Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Guest Post: A Mother's Look at "Peter Pan"

I decided to let someone else have a go at ranting for a change. Allow me to present the musings of a dear friend of mine from college, Jen.

When my friend Peter asked me to contribute something to his blog, I’ll admit that my first reaction was to panic a bit. While motherhood has done amazing things for my reflexes, I’m not sure it has done much for my mental acuity, and I wondered what I could possibly have to say about Peter Pan, or J.M. Barrie, or about anything, that might be of interest to his readers. However, I was flattered to be asked to do almost anything that didn’t involve wiping noses, resolving brotherly disputes, or raising money for the PTA, so I decided to dive in.

I began re-reading Peter Pan, with the vague idea that I might be able to relate J.M. Barrie’s tale to my experiences with my own boys (8, 6, and 1). While the world has changed quite a bit from his day (and I do wonder what he’d make of an Xbox), boys have apparently barely changed at all.

For instance, take Peter trying to stick his shadow back on with soap. No wonder that a boy wouldn’t have any idea that sewing would be necessary (much less how to do it), but are we at all surprised at his total ignorance of the true purpose of soap? My own older two have recently decided that they would rather take showers than baths, but only because they think standing under running water will allow them to skip the soap part—they always seem offended when reminded that they actually need to wash. If the future of the environment depended on conserving soap my boys would be at the forefront of the green movement. (The baby adores baths, but mainly for the opportunity they offer to dump cupfuls of water on the bathroom floor.)

Neverland is populated with boys and their jumbled-together fantasies, but they have to import a girl to do the work. Shocker. (And how is it that girls are “too clever” to get lost falling out of their prams and not clever enough to get out of the housework, anyway?) Just like real boys, the Lost Boys are hard on their clothes, and Wendy sits “down to her workbasket: a heavy load of stockings and every knee with a hole in it as usual.” Having just been through a winter where every pair of jeans the older boys owned gave out at the knee, I could sympathize. (As one would expect with boys, on no occasion could they explain to me how the holes got there.) Summer brings some relief, since it is impossible to get a hole in the knee of a pair of shorts, but it is also accompanied by an uptick in the consumption of Band-Aids. Apparently the Lost Boys also enjoyed what I like to call “mental Band-Aids.” My middle son in particular refuses to admit that if there is no visible blood, a Band-Aid is unnecessary, and I have found that arguing with him is a waste of time. (Natural selection in my family favors extreme stubbornness, surprising no one who knows me or my husband.) He also enjoys having the Band-Aid as a conversation starter, so he can recount the tale of how the invisible—dare I say, nonexistent?—injury occurred. Compare it to the conclusion of one of the Lost Boys’ adventures, after Wendy has sent them to bed: “Next day, however, she was awfully tender, and gave out bandages to every one, and they played till bed-time at limping about and carrying their arms in slings.”

Most tellingly, though, I recognize my own children in the clear-sighted observations of how self-absorbed children are: “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked.” In the ongoing humility lesson that is parenthood, nothing is quite as bruising to the ego as having your child literally run off to have fun without you. My boys have the opportunity to do this quite frequently, having many grandparents nearby, and if one of them remembers to kiss me and tell me goodbye on their way out the door without being reminded, I think I will almost certainly drop dead of shock. Occasionally I am told, when they return, that they missed me, but that is usually because they were denied something they wanted that they think I might have said yes to. (For the record, the chance of my giving in where a grandparent stood firm is about the same as the chance of my boys getting through an afternoon of homework with no whining, or in other words, nil.)

Most self-absorbed of all, however, is Peter Pan himself. Immediately after Wendy sews his shadow back on for him, he exults, giving his own cleverness the credit for success when he owes it all to Wendy. “It is humiliating to have to confess,” Barrie writes, “that this conceit of Peter was one of his most fascinating qualities. To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy.” No surprise there: my kids act like they’ve invented cold fusion if they can find a matching pair of shoes in the morning. I thought I’d bite through my tongue the day my eldest son bragged about his great grade on a book report, conveniently forgetting that the process of writing it was a two-week ordeal wherein he whined about everything from reading the book to coloring the cover. Sometimes I think that the parents should be the ones getting grades on their children’s projects, or at least a special commendation for getting them to finish the darn things and not selling the kids on eBay instead.

Peter has all his first teeth, and laughs with the innocent gurgle of a child’s first laugh, but he also lacks any social restraints. On the trip to Neverland, he repeatedly has to rescue the Darling children from falling into the ocean as they nod off from exhaustion, “but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life.” He often does the right thing, but not for the right reason, and the Darling children cannot be confident that he won’t find something more interesting to do the next time they need rescuing. Similarly, I’d like to think my boys do their chores and follow directions because they know it is the right thing to do, but realistically it’s often because they know they won’t get computer time after dinner unless they toe the line. (And I’d like to pretend I was smart enough to keep the computer time until after dinner from the first, but as I mentioned, motherhood—not so good for the mental acuity.)

When the children have decided to leave Neverland, Peter escorts them back to the Darlings’ house, but with a trick in mind: he flies ahead and closes the window they expect to find open, to make them believe that their mother has forgotten about them. “Instead of feeling that he was behaving badly, he danced with glee,” but when he sees Mrs. Darling crying he cannot follow through with the plan: “He ceased to look at her, but even then she would not let go of him. He skipped about and made funny faces, but when he stopped it was just as if she were inside him, knocking.” That’s a pretty good description of the conscience we mothers all hope we can give our children, the one we remind ourselves is a work in progress when Son #1 cons Son #2 out of his best Pok√©mon card and threatens dire vengeance when made to give it back. Peter, of course, gives up, fleeing the insidious civilizing influence of Mrs. Darling to preserve his eternal childhood with its freedom and carelessness. I suppose I should be glad that my boys can’t fly when they are fleeing the civilizing influences of hairbrush, toothbrush, and the oft-repeated lecture about why your baby brother cannot be treated like a football, no matter what he did to the train track you spent half an hour building.

So I find that the Lost Boys could indeed be the creatures who live in my house, who come in from ten minutes in the backyard covered in dirt and who think I don’t know that they kick their soccer ball over the wall into the neighbor’s yard on purpose. On the days when my head is spinning because after spending two hours playing “Annoy My Brother” (their favorite game, which mostly consists of them noodging one another and then simultaneously yelling, “I’m telling!” until I am ready to scream), the boys do something breathtakingly cute, like reading to their baby brother without being asked, thus inducing maternal emotional whiplash, I’ll remind myself that this won’t last. Someday that internal voice will replace my voice reminding them to close the refrigerator door, to keep their hands to themselves, to use their inside voice, and to say please and thank you. Only one boy never grows up, and though he’s cute, I’m glad he doesn’t live in my house.


Danielle Mari said...

Oh Jen. How I've missed your slicing wit and Saharan humor! You simply MUST consider writing a revisioning of Pan from Wendy's POV. Sort of like "Wicked" and its relationship to Oz. Great post! And welcome to Blogville.

Peter Von Brown said...

THAT I would like to see. Jen? :)