by Bethany Getz
When my twin brother Nathan and I were eight, he asked my parents if he could play recreational soccer. After the first practice, he asked where were the treats? No treats after practice, only after games, my mom told him. Upon learning that he had to practice twice per week without treats and that games didn’t start for a month, Nathan didn’t want to play soccer anymore. No quitting, my mom told him.
Every practice was preceded by a battle of the wills. Nathan never went down without a fight but he never won. He hated to go. I, on the other hand, looked forward to his soccer practices as the highlight of my week. The next year, I was the twin signed up to play soccer.
In the meantime, I enjoyed tagging along. One afternoon while my brother reluctantly played, I wandered to the nearby playground. My mom followed me, and I asked her to play on the parallel bars with me. These waist-height bars were on playgrounds everywhere in the 80s. I explained and demonstrated how the kids at school faced off at either end of the bars, hoisted themselves up and over the bar to their right before rushing to the opposite end of the bars, trying to tag out the other player.
Though she could beat my brother in a battle of the wills, my mom wasn’t competitive or athletic. Yet she agreed to play. We were evenly matched. I had youth and a thirst to win on my side. She had superior height on hers. My mom was wearing teal corduroy pants, and every time she threw her legs over the bars, her pants vooshed over the metal and then voop-voop-voop-vooped as she ran to the other end of the bars. Soon we were both gasping with teary laughter at the sound of those pants. We played until we were both sweaty and tired and soccer practice was over. I was perfectly happy.
This afternoon was not unique in my childhood. I had a good mother. She was not one to back down from a fight, and she was also supportive, good-humored, and involved in the lives of her three children. I had a secure, happy childhood.
When I became a mother, I wanted to give the same thing to my children. I soon discovered that countless women are trying to do that too. Most of us are pretty confident that we know how. It is a goal at once completely ordinary and also astoundingly important; oddly, we mothers find ourselves immersed in an endeavor of elemental proportions while we make sandwiches and drive a mini-van.
I sat in the waiting room of a ballet studio, chatting with other moms. One woman told us that her children ate no grains whatsoever. None. Another woman shared homemade Kombucha with her toddler. They all nodded sagaciously when the woman across from me said her kids were not allowed to watch Disney movies.
“I cannot stand the way they portray mothers,” she said.
When I asked her to elaborate, she turned the question back on me: “Can you name one Disney movie with a positive figure for a mother? The mothers are always dead and the mother-figures are witches. What do you think that teaches kids?”
“But,” I said, “that might be just the way stories work?”
“Stories require a bad or dead mom?”
“A good mom makes sure nothing happens to her kids,” I tried to explain. “It’s only when you get rid of the good, protective mother that adventures start. It’s the way most fairy tales start. And a lot of novels too.”
Silence. The toddler sipped Kombucha.
I may not have convinced the ballet moms, but my theory wasn’t just based on Disney movies. A German-American friend gave us a Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales when my oldest daughter was still very young. Not a few of these stories begin with the death of a child’s mother. There is, for instance, “Ashputtel,” or, as she is called in the French version of the tale, “Cinderella.” The story begins with the dying mother’s words to her little daughter: “Always be a good girl, and I will look down from heaven and watch over you.” Her death signals the start of dangerous times for little Ashputtel, as her cruel step-sisters come to call her. Presumably, the eventual fairy godmother is part of the dying mother’s promise to protect her daughter.
For years, I read stories like this to my children without any fear that they would begin to see mothers in a negative light. Fairy tales show just the opposite; they show the all-encompassing importance of the true, protective mother by showing the dire results of her absence.
I also had no fear that my children would suffer like the motherless children in the stories. In the early Modern era, when the fairy tales that Grimm recorded were being told, the average life expectancy in Europe was 34 years. No wonder so many stories from that time feature motherless children. Times have changed, I thought. I’m not going anywhere; my children are safe; I am willing and able to exert any effort to ensure they are also happy.
Such efforts took form predictably: Ballet, church, swimming lessons, good schools, visits to grandparents, bedtime stories, sports. My third daughter was the first in our family to ask to play soccer, and I signed her up to play in the same rec league that I had played in as a child. She played and then my oldest asked to play, and suddenly we were a soccer family. I brought essays along to grade and cheered in between marking comma splices and critiquing conclusion paragraphs. My preschool son and middle daughter played on the nearby playgrounds. We all trouped across the soccer fields to the Kona Ice truck for treats after the games.
