The mother dance how children change your life

Books and Authors: The Denver Post

book review
The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life
Who: Harriet Lerner will talk about and sign her book.
When: June 11.
Where: Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, 2955 E. First Ave., 7:30 p.m. (also June 12 at Boulder Books, 1107 Pearl St., 7:30 p.m.)
By Diane Eicher
Denver Post Staff Writer

How Children Change Your Life

By Harriet Lerner
Harper Collins; $25

May 13 - In Harriet Lerner's B.C. life - Before Children - she couldn't understand why parents didn't exercise more control over their offspring in restaurants, or why kids weren't better behaved in the grocery store.

"I'd look around me and think, arrogantly, "I will never be like that. ''' she said.

As a psychologist at the renowned Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., Lerner was sure she'd bring an educated, rational perspective to motherhood that would certainly set her apart from those beleaguered parents she saw in public.

But today her sons Matthew and Ben are students at Brown University and the nest is empty. She's on tour, promoting her newest book, "The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life'' (Harper Collins; $25).

And Lerner is more forgiving.

"Certainly, one thing motherhood taught me was humility,'' she said.

"Before I was a mother, I'd look around me, and I knew I'd never do those things. I'd never yell at my children, never fight with their father within earshot, never take them to McDonald's. I would not be a worrier,'' she recalled.

"But, of course, I did all those things,'' she said.

And more.

There were times in her kids' lives when they'd push her buttons and she discovered Harriet the Psychologist, supposedly an expert on family relationships, could become Harriet the Mother with "the brain of a reptile,'' she admitted.

Lerner shares those times, along with the observations of other mothers, in "The Mother Dance,'' her fourth book in a series ( "The Dance of Anger,'' "The Dance of Deception and "The Dance of Intimacy.'') All the books explore the notion that family members have a unique "dance'' that can both keep them locked into destructive patterns or lead to better relationships.

But "The Mother Dance'' is different - and her favorite, said Lerner - because it has more of herself in it. She writes about how, when her boys were young, they'd fight at the dinner table, and she'd tell them to stop. But they'd simply ignore her, and she'd puzzle over what to do next.

"Suddenly I'd be at a loss, as if a fog had descended on my brain and dissolved my thinking center,'' she writes.

In a chapter titled "Ben's Earring and Other Power Struggles,'' she admits to her "most dramatic story of personal dysfunction,'' when she got stuck in an escalating pattern of anger with her son, then a high-school junior, over his messy habits. It led to huge fights with her husband, Steve, also a Menninger psychologist, and to a rare crying outburst from her otherwise strong, self-sufficient 16-year-old.

She writes how she had spent the better part of her career teaching others how to "change (their) steps in the family dance,'' yet was unable to either see or change what she was doing with Ben.

These things didn't happen to her when she dealt with the adults in her life, she admitted. So what was happening to Harriet the Mother?

Once she realized her role in the ordeal with Ben and was able to step out of it, she was able to own up to something that happens to ALL mothers: an "incredible range of feelings and emotions,'' which she wants other mothers to be able to acknowledge, as well. Those feelings can include dislike and rage, emotions many mothers have but rarely admit to publicly.

"Before we have children, we don't have a clue what they will evoke in us,'' she said.

She writes about the times mothers won't like their children very much, and perhaps even hate them. And she writes about the paradox of how, at the same time, these mothers feel a profound love and attachment for their kids.

This is a nonjudgmental book. It's definitely not of the "Dr. Laura'' genre or other child-rearing books that draw clear boundaries for how mothers should act and feel and the choices they should make. Any mother held captive at the grocery store by a preschooler who's launched a public fit because his mother wouldn't buy him candy will feel better after reading "The Mother Dance.'' It's also not like the "What to Expect'' series - those best-selling books ( "What to Expect When Your Expecting,'' "What to Expect From Your Toddler'') that offer monthly and yearly guideposts for kids' developmental levels. "The Mother Dance'' doesn't offer mothers 10 quick steps to easy parenting, or an easy blueprint for how to overcome unruly children. Instead, it's designed to let mothers "hear the truth from other mothers, about the limitations, the vulnerabilities, the good, the bad, the unspeakable'' parts of motherhood,'' she said.

Lerner notes that society continues to set "impossible standards for mothers,'' often judging them as either "good, or bad, when in reality, most of us can be both.''

And she's bothered by the "black and white polarity'' often set forth by other so-called experts. Consider radio shrink Dr. Laura (Schlessinger) who insists there is no gray area when it comes to a parent putting a career on hold to stay home with a child, or Penelope Leach who continues to offer her strict parameters for raising children.

Lerner said she set out to write a parenting book, but after scoping out the bookstore, discovered there were "literally thousands (on the topic) ... more than any parent would have time to read and still continue being a parent,'' she said in a phone interview last week.

"But there was a conspicuous absence of books that spoke to the experience of mothers, what motherhood was like,'' she said.

"And I did tuck in some of my best parenting advice ... when it comes to giving advice, I can't help myself,'' said Lerner, who writes a monthly column for New Woman magazine.

There is no "one right way'' to be a mother, she said, and women "should never pay money for any book that will make them feel guilty.''

That is, feel more guilty than they already do. Motherhood is, and always has been, more inextricably linked to guilt than it is to apple pie.

"The only good thing about guilt is it's not terminal,'' she added.

While she encourages mothers to share their best and worst with one another, there is no book that can tell us how to be a good parent.

"In the end, every mother is the ultimate expert on her own self,'' she said.

Lerner also believes that society must begin to change the way it looks at families. Before issues like adequate child care can be resolved, the culture must become less judgmental of and not financially punitive toward parents who cut back on careers to raise children.

Too many child-rearing tasks - both the physical tasks as well as the emotional stuff - still fall to women, she said, which points to how ingrained the "power of gender'' is.

Much of Lerner's clinical practice in Topeka is comprised of women trying to juggle multiple roles as mother, wife, career person and individual, she said. The book also touches on the difficulties of balancing all those, and she's big on helping women to think about themselves and how not to lose their sense of self as they get involved in their own "Mother Dance.''

The book is written for women who are contemplating motherhood, those smack in the middle of raising little ones, and women whose children are grown, she said. And no matter what stage a woman is at, or how old or young she is when she begins the motherhood journey, Lerner is forgiving.

"I have been around long enough to not make glib predictions on how things will turn out for any mother,'' she said.

Harriet Lerner will visit Denver to talk about and sign her book, at 7:30 p.m. June 11 at the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, 2955 E. First Ave., and at 7:30 p.m. June 12 at Boulder Books, 1107 Pearl St.

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From the celebrated author of The Dance of Anger comes an extraordinary book about mothering and how it transforms us — and all our relationships — inside and out. Written from her dual perspective as a psychologist and a mother, Lerner brings us deeply personal tales that run the gamut from the hilarious to the heart-wrenching. From birth or adoption to the empty nest, The Mother Dance teaches the basic lessons of motherhood: that we are not in control of what happens to our children, that most of what we worry about doesn't happen, and that our children will love us with all our imperfections if we can do the same for them. Here is a gloriously witty and moving book about what it means to dance the mother dance.

Family & Relationships Psychology Nonfiction
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