Most Mother’s Day pieces talk about how inspiring and brave the mother in question is, and how the daughter wanted to be just like her when she grew up. Well, my mom visited most of the national parks west of the Mississippi on her own at age 19; she moved across an ocean to marry the man she loved and start a career; she went back to school fifteen years later and now is department chair of her college’s Department of Education. Together with the man she changed continents for, she’s raised three daughters and she is still happily married. So yes, my mother is damn inspiring and quite brave, and of course I want to be just like her when I grow up. (Good thing, if the inevitability of turning into your mother is to be believed.)
But when I was younger, rather than finding kinship in books with loving, caring mothers, three of my favorite books centered on absent, selfish, sometimes cruel mothers. I read Time Windows by Kathryn Reiss, A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt, and Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks over and over. The details of each story differ, of course, but in each, the mother puts her own needs before those of her children, and the children suffer for it. In Time Windows, the mother feels trapped by domesticity and wants her own career (to be fair, it is 1904 and this was unheard of for white, middle-class women); in her anger, she locks her daughter in an attic as punishment for clumsiness. In A Solitary Blue, the mother leaves her much older husband for a bohemian lifestyle, and only returns to her son’s life when she needs money to fuel a drug scheme with her new lover. In Midnight Hour Encores, the hippie mother gives her daughter to the father within a week of the child’s birth, unable to face the huge responsibility of raising a child; years later, she gets her life together and becomes a successful businesswoman willing to set up a tentative friendship when her estranged daughter contacts her.
Why on earth would I want to read about these women? My own armchair self-analysis finds a few reasons: I wanted to see Bad Mothers punished in order to feel more secure with my Good Mother. I secretly feared my Good Mother might turn Bad and abandon me.
I think both of these are true. My mom was at home, insisting on breakfast every morning so I’d grow up strong, checking that I’d done my homework, wiping away my tears when the kids at school were mean to me. But when I was age 11 and devouring these books, she was also going to classes, doing her own homework, and writing her dissertation. In my confused adolescent mind, I saw her having a career (where before I hadn’t noticed one, since she’d taught at the school I attended so she seemingly extended her mother role to school just for me–ah, the utter narcissism of children!) and I freaked out. She’d never shown an interest in leaving home before, but what if Having a Job lured her away, as it seemed to for the mothers in these books? At age 11, I was just starting to see how taking care of my sisters and me might be a major pain in the ass, so I could easily see how she might chuck it all in to focus on her career and herself rather than on tending to our whiny needs.
But before I could get too into this strange fantasy of abandonment, the very books that led me down that path turned me right ’round again. The advantage of being an obsessive reader is that multiple meanings make themselves available on multiple readings. The protagonists of A Solitary Blue and Midnight Hour Encores start to see how their mothers had made difficult decisions when they’d left their kids. Not that this made them feel much better about how hurt they were to be left behind, but they did understand a little more how their mothers had their own interests that were separate from them, the kids, and how they’d pursued those interests instead.
Now, one of the things my mom has always said is how fortunate she feels that she was able to stay at home with us when we were little and then go back to school to continue her career, rather than having to do it all at the same time and missing out on my sisters’ and my young childhood. Unlike the mothers in these books, she didn’t have to make that hard choice. Here I was worrying about her doing something drastic, but she felt no need to do something drastic, because after those early broke years on the south side of Chicago, her husband was making a decent income that opened up possibilities.
But even if she’d had to choose, she would have chosen us. I asked her recently if she ever felt like putting us first meant putting herself last, and she said it never felt like that, because it was always about putting the family as a whole first. She didn’t see a divide between her interests and ours, because they were the same. Even when she decided to return to school and get her PhD, she saw how that had a benefit for us, too. After all, she wanted we three girls to grow into independent young women who were confident of their ability to do anything they desired, and making her own professional dreams come true was setting a good example for us.
Another good example she set, though of course it didn’t become clear to me until years later, when we’d all left the house, was that she never lost her sense of herself in us. She drove the twins to basketball practice, she listened to me practice scales on the piano, she bent over our math homework with us, she read stories aloud to us before bed, she commiserated with us on our tales of woe from school, she went to parent-teacher conferences, she joined the marching band boosters club, and so on ad infinitum. But she only came to basketball games, not practices; she didn’t sit through my piano lesson, just the recital; she only helped on homework we were stuck on, rather than checking each assignment to make sure we’d completed it. These are all things other parents do, other parents who perhaps do not have enough hobbies of their own or who don’t know what to do with the precious free time they find themselves with.
When I was growing up, this was simply the norm; from time to time, Mom had her dissertation to write, or a magazine to read, or a friend to chat with. If we were hurt or needed something or whatever, of course we could interrupt and she’d drop everything in a second. Otherwise, we could amuse ourselves, and she was not at our beck and call. Again, this was not just a good choice for her own sanity, but for our well-being and growth; we learned that everyone needs their space and that we could rely on ourselves for entertainment instead of needing someone else to feed it to us. She’s told me that she saw two dangers in losing yourself in your children: you either become resentful of the time and energy they take from you, or you expect something in return, like “I put my whole world into you, so why didn’t you turn out perfectly?” No one needs that kind of pressure, and no one ends up happy. I remember seeing Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet on her nightstand, with the “On Children” essay bookmarked. You know the one:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
The astonishing thing to me then, that adolescent reader of books and dreamer of dire events, was that she was choosing us. The astonishing thing to me now, a single woman of 28, is that she chose us so consciously and conscientiously. She thought ever so carefully about every choice before making it, and she had good reasons for each parenting decision she made. (Note: none of this is to discount my dad, who is his own wonder but not the topic of this essay. The two of them were really big on making all parenting decisions together, and their united front was impenetrable.) She wasn’t on mothering autopilot, which is a relief to me now, since the idea of mothering is exciting but also terrifying, because how do you figure it out? By doing it, and doing it mindfully, as it turns out.
That’s the final message I got from these middle school books, too. Mothers aren’t just mothers whose only focus is their children; they’re people who have a vast array of interests, needs, and desires. That’s what was so scary to me. I was just starting to realize that mothers didn’t have to be as good as mine was, that they didn’t have to be there for us whenever we needed them, that they didn’t have to show their unconditional love on a daily basis.
I think my mom would say that she did have to do those things, that her love for us was so strong that she couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. But there were so many other ways she could have raised us, and she chose this way, the way of love, humor, strength, intelligence, curiosity, and kindness. That takes not just a good mother but a good person, and when I realized my mother was not just a good mother to me but a good person in the world, I saw more clearly why I wanted to be like her.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.