But when COVID-19 shut down youth sports and everything else, we stayed home. My husband and I taught classes via Zoom. Our three school-age daughters Zoomed for their own classes and completed worksheets at the dining table. Our young son perfected his siren imitation and ran through the house pretending to be an ambulance. Most days were exhausting. Some days were absurd. Once, I fled to the garage with my laptop. While instructing my students from a perch on garage clutter, I heard my oldest daughter yell, “We do not run after the dog with a kitchen knife.”
The dog survived. We survived. We were among the lucky ones, in fact. We avoided getting sick. We could work from home, or at least the garage. The children hated remote school, but they could do it. Staying home should have been just one more way I fulfilled my motherly goal of safeguarding the children, and an easy way at that. But while stuck at home, our supposed haven from the scary world of disease, our family began to unravel in all the ordinary ways: Tenser-than-normal disagreements, frequent tears, difficulty sleeping, reluctance and inability to get work done, headaches, depression. I can add my voice to the chorus of women’s’ voices. The demands upon mothers during the pandemic proved to be just too much.
My ten-year-old daughter began to experience vicious panic attacks at night. To calm her, I would put her in my bed, climb in next to her, and hold her. Sometimes, I read aloud to her as she cried and shivered. One night I read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.” The poem begins with the simple assertion that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” but then questions why it is that humans trample God’s creation, ignoring the revelatory goodness of the earth. I sighed after I read the final lines to my daughter:
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, Morning at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Here, the Holy Ghost is imagined as a motherly bird with its “warm breast.” Often this image would be associated with comfort and even indulgence, but in Hopkins’ poem the consoling image of the “warm breast” is paired with the glorious “bright wings” spreading over the world as sunrise. The juxtaposition between the maternal glory of the Holy Ghost and my own mothering on that dark night was so stark. I was just a mom in a bathrobe, facing a long night brooding over my suffering child, unable to offer her anything more than my own presence as comfort. And it wasn’t enough. This moment crystallized the slow realization that pandemic isolation had been pressing upon me: How stupid that I once thought that I could safeguard and create a happy childhood. The world is too bent and too twisted. I couldn’t stand up against it even when hiding away in the hole our house had become.
As the months of the pandemic dragged on, we tried to return to some of the things the children once enjoyed. In the fall, I signed up my eight-year-old daughter for soccer. When she was put on a waitlist because there weren’t enough coaches, I volunteered. My daughter is still young enough that this was exciting news for her. I watched YouTube videos, bought cones and soccer balls. I enlisted my teen daughter to serve as an assistant coach. Most of my young team had never played before, but despite—or maybe because of—our mutual inexperience, we had fun.
The days shortened and soon we were practicing under the lights rather than the late afternoon sun. One evening, after the field lights clicked on, I glanced at the western sky; ribbons of pink streaked above the horizon. Above the pink, deep blue was giving way to dark gray and then black straight overhead.
My small clumsy players laughed their way through a passing drill behind me, but tears sprang to my eyes as the words “the last lights off the black West went” swelled into my mind. I had not thought of the Hopkins’ poem in months. Despite my failures during the pandemic, here I was again trying to carve out some happiness for my own daughter—and several other children too—yet I did so in the shadow of the most quotidian reminder of the way of all nature. The little insulated world in which I had aimed to ensconce my children always existed within the larger world where the sun is always setting, the light is always vanishing, and the end is ever near.
Once, I had hoped to give my children an uneventful and happy childhood, like I had. I trusted my abilities to safeguard, to protect. Then the dreary anxieties of a pandemic intruded, and my efforts were shown to be what they always were: inadequate imitations of the protective and life-giving work of the divine Comforter. It is just as well I was disabused of my delusion when I was. It was a temptation to identify myself as the most powerful figure in the lives of my children.
I turned back to my little team; we played until we were tired. And we were perfectly happy. This return to the children and play reminded me of another poet who wrote of the voices of “children in the apple tree” that he heard “while the light fails / On a winter’s afternoon.” At this convergence of innocence with coldness and death, T.S. Eliot could affirm “the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started” where “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” So I am content to arrive where I started. I relinquish my efforts to be the elemental mother. I return to being a child among children, playing while the light fails, yet trusting in the warm breast and bright wings of morning.
Bethany Getz lives in Southern California where she teaches literature and writing classes at the University of St. Katherine in San Marcos, CA. She earned her PhD from Baylor University in 2010, and since then her academic writing has appeared in Wiley-Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of British Literature (1660-1789), the journal Christianity and Literature, and the online journal The Imaginative Conservative. She has recently had creative work accepted at Months to Years and enjoys writing as well as spending time with her family, gardening, and baking.