I’ve written essays about my father. It took me a long time after he died to write about him, and the first essay I wrote made him sound perfect, like a middle-aged James Dean (cool) with a John Wayne demeanor (tough). In that first essay, I never mentioned my Dad’s bad temper. It seemed dishonorable to write anything negative about a dead person. But my Dad’s hot temper was a big part of him and in order to dig down deep, close to the bone, I had to face it head-on, which I did in a later essay. As a child, I feared the wrath of my father, and I was never sure what transgression, real or imagined, could make it appear.
I also idolized and adored my father, craved his approval and wanted a hug from him so badly that at the age of 11, I sleep-walked straight to him and plopped down on his lap. I was embarrassed the next morning when this nocturnal escapade was revealed to me, but also secretly pleased. Daddy had hugged me. He’d allowed me to sit on his lap!
I’ve only written about my mother once, when early on in marriage, some 30 years ago, I sent an editorial to the local newspaper on what constitutes a great mother. That, of course, was the epitome of my own mother. She is 82 now, and only recently confessed to me that my tribute to her had hurt her because of the inclusion of the term “nicotine-stained fingers.” Yes, in my eagerness to use descriptive language I had actually used those words as part of the description of the woman I most admired.
I believe I also used the characterizations “martyr,” and “saint.”
When my oldest son asks me why I have such a heightened sense of mother-guilt that I hesitate to leave my children for more than a few hours, I can contemplate my own childhood and point the finger of blame.
It is my mother’s fault.
I can’t remember my mother going anywhere alone. She didn’t drive, so even her trips to the grocery store were with my father. When we woke up, she was there, with bowls of hot oatmeal or plates of fried potatoes. When we got home from school, she was there, with dozens of homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies and a jug of watered-down powdered milk waiting. If we woke up sick in the night, she was at our side pushing our hair back and washing our face with a cool wash cloth as we threw up in an old coffee can. When I got home from babysitting or a date at midnight, she was waiting at the table, ready to talk if I needed it, or just making sure I got safely into bed. We never had much money but our mother literally made our home; from the rag rugs she braided and the chickens she butchered, to the jars of canned produce in the basement and the homemade dolls on our beds.
How do you top a mother like that?
For the longest time, I thought to be a real mother, a good mother, you had to sacrifice. I’d even had a friend tell me once that I was going to “lose myself” in mothering. On the contrary, I’d been writing for quite a while by then and had many articles published about mothering and parenting, saving money and homeschooling. Who was she to say I had lost myself? Why, I was sure I had found myself through mothering! What would I have been writing about otherwise? She and I are no longer friends, but I’m afraid there was a grain of truth to what she’d said. I discovered that in 2006, when David was diagnosed with cancer. It was then I realized I’d lost not myself, but my marriage in mothering. I had worked diligently to maintain a sense of creativity through my writing, but I hadn’t worked much at all on my relationship with my husband.
As soon as I reclaimed the marriage relationship (fiercely, and with great joy), I also began taking care of myself for the first time in years. Just in the last four years I’ve done things I’ve either never done before or abandoned long ago in the magnificent mess of mothering. I’ve been away for an overnight trip with my husband, gone out to lunch with my sister, taken morning walks with another, drove myself a distance to a woman’s luncheon where I was a speaker, gone on regular dates with my husband, even when many of those dates include a doctor’s check-up. A new dress, a professional haircut, some quality make-up; sadly enough these things were at the bottom of the list just a few years ago. Way at the bottom. As in non-existent.
There is no denying I have immersed myself in mothering. And I’m not convinced I would do everything differently if I were beginning my journey into motherhood today. I would still strive to give birth naturally, would still breastfeed my infants. I would wear the backpacks and homeschool. Given all that I know now, I might not sleep with my babies past the first year or leave the bathroom door unlocked at all times. I would leave more often and shop alone or go out on dates with their daddy. I wouldn’t take them everywhere I went. My children got used to me working at my desk in their presence, they could get used to the occasional separations, too. (though Rachel never did get used to it when I worked for a newspaper covering evening meetings. I vividly remember her as a five-year-old, running after my car in the pouring rain one night, screeching at the top of her lungs because I was leaving)
The bottom line is I never knew how to be a different kind of mother. I’m not sure I know now. I baby Abby more than I did the others because she is my youngest, my last child. I try not to leave the children alone for more than a few hours. I don’t take enough time for myself and feel guilt if I do.
I was the best mother I knew how to be. I’m still trying.
That’s all any one of us can do.
Be the best mother you can be.
I learned that from my mother.
Happy Mother’s Day!