"Well, I mean, I'm the nurturer, right?" she said.
I was talking to a mother about a disciplinary issue she was having with one of her children when she made some comment concerning her overall approach to parenting. I asked why she felt the way she did, and the above remark was her response.
"Are you asking me a question or giving me information?" I asked.
That caught her off guard. After a few deer-in-the-headlights moments, she said, "Well, I guess I'm giving you information. I feel like it's my job to be the nurturer."
That told me why she was having discipline problems with her child. After all, The Nurturer doesn't demand proper behavior of her children. She nurtures. It occurred to me that this woman was speaking for many if not most mothers of her generation, women who have put themselves in a box that prevents them from being a disciplinary force for their children to reckon with.
Yes, mothers are supposed to be nurturing, but then, so are fathers. But being nurturing when nurturing is called for and being The Nurturer are two very different things. The former is all about being flexible, open, sensitive, adaptable. Courtesy of the latter self-definition, a mother paints herself into a corner.
My mother was nurturing, but she was also demanding (of certain things), intolerant (of certain things), inflexible (when it came to certain things), and even downright scary at times (about certain things). I knew she loved me, but I also knew better than to cross certain lines she had drawn in the sand. In that regard, my mom was like most moms of her time. I am a member of the last generation of American children who were afraid of their nurturing mothers. Today's Nurturer is afraid of her children. Most of all, she is afraid of their disapproval. She is also constantly afraid that she is not living up to some standard of good nurturing, which involves never being demanding, intolerant, inflexible and scary.
By the way, being scary is not synonymous with screaming or other symptoms of cerebral meltdown. It is communicating to one's children a calm and powerful determination to this effect: You ARE going to accept your responsibilities, do your best at all times, treat others with respect and dignity, accept "no" for an answer, and control your uncivilized impulses. This is not accomplished by losing control. It requires control, which a mother who denies herself the right to make those demands of her children — that is, a mother who defines herself as The Nurturer — is likely to lose on a regular basis. Then she feels flooded by guilt because losing control is not nurturing. She atones for her guilt by doing some act or acts of Extreme Nurturance, meaning she lets her children know that she is available to walk all over whenever they want a doormat.
It is supremely ironic that over the past forty years or so, women have stepped forward and claimed authority in the military, education, churches, corporations, politics, and the professions and have been persuaded to all but completely abdicate their authority over their children. The further irony is that women enforce this ubiquitous state of maternal powerlessness on one another. Heaven help the mother who, in front of other mothers, focuses a calm scariness on her misbehaving child. She will not be informed of the next play date. Her exile will last as long as it takes for her to come to grips with what it means to be The Nurturer.
The last and most ironic of ironies is that these same mothers worry about the effect of peer pressure on their teenage children.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his Web site at www.rosemond.com.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services