My grandparents on their wedding day, their attendants on the outside edges of the picture.
Short and square, she could barely see over the edge of the steering wheel, but that size-five-foot managed to reach the accelerator with exuberance and commitment. My mother’s mother learned to drive just before her 60th year, and with every outing, attempted to make up for all those years of deprivation. Putting her large, General Motors vehicle in reverse, she would back out of the driveway at 30 mph, turning her car and her mind toward the street and the day ahead. This image of my small grandmother behind the wheel of a car is one of the strongest ones I carry to this day, fifteen years after her death. She was a woman of indomitable will, a gifted business person and from all I can gather, pretty much an absentee mother.
She had four children in four years and was often so completely overwhelmed by motherhood that she literally could not speak for weeks at a time. Fortunately, she had extended family nearby, maiden aunts who loved her kids and made themselves available when needed.
And were they ever needed. Nonnie went to work, you see. Her husband drank too much and gambled too much and they all needed the stability of a regular paycheck, so she did whatever she could find to do. And to tell you the truth, I think it was a relief to her. She never quite ‘got’ the whole mothering gig, although her children adored her, and hung on every word she said to them. The message my own mother got was this one: daughters take care of mothers. And that is exactly what my mother did during most of her growing-up life: she took care of Mother, standing between her parents when Grampa came home drunk, cleaning up his messes and their home, looking out for her siblings.
So when it came time for my mother to be a mother, she very deliberately did a lot of it differently. She never worked outside the home, choosing instead to nurture and support her husband and her kids by becoming the quintessential 1950′s housewife. She was a gracious hostess, a creative seamstress, a committed volunteer at church and school. One thing, however, remained exactly the same: the message she passed down to me – daughters take care of mothers.
And I got it. Oh, yes, I got it.
Mom, me and Dad when I was about two.
And I’ve spent a lot of years trying desperately to un-get it. At a very early age, I became a primary support system for my mother’s emotional health and well-being. It was not intentional, it just was. I was confided in, worried over, instructed in the ways of womanhood-according-to-mid-20th-century-conservative-Christianity, and generally expected to understand things that were far beyond my age or emotional capacity to understand. And I was a sponge for all of it, adoring my beautiful mother and wanting to be just like her.
Only, I wasn’t her. I was me. And it’s taken a lifetime to learn how to differentiate myself from her expectations and to find the courage to be the person God designed me to be, not the person my mother wanted me to be. This is a lesson I am still learning, on this the 68th anniversary of my birth. Still.
I hope the message stopped with me. I pray the message stopped with me. I was given the immeasurable gift of two glorious daughters, just 22 months apart, and then a son 30 months later. And while they were little, I carried around with me the image given me by my mom — stay-at-home, do-the-meals-and-the-laundry, be-sure-your-husband-is-happy-and-your-children-well-behaved. But I knew very early that I did not want that hand-me-down message to come out of my mouth or out of my unspoken expectations for either of my girls. More than anything, I wanted them to be their own unique selves.
Our three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1.
I did not mother them perfectly — not even close. I loved my kids more than life, but I often felt overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood. And I often felt more than a little bit lost. I hungered for adult companionship, for creative space, for more sleep! I often felt like a complete failure, impatient, distracted, inadequate. But one thing I did well — I enjoyed the ways my children were different from me and from one another. They were fascinating to me!
Even when I felt confused, even when I wondered if they’d live to see adulthood without killing one another, even when I wanted to walk out the front door and never look back — I was intrigued by who these small people were, each one so totally themselves. Yes, I was overbearing at times and yes, I sometimes expected too much from them. But this much I knew, right into my bones: I was their mother, they were my children. I was responsible for them – they were not responsible for me.
How could they be? They weren’t me. As I look back on those years, I believe that insight was a gift of grace, given to me by God, primarily through the gift of my marriage and our experience of living far away from family during those crucial early months of our married life. It didn’t come to me from my own experience of being mothered, nor from my mother’s experience of being mothered. And I hope and pray to God that this insight is the one that I communicated to my daughters, and not the one that came to me through our mysterious system of familial osmosis.
I’ve written here and elsewhere about my abiding love and admiration for my mother and my gratitude for the ways in which she and my father created such a remarkable and rich family life for me and my brothers. But this particular piece, this expectation of reverse-mothering-for-daughters — this does not land on any gratitude list. It’s been a difficult piece of my personal story for decades and I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.
So I find it more than a little bit ironic that now, at the end of my mother’s long life, after years of my own heavy-duty reflective work on this complicated piece of our story . . . I am indeed responsible for my mother’s well-being. I have a hunch I had to un-learn my grandmother’s and my mother’s version of daughters take care of mothers in order to finally be able to do that in a whole and healthy way. Time will tell . . . and grace, too.
All of us, spring of 2012. My daughters and DIL are doing such good mothering!
Joining with Emily Wierenga’s weekly theme, this week the prompt is ‘mother.’