Anne Lamott on mothers who love too much

I sought out my confidante for wisdom on the subject that maddens and inspires us most: Our kids

Published May 8, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)

Anne Lamott and her grandson Jax, left (image courtesy of the author), and Meredith Maran (image
Anne Lamott and her grandson Jax, left (image courtesy of the author), and Meredith Maran (image

Besides being my literary hero, Anne Lamott -- whose fabulous latest novel, "Imperfect Birds," is just out in paperback -- is also my friend, sister-kinkyhead, and mama-confidante. Over the years we've shared the nail-biting, gut-wrenching, hair-curling (or, in our case, un-curling) experience of raising a kid. Annie's boy is 21, 10 years younger than mine, but our sons are similar in many ways.

Every once in a while Annie and I rev ourselves into a flurry of emails about what's happening with our kids, how we're handling it (or not), and how much it sucks to worry the way we do. On Mother's Day, we thought it fitting to share one of those exchanges, which runs the gamut from how much to pay for your child's shampoo to the tiny and humongous and inevitable failures that come along with parenting.

Meredith Maran: While you were pregnant, did you read one of those perennial news stories about how much it cost, then, to raise a kid from birth through age 18? And did that give you the crazy idea that you'd actually spend only that much? And, even crazier, that you'd be finished paying when your son was 18?

Anne Lamott: Luckily I never read an article before I gave birth on how much raising a child would cost. It turns out it's more expensive than raising Arabian horses, which don't go around for five years acting bitter and put out that you nag so much about why their cellphone batteries have always died. I feel that a well-trained horse would do better at keeping a cellphone charged than did certain people I could name.

The financial cost of having a child is extreme, even if you live pretty simply, as I do. The thought of my parents shelling out for my brothers and me, at the levels expected of modern parents, is hilarious. They would have wept with mirth at requests for money to use on paintball ammo, fancy haircuts, sushi or the latest styles. $15 for hair gel? $100+ for SNEAKERS? My mother would have begged us to stop before she wet herself; my father would have winked, thinking we were punking him, or as we used to say, "pulling his leg."

Maran: Speaking of leg-pulling, and hair-pulling, and pulling hair out: I had my own hair-product moment ($12 for the gel, but this was Berkeley, not Marin) at a time in my freelance financial life when my foals were 16 and 17 and my own 45-year-old locks were being bathed in TWO-DOLLAR BOTTLES OF SUAVE. What is it about motherhood that makes it so hard to mention to your offspring that your hair products cost 10 percent what his do -- and you're paying for all of it? And we're talking about SONS!

Lamott: The arena of money and your child is so fraught with your own family's bizarre behavior around money during your childhood -- and going back through the generations and across international time zones.

For me, money is the last frontier, the shadow area in us that is the very last place we begin to heal from having kept horrible family secrets about money: not having enough, or having too much, or having shopping addictions, or being cheap. Or being obsessed all the time with fear or craving.

So even though we were feminists and aging hippie Bay Area types, we have the toxin waste dumps inside us -- of thinking we needed more, or didn't deserve nearly so much. And when we brought children into the long-hidden ruins of our psyche where we were so damaged around money, where it was very hard to have health and balance, then we were exposing our cherished babies to the worst society has to offer.

It was like making them walk through the fields and streams in "Erin Brockovich." The ruined land was school yards, and other kids' houses, and we had such reserves of fear and shame around money that we repeated our parents' mistakes. We overcompensated for our own gravest character shortcomings and childhoods; we lavished on the kids to make up for our inadequacies, and because we could not BEAR to see them in the pain of feeling less-than, or not part of the popular crowd, with our generally terrible self-esteem.

All mothers try to buy their kids' affections. Remember the HIGH of taking your kids shopping, and how much they loved you for a couple of hours, and what good self-esteem they had for part of a day because of their new jeans, which cost what my mother spent on groceries to feed a family of five? (She asked bitterly.)

With my kid, I sometimes felt like any old junkie, changing my own and my son's sense of self and worth by whipping out the credit card. It gave me a speedball -- the cocaine of adrenaline, racing around with my closest person, and the narcotic of endorphins, of feeling the intimate and intense connectedness.

Buying him stuff he had his heart set on created the Trance, the merge, of being in love.

I would have used the kitty's shampoo if it meant my kid could feel great about his hair -- especially, of course, because my hair had been a nightmare for me as a child. If my child could get a great haircut, and walk onto that blacktop filled with the sense that he had value, then the benefit was incalculable. It filled me more deeply than anything I buy for myself ever could.

I wish I had done this VERY differently, although I absolutely believe I did a much better job around this than my own mother did. Whereas my own parents thought they possessed financial savvy, at least I was aware of how damaging it is to instill a kid with your family's crazy graspy clingy beliefs about money -- thinking that the holes inside you can be filled with ANYTHING outside, especially stuff you wash your hair with, thinking you can buy people's love. That you can buy self-worth.

