On Mother’s Day
Among the many little things that have, over the years, impressed upon me the fact that men and women really are different psychologically was a moment twenty or so years ago when one of our daughters was a baby. My wife was changing the baby’s diapers or giving her a bath, talking idly, partly to me and partly to our daughter, about what a beautiful baby she was, enumerating her delightful qualities, counting the toes and fingers, and so forth, adding at the end “And she has a tiny little mole here, here, here, here, and here,” putting her finger on the spot with each “here,” which involved turning her over for the last two or three.
I remember being more than a little surprised that she had memorized the precise location of every variance in the baby’s skin—there was no hesitation or searching involved as she jumped from one to the next—and I’m sure she had done so without any conscious effort. It was just a natural result of the amount of attention she gave the baby, the same mechanism which had once enabled me to sing effortlessly from memory every verse of Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute “Desolation Row.”
I don’t really think I loved our daughter any less, but I certainly didn’t have such details at my command, and I imagine this pattern holds for most mothers and fathers. There’s a humorous list of male-female differences floating around the Internet, one of those emails that circulate for years on end and thus presumably say something that hits home to a lot of people. On the topic of children, the anonymous writer notes a mother’s very thorough knowledge of her children in every physical and mental respect, then says that “A man is vaguely aware that there are some short people living in the house.” That’s pretty harsh, but most couples will recognize the truth it exaggerates.
Concomitant with that level of attention is something more subtle. Some part of a mother somehow goes out into the members of her family, especially her children. I can imagine that if one had the right parapsychological gift one would be able to see a psychic strand connecting them, through which some sort of unconscious communication takes place, an operation which requires that a part of the mother’s soul go out into these strands. She is never altogether compact in herself; some part of her is always with those she loves and for whom she feels responsible. No doubt this can be true of women in other relationships, and is probably true of some men, but by and large it’s a feminine thing, and most strongly a mother-child thing.
I think it explains part of the reason why most women are so enchanted by the prospect of spending a day at a spa or something of that sort: it’s a circumstance where in addition to physical rest she can get psychic rest. No one expects anything from her, no one needs anything from her. All those psychic connections can be rolled up into herself for a while and the part of her that operates them can be rested and restored.
Although our children are mostly grown now, I still see this attention and responsibility in operation, even at a distance, on the part of my wife. And along with her care for our children she devotes a lot of attention to her chronically ill brother. Her mother passed away four years ago, having spent a large part of her life worrying about and providing for her son. And my wife seems to have inherited that responsibility; I mean not just the fact of it but the consciousness of it.
She’s not much for spas and that sort of thing, but I’ve been trying to get her to let go of things for at least a little while. I wanted her to take a glass of wine and the Jane Austen novel she’s been reading and go to bed. She wouldn’t take the wine, saying it would only put her right to sleep. But she’s back there with the book, and the door is shut. That’s good.