Of all the meanings of Mothers Day, the one we most like to celebrate – if we can – is the love we have for our mothers and the joys we get by being mothers. Yet it is not all joy. If it were, it would mean less, because the contrast between joy and pain is what makes the joy more wonderful.
This morning I was reflecting on this because I woke up a little off, a little sad. Then I found myself telling a friend about a time in my life as a mother and daughter that I rarely talk about now: the ‘80s, my personal decade from hell. I started them as a wife and a mother – a mother who lost a child. I didn’t lose her, precisely, but she slipped through my fingers shortly after she was born.
And then I was no longer a wife, but a single mother trying hard to recover from that loss, struggling to still be the best mother I could while I tried to find myself again. Hard on the heels of that, I became a mother who was trying to hold her children while suddenly being dropped into memories of a childhood that had been more than horrific. Blow after blow, for ten years, until it began to seem that every time I thought I saw a light at the end of the tunnel it was another train.
Through it all, my mom was there.
What was it like for her, to get the long awaited call announcing her latest grandchild, only to hear: ‘the baby died’? She simply said ‘I’ll call you back after I make plane reservations’, and then she came. In fact, she stepped out of her west coast life for every trial of those years to come to me. She had my back.
In the years following, she was always on the other end of the phone, listening to me struggle and whine and complain and try to heal. She had such grace. She never tried to fix the unfixable, she simply listened and tried to soothe the unsoothe-able.
To be fair – and accurate, it wasn’t all tragedy. She also stepped out of her life to come east for her granddaughters’ high school graduations. She never missed mine, either, even coming to England to see me graduate from acupuncture college, though that, at least turned into a six week adventure for her in a foreign county, a gift I was most pleased to offer.
I’ve heard women say that being a mom can be terrifying – largely because our children don’t come with operating manuals. Every life raised and nurtured is done from scratch. Most of us have our moms or maybe surrogate moms to turn to for help, or just a shoulder to cry on. My mom’s mother died when she was 12, and she was raised by a much-loved older sister who also died young. I’m sure she found support and guidance somewhere, but I can’t imagine how hard it was.
There came a time when our roles reversed some, and I was the listener, the encourager, the supporter, the fan. I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to go for parents and kids. We reach a point of being equals, before the point comes where the child becomes the parent to the parent, although most of that job now falls to her son, my brother, and her husband who adores her.
I can’t ask her about any of this because, although she’s still alive and happy, she has Alzheimer’s, and struggles – so much – to even hold a conversation. And really, we went into uncharted territory, she and I, in that decade of the 80s. We were making it up as we went, both of us, and I know we both did the best we could, even when we felt that it wasn’t good enough, that we were letting our children down.
Like all daughters, I try to emulate the things she did that I loved while not doing the things she did that I hated. I expect if we could hold that conversation now, she’d still support me, with compassion for the times when I feel I failed, as well as great satisfaction at the times when I have done well. She still tries to say these things every time we talk, even though I’m sure she doesn’t understand what we talk about. It’s like this curious hard-wiring in her. ‘I’m talking to Karen, and I need to let her know I’m proud of her.’
Without diminishing my own strong desire to do something, to be something, I can’t imagine becoming the woman I am without having this woman as my mom. After all is said and done, we are both women who made good lives, who did the best we could for our children. It isn’t easy, it isn’t grand, it certainly is rocket science… and all things considered, the only things I would change would be the things that have hurt my kids. But then they wouldn’t be the fabulous women that they are.
I don’t believe I have ever said this, but today I claim – with pride, with love, with sorrow, with thankfulness – I am my mother’s daughter. Happy Mothers Day, Mom.