Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valuable words to live by, even if you only half remember them

She had probably said it before. Many times, maybe. It didn’t sound scripted, but she sounded sure and articulate and definite. Since then, in any case, Anna Quindlen has said the thing—or, more accurately, my vague and fragmented half-remembered approximation of the thing—many, many times.

In my head.

Of course, I wish now I had written it down. I hadn’t brought anything to write with, wasn't expecting to pick up any unforgettable quotes. I have nothing against beloved novelist/journalist, but I’m not her biggest fan. A friend asked me to go see her one evening last spring. The talk was free, it was a lovely evening, and the church where she was speaking overlooked Lake Minnetonka at sunset. So why not?

Quindlen’s talk was engaging enough to hold the interest of someone who has never read her novels and has no plans to, has admired her journalism career but never followed her columns closely. Whatever you think of her writing, Anna Quindlen is a smart, eloquent, forceful, high-achieving woman who of course has interesting things to say.

Anna Quindlen speaking—not where I saw her, but at Stevenson University in Maryland, which furnished this photo.
Quindlen read a passage from her novel and spoke a bit, then asked for questions from the audience, which filled the big room. People asked the usual things about writing, journalism, books. (Quindlen is, it turns out, a big Betsy-Tacy fan, so that was exciting for me. She said that whenever she mentions that, about half the people get it and half don't; I'm very definitely one of the getters).

Then somebody asked her something about mothers.

I can’t remember the question. I suspect it had to do with blaming mothers—or rather, in this cordial, affluent, literary, churchy, Minnesota-nice audience, with holding mothers responsible—for some problem or other. Helicopter parenting, maybe; that's the newest trend.

That’s when Quindlen made the statement whose exact words I don't remember but whose gist I have never forgotten. Something to the effect that raising children involves so many “moving parts” that at the end of the day there will always, inevitably, unavoiably, be loose ends, things done less than perfectly. She makes it a philosophical point, she said, not to blame mothers for them.

How true! And how valuable to hear, even if you already know that, even if you already try frequently to remind yourself of it! How nice to hear it confirmed so well, before a big audience, by someone as widely known and well-respected as Anna Quindlen.

So on a day like today, when I have only now got around to returning an email from 11 days ago about an opportunity I’m actually really excited about. Or when I pick up the phone to find the orthodontist's receptionist dryly informing me that my son missed a big appointment this morning. That’s when I think, “Remember that thing Anna Quindlen said about the moving parts,” and I instantly feel better.

Here’s a quote from an interview with Quindlen posted by Random House, which published her novel Every Last One last April, just around the time she visited the church on the lake. It doesn’t sound like the exact words she used that night, but it touches on similar themes.

“There are a million moving parts to raising kids, and you can’t always anticipate them all, especially when the outside world, other people, play such a huge role in their lives as they grow older. With independence there is one kind of pitfall; with overprotection, there is another. And sometimes you do everything right and something bad just happens. It’s as simple, and as scary, as that.”

Isn’t that a nice quote to inwardly recite (or at least recall, as I do, in a vague and fragmented way) whenever you’re tempted to kick yourself for screwing up something, which in my case averages at least once a day?

But wait! There’s more! This next part I don't recall her adding that evening in the church by the lake. But in the Random House interview, she notes that when something bad happens involving kids, people tend to point the finger at the mother.  Though she is partly referring to some incident in her novel, which as I said I haven’t read, it's not a prerequisite to understanding her meaning, which applies just as accurately to events in real life.

“Of course, when things go wrong, it’s still the mother who gets blamed. Where was she? What was she thinking? … Despite the increased role of fathers in our society, there’s still a sense that motherhood is the big fail if anything goes wrong. Yet it’s independence that is the ultimate success for your kids. If your goal is to build strong people from the ground up, the only way to do that is to give them enough rope to sometimes make their own mistakes.”

Thank you, Anna Quindlen, for being so right, and saying it so well.

Anybody else have some reassuring mantra they dredge up whenever things go wrong?


  1. Thanks for passing along the great quotes.

    I'm a parent and as frightening as it can be to do everything right and still have something bad happen, it's still rather liberating to have the freedom to let go of some of the responsibility for our kids' lives. There is a degree of raising kids, of life in general, that is outside of our control. Most of what happens in our life is outside of our control, really. It made me think that maybe the more important part of raising kids isn't giving them climate-controlled perfection, but instead teaching them how to react and adapt when life throws a curve ball--or an opportunity.

    You gave me something to think about!

  2. Hi Sarah, and thanks for your thought-provoking response.

    My sons are high energy, 17 months apart and very [choose your polite term: strong-willed, challenging, spirited ...]. Refused to do my bidding from the get-go. Tough children to raise, but fairly early on I came to think of it as a blessing -- I saw how little control we (or at least I) really have in a lot of different ways.

    I took it as a sign to do my best, hope that a l
    little of it sinks in, cross my fingers, and enjoy it as much as I can while it lasts!