Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mom Virtues: Not Just For Women Anymore

There was a great Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago captioned "Mothers Without Borders." It showed a range of moms saying things like "Lack of infrastructure is no excuse for such language," and "If so-and-so jumped off a bridge, would you?"

I don't have kids of my own, but I had an immediate feeling of identification with this cartoon. Because really, most grown-up women are moms in some sense. I mean, if you're out and about and you cut your finger, and you need a bandaid, or you get thirsty and you need something to drink, or you get a tear in your pants and need a safety pin, odds are there's a woman around you're going to ask to help you out. It's not a 100 percent sort of thing but it's a thing.

I've been surprised to find myself becoming more and more mom-like as I get older. I've always been conceptually comitted to not nagging people, but as I get older and wiser, it's hard to refrain from trying to nudge the people I love toward more sensible behavior -- or at least, toward behavior I'm pretty sure is going to be better for them in the long run. "Eat your vegetables!" "Have you been going to the gym?" "Don't forget to make your travel plans early!" "Have you considered turning off the TV and reading a good book?"

As I see it, the omnipresence of moms is a basiscally a good thing. If you listen, you benefit, and if you want to ignore, well, at least you can set yourself up as a rebel without having to take anything to extremes.

The mom virtues don't just include worrying, though. They also include comfort and hospitality. There's an incredibly moving scene in one of Trollope's Palliser books describing an intense meeting between a man and a woman. They haven't seen each other in a long time; they used to love one another; at the time of the meeting she is living in desperately unhappy circumstances. The man travels far to reach her, in wintery cold, on a night train, and the first thing she does is tend to his comforts: she makes tea; she gets some food ready; she makes the fire warm. Trollope observes that no matter how complex the relationships are and no matter how important the meeting, a man who has traveled through the cold and is hungry needs to have his comforts seen to. And you know, it's true. Of all of us.

I think of these virtues as the mom virtues, but lots of men have them, and if you know one of them, you know how excellent a thing it is to be looked after in life. Now that more women are busy working and so on, we need more men with the mom virtues. You don't have to call them that -- maybe someone can think up a snappier and less feminine-sounding name. But yeah everyone, take Roz Chast as your model. Mothers without borders. Play nice together! Clean up your toys! Don't eat all the candy! OK?

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