When You Don’t Have a Mute Button

October 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

If Tuesday’s presidential debate has taught us anything, it’s that 2020 should have come with a mute button. Because meditation alone isn’t going to cut it. Ditto to stocking our freezers with double-chocolate brownie ice cream. Adulting is hard enough right now without adding parenting (and schooling) to the mix. And yet, our children are bystanders to this hot mess unfolding around them. With our own blood pressure camped out at dangerously high levels, how do we offer some semblance of sanity for our precious little ones?

Back in July, I came across a blog post written by a practicing psychotherapist out of Colorado named Sara Waters. She was addressing the stress parents were feeling while waiting for schools to announce their reopening plans (HA, remember when we thought that was worth losing sleep over?). Like many parents at the time, I was spending way too much time crawling along the bottom of the Internet, desperate for someone to reassure me that my children would be safe this fall. Waters surfaced with the reassuring reminder that, while we might not be in control of what happens outside our front door, we can control what happens inside:

The number one most determining factor of your child’s 2020 experience is YOUR ability to manage your OWN discomfort.  Mirror neurons are real and even children who haven’t yet learned to understand or speak language will pick up on the quantum vibrational frequencies of distress that you emit.  Your children hear you talk, even when you aren’t talking to them.  They hear you complain.  They hear you vent.  They watch your facial expressions when you are on a phone call or responding to an email or social media post on your computer.  They can feel whether you are relaxed or whether you are in a state of stress when you wake them up in the morning, sit down for a family meal, or tuck them into bed at night. […] Whether you like it or are aware of it or not, they will feel what you feel.

I’ve thought about this reminder many times since that last week in July, including and especially when I picked up Cozbi A. Cabrera’s joyous new picture book, Me & Mama (Ages 2-6), a lyrical celebration of the bond between one daughter and her mother. Reading this story is like wrapping yourself in a cocoon of domestic love. Reminiscent of one of last year’s favorites—Oga More’s Saturday—this book speaks directly to the power we hold as parents to set tone, to cue young children’s feelings about the world and their place in it.

We sometimes forget that motherhood comes with its own special set of superpowers. We can smile at our children; we can dance in their presence; we can light up when they walk in the room. None of the stressors in the world can compete with that.

From the moment this little girl descends the stairs in her nightgown, her mother greets her presence with warmth. “Good morning to you, sings Mama, bright as sun. Sometimes she sings it like the birthday song.” It’s a weekend morning, but unlike her father and brother, the girl has no interest in sleeping in. “[…] I want to be everywhere Mama is.”

When the girl notices that it’s raining outside, her face crumples into a disappointed frown. But Mama turns disappointment into opportunity, proclaiming, “The perfect day for boots and puddles!”

Before they can go outside, the two must go through their morning routine, and this ends up occupying half of the book. That such rituals of teeth brushing, dressing, and breakfasting are given such reverent treatment by our young narrator is a testament to the way her mother infuses them with opportunity for connection. The girl relishes drawing comparisons between herself and Mama. They have similar toothbrushes, though Mama’s gets more toothpaste. They have similar bowls of oatmeal, though Mama’s has berries and hers has bananas. (The end papers are filled with even more her-and-hers pairings.)

At the heart of their mother-daughter connection is a feeling of security. The little girl is free to explore and experiment without judgment. Immediately after telling us about Mama’s ornate ceramic coffee mug (in contrast to her plastic cup), we turn the page to see an illustration of the mug shattered into pieces. And yet, the girl tells us, her mother simply responds, “Sometimes things break.

There are other hints at Mama’s good-natured humor. After the girl has showered—“A shower is warm rain that gets you going”—she tells us she’s going to wear her favorite silver dress, similar to one her mother has.  But “Today is not our silver dress day, Mama tells me. I put my silver dress back on the hanger and pick the plaid pants instead.”

The spread where the two do each other’s hair, negotiating barrette choice with mischievous smiles, is one of my favorites in the book. It’s also a rare celebration of Black hair care in children’s publishing.

Finally, the two are ready to don their rain boots—“Mama’s rain boots are bigger than mine”—and go outside. Here, basking in the continued glow of her mother’s company, the girl observes the world around her. She notices, for instance, the grass between the sidewalk cracks: “It’s moss, Mama says. It’s velvet, I say.” The girl’s astute, sometimes abstract observations are brought to life as much by Cabrera’s lush acrylic paintings as by her poetic prose: “Nests are left behind in winter. Some things don’t let go.”

When the “outside clouds are pink with the setting sun,” Mama puts the girl (and her brother) to bed. Mama reads to her from a picture book, while the girl makes up stories of her own and tells them to Mama. Once more, joy radiates from the page, as Mama “throws her head back” in laughter.

Before Mama goes downstairs—“Our day is done earlier than Mama and Papa’s. It’s just that way when you’re growing”—she guides her daughter through a tunnel of blankets and whispers, “You’re my best girl,” sealing the deal with a kiss. The girl is left in a dark room, but the memories of her day and its simple pleasures keep her company as she waits for sleep.

Me & Mama places us squarely in the shoes of a young child, one who hasn’t started wondering what her mother does when she isn’t around, about her mother’s own hopes and dreams, worries and fears. She thinks only of the way she feels when she’s in her mother’s presence: loved, safe, hopeful, happy.

That’s a tall order for us parents, especially when the weather outside grows stormier and the temptation to rage at our television sets is great. We’re not always going to get it right. (Because THERE IS NO MUTE BUTTON.) We’re going to have moments of free fall, of disconnection, of despair and annoyance…and probably in front of our children. (Because QUARANTINE.) But if parenthood has taught us anything, it’s that we can do hard things. And maybe, if we allow ourselves to smile a little more around our children right now, we’ll feel some of that glow reflected back at us.

Please excuse me, I have a dance party in the kitchen to get to.

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Review copy from Simon and Schuster. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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