My mother was so sick and crazy around money because she had been born poor, in Liverpool, and because my father kept her on the '50s leash of adhering to a monthly budget that could never stretch to include random household events. I wrote somewhere about coming home to find her in a sweaty panic because our dog had chewed up my shoes, and she would have to furtively replace them from the family budget -- and you would have thought from her face that SHE had chewed up the shoes. Bad dog, bad mommy, and she was how I first learned to be a woman. And she created the same trance with my brothers and me, through shopping secrets and drama.

Maran: You wish you'd done this differently. How? How else could you have had that intimacy high, that delicious reassuring interdependent entanglement, however fleeting, however unreciprocated, however unwell?

Or, does Being The Parent mean not seeking intimacy with our progeny but rather resting confidently and authoritatively in the sheer unalterable fact of it? Like it or not, kid, designer gel or Suave: I'm your mother. As I was told by one of my teenage son's therapists, "He has enough friends. He needs a mother." You're right, I wanted to say, but I'll never have enough friends to keep me from wanting my sons to regard me as their friend.

Some parents get kids who thank them and reward them in every possible way. Some parents don't. For those of us starving to feel that we did well, or at least OK, at the most important job of our lives -- the money issue taps at the deeper one, the embarrassingly banal: Where did I go wrong?

Lamott: Where did I go wrong?

The thing is, we all -- parents -- went wrong so many times, in so many ways big and small. It has been important for me to understand that we are ultimately powerless over how our kids turn out -- how, as adults, they choose to live, and whether they want to be close to us once they are adults.

I know parents who seemed perfect -- who ARE great people, who did it right -- whose kids are extremely damaged. And fantastic grown-up kids with integrity and humor whose parents were scary, abusive, nonexistent.

So for now, I am deliberately, as a radical act, remembering all the things I did so beautifully -- how many hours I played on the floor with my son, all the Legos and coloring, all the endless games of catch and "dinkum" tennis in the driveway, reading to him in bed every night, the AMAZING quality of people whom I invited to help me raise him, most of whom he still has deep connections with. How I only pinched him hard once, only slapped him once, at 16 (which I know was wrong, but it wasn't like he was 7 -- and believe me, Jesus would have been tempted , too, would have at least been gritting His teeth and emitting mewling sounds). I created great vacations with little income, for 17 years.

The screwing up mostly had to do with loving him too deeply, being so afraid for him in this dark, cold, spooky world and the sometimes terrifying years of adolescence, and of having come to motherhood SO screwed up myself -- by my parents, by this world, by the institutionalized contempt for mothers.

So -- I kind of think it is a miracle that motherhood didn't do even deeper damage to my life and psyche. Also, both of us are alive; many of his friends and my friends didn't make it. Some days I think that as Dylan sang in "Idiot Wind," it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves. Some days just thinking of my son, I could still die of love for him.

Maran: Loving too deeply? Is such a thing possible?

Die of love for your son: This I know is possible, because I thought I would do just that during the decade of my son's troubled adolescence -- from drinking way too many bottles of red wine at bedtime when I was too anxious to sleep, to the car crash I got into, hung over, to the holes in my heart, shot through with grief.

I'm with you on the unfairness of it all. During the years I spent attempting to breathe day after day, hour after hour, breath after breath wondering if my son would live to adulthood, I was playing racquetball twice a week with my friend "Gloria." Gloria had (still does) two sons 10 years older than mine, and I knew them, and they were precisely the kind of sons every mother wants. And throughout their childhoods, Gloria was addicted to crack, and went out nightly at 2 a.m. to score, leaving her sons sleeping in their bunk beds. "No offense," I said to her one day when my eyes were swollen shut from a night of crying, "but your kids are supposed to be in trouble, not mine."

Are we really powerless over how our kids turn out? When they're adults, yes. But: From birth? Despite the example above, sometimes I think this is a happy story we tell ourselves, the way divorcing parents tell ourselves that it's better for kids to grow up with one parent than with two who don't love each other. Better for us, yes. Better for them, no.

Of course our screw-ups affect them -- seemingly more than the multitude of things we did right. The question is, how do we learn from the screw-ups, apologize for the screw-ups, try to make up for the screw-ups -- without screwing ourselves up even more than our parents did?

Lamott: Promise me you'll let me know THE MINUTE you figure it out. Because all I know is that you start where you are; you do the best you can and you try to be nicer to yourself about the past, including that very morning; and most important, you talk as often as possible to the smartest, funniest, most REAL mothers you know. Otherwise, without other mothers, we are completely doomed.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

MORE FROM Meredith Maran

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Motherhood Mother's Day Parenting