plummeting self-esteem: I was now a mother and nothing more. My ambitions as a poet and translator grew increasingly vague; my studies in classical poetry were set aside; my published work seemed inadequate and insignificant. My mother (whose own writing career had not been all she’d hoped) had died a year before the baby was born, and I was keenly and constantly aware of her absence.

My depression was compounded by something that, in retrospect, seems utterly absurd. Saskia was a “late walker.” She had developed her own mode of (perfectly adorable) locomotion, a sort of sliding on her thickly diapered tail that was, in fact, ideally suited to our tiny New York apartment. But her scoot was effective enough that, even at a year and a half, she still didn’t feel much need to try walking upright on her own. Her pediatrician assured us that nothing was physically wrong, but I took Saskia’s being so far “behind schedule” as proof of my inadequacy as a mother. I determined that Saskia needed not only more indoor space to move around, but also more initiative and inspiration to get up and toddle. So, with the enthusiastic recommendation of the pediatrician, I enrolled Saskia in Kids’ Co-Motion, a dance and movement class for young children and their caregivers developed by the dancer and choreographer Rebecca Kelly ’73 and her husband Craig Brashear, Haverford ’73. It was, to some members of my family, a considerable source of amusement (and proof of my eccentricity) that Saskia was taking “dance lessons” even before she knew “how to walk.”

From the very beginning, Saskia adored Rebecca’s classes, even though I often ended up carrying her around in my arms during those early lessons. Rebecca’s name had been familiar to me from her dance company’s performances in New York, but at some point in our conversations we realized we’d both attended Bryn Mawr. I told Rebecca about a memorable dance class I’d taken in college, taught by Senta Driver ’64 and members of her company, Harry. It was, I think, Senta’s distinctive vision and strong personal character as much as anything that made such an impression on me—women lifting men! But talking to Rebecca reminded me as well how Senta talked with great passion about the “validity” of alternative ways of moving, a belief she had gained through her work with the disabled. What we consider “normal” or “natural” gaits are, she had argued, determined in large part by social custom.

When, after all these years, Senta’s fervor on this last point came back to me, an ironic, bittersweet sadness accompanied the real relief I felt when Saskia’s idiosyncratic and (in retrospect) lovely little scoot gave way to traditional walking. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see how new possibilities for movement and the physical enjoyment of music became for Saskia such a delightful venue for self-expression. Rebecca is a wonderful teacher, and her enthusiasm for and joy in what she does is completely infectious. But I was also greatly inspired by the way Rebecca had so remarkably combined her experience of motherhood with the creation of her art. As successful as it is, Kids’ Co-Motion is clearly more than a practical way of underwriting her adult dance company, Rebecca Kelly Ballet. It is, I’m convinced, a very special kind of learning, something much more profound than the veneer of culture parents too readily accept as “arts education.”

As a poet, I was particularly moved to observe Saskia and the other children in her class demonstrate in the repetition of their dance and song what I knew to be the essential nature and origins of verse. As Saskia rapidly acquired her spoken language skills, I was invariably reminded how rhythm, rhyme and memory are so strongly linked. Watching her dance, I recalled that much of the vocabulary of English prosody has its origins in a system whose purpose was to measure the duration and grouping of syllables (“feet”) of the ancient choral dances. I also pondered the lyric poem’s movement, its alternating “versing” and “reversing” at the end of a line. The happy giggles and tangle of little legs that accompanied Rebecca’s calls to change direction never failed to make me think of the word “enjambment.”

But, most importantly, at a crucial moment in my life, Rebecca’s teaching brought home to me that, as with that lost tradition of oral poetry, much of real wisdom is passed on through physical presence and voice. As unexpected as the remains of a long-forgotten past uncovered by a particularly furious storm, fragments of my own early childhood returned. I remembered an evanescent era when I was a little girl being taught by her mother. Newly inspired by the Muse of Memory, the poems I came to write attempted to capture the precious delicacy of that time, and I tried to record, as well as to recover, my own experience of the difficult but undying nature of maternal love.

Threnody

   In interweaving circles children A B remember
C D with their feet little girls E F G clap their hands
    in draped garments sing the alphabet song inter-
weaving a dance H whose movements I significance
    dithyrambic J K Demeter literacy circles is that
L M N mysterious game only grown-ups O know
    how to play dithyrambic movements but since
there exists no complete P Q written R record S T of
    those early dances in interweaving circles only
U fragments V the daughters of Demeter dance lost
    dithyrambic movements fragile draped songs
from childhood garments once beloved but forgotten
    daughters abandoned Demeter now deemed
W insignificant X in circles Y dancing Z little girls.



Author’s note: Mary Maxwell’s first collection of poems, An Imaginary Hellas, is forthcoming. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including The Paris Review.

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MHK