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May 9, 2014

On Mother's Day weekend, things I wish I taught my son

Because every woman has, or has had, a mother — and knows, if only through stories, her grandmaternal forebears as well — to become a mother is to step into a hall of mirrors. In its most essential state, however, motherhood involves a single, mutual reflection. You could even see the word "mother" as the contraction "m'other": me attached, permanently yet not inseparably, to a resoundingly significant other; from the child's perspective, the collision of my with other.

Just after my first son was born, a friend called because her preschool daughter was in that phase of longing to hold infants as fervently as preschool boys long to ride on tractors. Mid-conversation, my friend turned to her daughter and said, "I'm talking to Baby Alexander's mommy!" An electrical charge passed through me, as if those words, once applied to me in the third person, cast a spell invoking countless promises, fears, fantasies and, inescapably, illusions to be shattered.

I was two months shy of turning 40. Like so many nick-of-time mothers, I hadn't meant to wait so long. That I came late to this ordinary human condition led me to feel both irrationally proud and profoundly fearful. I'd had a solid decade in which to observe all the friends who became parents in a more timely fashion; like an anthropologist, I'd taken note of things that could go wrong, habits I admired and missteps I was certain I would never make. I also believed that because I held within me a war chest of life experience — lessons learned, losses endured, battles won — I would be able to share it with my child early on, as if I could spare him from learning, on his own, what it's like to fall, fail, lose badly, win gracelessly, seek the wrong friends, hurt feelings, make stupid choices under pressure, wallow in grief, live through heartbreak, gather a lasting regret or two; and then to face the consequences.

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