This past week, I visited my family 9 hours away for my mother's 80th birthday. It was the first time all 8 of us kids have been together since my father's death almost 9 years ago. Hopefully my mother didn't think too much about that fact over the course of the week. And no one brought it up in front of her. I didn't count up how many grandchildren (and great grandchildren) were at the party, but my sister-in-law's house probably held about 40 of us at any given point. We're a loud, talkative, animated family for the most part, so any stranger walking in would more likely have thought the crowd was double that size. But we're civilized for the most part and tend to know when to either not start talking about a certain subject or to deftly change the subject when someone else does talk about it--"it" being religion, politics, or who my mother's favorite child is (my younger brother!).
My husband couldn't make the trip due to work, so my 16-year-old sat in the front with me and kept me awake and engaged during the long drive home. Needless to say, our conversation was filled with talk about family--family dynamics, family function and dysfunction, personality differences, and so on. He's taking a psychology course this year and had a lot to offer by way of insights.
The insight that's really stuck with me is this one: I'm a wire monkey. Civilized, sure, but nonetheless, a wire monkey. He didn't tell me so directly, but I could read between the lines.
He explained that back in the 50s, an American psychologist named Harry Harlow conducted an experiment on children's attachment to their mothers, using rhesus monkeys, wire monkeys, and cloth monkeys. Harlow was looking to counter the argument that babies form attachments to their mothers solely because mothers provide nourishment. So Harlow created a wire monkey with the ability to dispense milk and created a cloth monkey with no such ability. In short, the rhesus monkeys preferred the cloth monkey when it needed comfort. They only visited the wire monkey when they needed food. Or their laundry done. Or a decent home-cooked meal. Or a ride to a friend's house.
My kids don't have obvious preferences between my husband and me these days. But that was so far from the case when they were babies and toddlers. When my oldest couldn't even talk yet, he'd stand at the back door and wail as my husband headed off to work in the morning. Distraction and efforts to cuddle with him were useless, so I eventually had to just let him decide after 10 minutes of standing there that he'd just have to make do with me until dinner time. When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest--then almost 2--practically hated me. Or at least that's how it felt when he refused to acknowledge my presence any time my husband was around. He'd go as far as to lean away from me almost violently in order to bury his head in my husband's shoulder. I recall breaking down and crying one evening and saying, "This next one is going to hate me too! What's wrong with me?"
The answer is that I'm a wire monkey.
What other explanation could there be? Child number 2 preferred my husband. As did child number 3. And child number 4. Of course, by the time 3 and 4 rolled around, I was able to tell myself, "That's okay. They love him. I want them to love him. And then I get a break in the evenings. It's fine. Really." I'd ask my friends if their children preferred their husbands. "I wish!" they'd answer, not knowing, of course, what they were wishing for. "I'm the one that's with them all day. I'm the one they're used to, so I'm the one they go to for comfort. I can't seem to shake them."
They, apparently, were cloth monkeys in the version of the experiment that also held the bottle.
Harlow also showed that the cloth monkeys gave the rhesus monkeys confidence and courage in the face of fear--a loud, noisemaking teddy bear. The monkeys would eventually approach the stuffed animal, provided it (the monkey) had previously been in physical contact with the cloth mother.
I asked my oldest if maybe I might be a cloth monkey that gave him and his siblings the courage to face the loud, noisemaking teddy bear. He laughed. I took that as a no.
But here's the thing: as I mentioned earlier, my husband wasn't with me for this trip. So even a wire monkey can eventually make something of herself. Or the rhesus monkeys perhaps just figure out, "Hey, she might not be so bad after all." The wire monkey never hurt the babies--never criticized them or even withheld affection. She just wasn't as soft as the cloth one, through no fault of her own. It's how she was made. And I'm sure she did her best. I know I do.
About a week ago, we took turns going around the dinner table and saying at least one nice thing about everyone else at the table. My 8-year-old--my 4th and final child--told me I was his "snuggle pet."
And my 16-year-old is willing to sit next to me for 9 hours . . . and actually talk to me that whole time.
My mother has commented many times over the last several years that she wasn't as good a mother as she wishes she had been. But who is? I'm sure she would see herself as a wire monkey--or as having been one as a young mother trying to figure out her role. What matters, though, isn't what we're made of, but what we make of ourselves. Wire, cloth, plush, or fiberfill, it's all the same. We start from where we are and we keep going. Sooner or later, we--and our children--can find we're soft enough.