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Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper: The Ultimate Test of Motherhood

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Mother's Day is here again! For some of you, this day means 24 hours of glorious, reverential love from your husband and children, which they've planned with painstaking detail and precision for months, right? As for the rest of us, let's just give ourselves a quiet pat on the back for all the energy and effort we continuously try to churn out and pour into our kids in the hope that they'll be successful in life someday. And we expect no fanfare, thanks. If you ask a mom like me, there is nothing more satisfying than believing you've done your job well enough, especially around the time your child hits the teenage years -- that magical age when everything could either go pretty well or possibly turn to custard for them. As my eldest son is perilously close to turning 13, I'm observing his choices and conversations with peers, teachers and other parents very closely. And to watch without passing judgment or trying to impart a lesson with every episode is not easy for me at all. Actually, this is not an area where I've been able to let go like I know I should. Truthfully, I'm afraid he's not equipped to make good choices on his own... and frankly, that's my own fault.

When I was very young, I remember being fascinated by the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I was enthralled by the mad behavior of Wonka, played by the googly-eyed Gene Wilder, who challenged the gentle righteousness of the Charlie Bucket character. The movie also introduced a seemingly sinister Slugworth, who attempted to seduce the children into selling their prized Everlasting Gobstoppers as a test of their morality. At 5 years old, I exhausted my parents with questions about the significance of the Gobstopper. Though it wasn't part of the original book, in my impressionable mind, the decisions those children would make about the fate of each of their oddly-shaped, colorful blobs was the most important: whether or not to be honest and true to the very end, irrespective of their own situations. You'll recall Charlie handed back the Gobstopper after he had been told by Wonka that he had indeed lost the day. And with that small gesture of loyalty and morality, Charlie won it all.

I have yet to see my son's Gobstopper moment. And when it happens, who knows what he'll do. Up to now, whenever he's had a meltdown (justified or not), I've been there to pick up the pieces. I haven't given him enough opportunities to take reasonable risks or make his own mistakes and then figure his way out of them. Most every obstacle has been overcome with the "help" of my input because I want to be sure neither of the kids suffer (yes, I've done this to both of them). I add here, with a tinge of jealousy, that my husband has always been cooler and more relaxed about the circumstances in which the kids find themselves. It's the Kiwi in him, I think. He lets the chips fall where they may and believes the kids will remember the lesson that way. Fantastic -- however, that hasn't been their mother's style. And lately I've come to realize that my role of the rescuer has been a bit ridiculous at times.

Down in this corner of the world, someone has coined a term called "burnt chop syndrome" ("burned" spelled in the British tradition, in case you Google it), which is bestowed on mothers who behave a bit like martyrs to ensure that everyone else in the family is fully satisfied. In other words, if there's one burned chop amid the pile of meat with just enough servings to go around the table, mom will undoubtedly serve the charred one to herself. The reason this is deemed a problem is that it can be argued that those of us who do this can minimize our importance as family members when we really do matter (and deserve a nice cut) just as much as everyone else in the house -- and I'm told we aren't especially admired by the rest of the family for keeping the worst piece, anyway. I mention this because I think respect is earned and shared around all sides of the table. But I haven't been doing so great a job at earning mine, when I really think about it. I suppose my squawking and fluffing around the children like a chicken is really reminiscent of the days of Edith Bunker, isn't it? Very unhelpful, when you unpack and examine the whole thing.

With that realization, as I approach this Mother's Day, I am going to be fearless while I loosen up the reins and let my children go about making their own choices whenever possible. Sitting back to let my boys work out their own disagreements will be enlightening for everyone. If they forget to do their homework, they will pay the consequences with no badgering from me. I can no longer make excuses for them (they'll probably be shocked before finding it a bit of a relief). I'm bound to slip up once in a while, but at least I'll be heading in the right direction. And maybe somebody else can have the burned chop once in a while.

Committing to changes like these could make a world of difference to a child's feelings of empowerment and self-worth, not to mention a mother's. The moral compass of each of my children may end up being very different from mine, but if they gain a basic understanding of how honesty, kindness and respect fit into the world (especially the adolescent who's about to be unleashed at high school), I will feel like I've passed on something important to them amid all the mundane and sometimes complex bits that make up every day. And when that Everlasting Gobstopper moment happens, they may be ready for it after all.

Happy Mother's Day!

By the way, if you happen to be a fan of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory too, Profiles in History, the biggest dealer of Hollywood paraphernalia in California, is auctioning memorabilia from the original movie this July. The Everlasting Gobstopper is expected to fetch up to $30,000.

For more by Ree Varcoe, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

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