I am my mother.
My siblings began calling me “Mary Claire Junior” some time ago for these reasons: My mother and I are both always hot and constantly opening windows and turning down the thermostat. We both are very organized. We both like things neat. We both like to have a project.
Many women fear the day they come to the sudden realization that they are tied to the line of women who came before them, successors in a matriarchy from which they have absorbed more than they intended to. But I come from good stock, and I have ultimately embraced this connection. Many of the inherited traits I see in myself are positive, useful ones. My mother gets it done, and she does it without any fanfare. If she is unhappy with something, she doesn’t complain; she makes a plan to change things. She is a modestly private person—she doesn’t need to brag about my siblings and I to other parents in the supermarket. She wisely taught me that only a few people really want an honest answer to the question, “How are you?”, but she has never failed in being one of those people for me.
I know what an IRA is because of my mother. I know what it is to be in a good marriage because of my mother. I know that if I’m unhappy, I can change it, because of my mother. I am a feminist (meaning, I am someone who believes men and women should have equal rights and opportunities) largely because of my mother’s example. My sister and I were never treated any differently than our brothers. The girls played baseball too. The girls went to the spelling bee. The girls went to college. The girls went to work. My mother stitches us all together. She is even the one who e-mails with my father’s family and gets them all together for lunch.
It seems to me that most mothers try to set their daughters up to do a little bit better than they did, to succeed where they fear they may have failed—whether it’s encouraging them to start putting money away earlier, or to date around more before getting married, or to wear their sunblock at the beach—but it is perhaps impossible to pass on only the best of oneself, even if one tries very, very hard, because children will pick up on every nuance, and interpret (or misinterpret) it in their own way. Our line of women does not cook. We are born, perhaps, less athletic, more self-conscious, than women from some other families. We are always searching for a stylist who can cut very thick hair. Some inheritance I will try to improve upon—I can make very simple pasta dishes, I have discovered bb cream. But if I ever have a daughter, I know I will fail her in some new way—I may not be able to give her the financial support my parents were able to give me, and I may never be on time to pick her up from anything. But whatever else she learns from me, I hope I also give her this, which my mother gave to me: you don’t need anybody to take care of you, get an education, value your friendships, talk less and listen more. And above all, I am here for you, unconditionally, always. If I can give her that, the rest will come out in the wash.
Do children make us better? Undoubtedly having them in our lives does, but having real live ones at home full time is still a toss up, for me. I’m 39 and not sure I could get pregnant if I wanted to. Sometimes I think I might want to, but that feeling passes faster and faster these days—even as I approach the age where I’m supposed to be desperate for a baby. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too much of that already? New mothers often talk about how motherhood changes everything, absolutely everything. That may be true, but watching most of the women in your peer group have children within a few years changes everything, too.
Motherhood is wonderful, and I’ve been lucky to see it bring out the best, most nurturing, most tolerant side of several new mothers. I’ve also seen it remove their ability to talk about anything except their child, deaden their sense of humor, and make an art of emphasizing self-sacrifice. Has creating new humans always been “the hardest job in the world,” or has it gotten “harder” in the past decade or so? If so, why? Talking about how difficult motherhood is sometimes looks like a contest to me, and from the outside, it’s a tiresome contest.
Still, the whole “love unlike anything you’ve ever felt” bit is enough to keep me from ruling out motherhood entirely. My husband and I rely on the archaic and much underrated diaphragm to keep us child free; this method of birth control has something like an 80% success rate when used without spermicide, and that’s just about equal to how much we don’t want a baby. A 20% yes is hardly nothing.
Romanticizing or demonizing either choice is too easy; assuming the element of choice is another topic entirely. Kids happen, thank God. They take us out of and further into ourselves than we knew we could go, and experiencing that love seems like one of the basic human experiences, like swimming in the ocean at night. There be monsters there, but you’re better for paddling through the dark water anyway—unless you get eaten up. The moms I know love their kids and are fried by their lives. I’m sure I’d be better at handling it in the same way I’m sure I’ll get in shape every summer and figure out a sustainable career starting tomorrow, but why have we designed motherhood to be even more terrifying and stressful than ever before?
I wish I had another 20 years to decide. Or even ten. Or five. Edging up on turning 40 stirs a world of self reflection, and “not ready” becomes code for “never.” Maybe “never” changes unexpectedly next week. Maybe it means adopting five years from now. Maybe it means being the aunt my niece desperately needs to talk with when she’s fifteen and confused.
In the meantime, I’m good at babysitting. It takes a village, yes?
I am not one for emotions. I am fairly articulate (on paper, if not in person), but when it comes to sentimentality my words fail me. Do I love my mother? Of course. Has she ever frustrated me? Of course. Mothers know best. And that’s, at times, frustrating. But, when it comes down to it, the love prevails. Even if I can’t always express it.
So when tasked to write about mothers, I was at a loss. Facts I can handle. Wittiness I’ve developed into quite the defense mechanism. Describing what a mother is to me? Well, that’s way too emotional for my comfort zone. And so I turned to Mr. Webster for some help.
mother (noun): 1) a female parent; 2) a woman of authority
Not exactly helpful, but definitely words I understood, words I was comfortable with. So I explored some more, compiling different, if not incredibly unique, definitions of mother; and it wasn’t until I came across the following definition that I really understood how I wanted to verbalize what a mother is to me.
motherhood (adj): having or relating to an inherent worthiness, justness, or goodness that is obvious or unarguable
A mother, obviously, is a parent. A mother, at least initially, has authority over her child. But really, a mother could choose to be only that. Mother is a word to explain a biological and legal relationship. Giving birth is the only requirement to being a mother. But motherhood is something completely different. At least to me.
I am not yet a mother, much to my own mother’s chagrin, and so I rely on experiences from only one side of the relationship, but when I read that definition, I viewed motherhood in a new light. It helped me understand that, to me, motherhood is choosing to be more than a biological mother. It is the process of caring for a child’s emotional and physical needs. It is choosing not only to give life, but also to sacrifice daily to ensure the quality of it. These mothers are just, even if it’s sometimes painful or upsetting. These mothers are unarguably good, even though their children may not always see it. And it is these mothers, these mothers like mine, who go above and beyond for their children, who put themselves last, who are creators, sustainers, warriors and friends, it is these mothers who are truly worthy.
I was in the store the other day browsing for Mother’s Day cards and it hit me that not only were the tired words on a greeting card a wholly inadequate way (not that I could compose anything better) to celebrate and thank these mothers, but that I was searching for seven inadequate cards. Seven! I have seven mothers and grandmothers who have touched my life in a profound way.
I have seven good and loving women who chose to become mothers and pass their wisdom, love and generosity on to a new generation. Who chose to practice motherhood. And while I’ve known some my whole life, and the others only a few years, they all have been role models, women I now look up to, and each have taught me lessons I don’t know how I could live without. Each of them have taught me, in their own unique way, about love, generosity, faith, strength and how to be a worthy woman that a child could one day be proud of.
I hate Mother’s Day.
Not because it is a perfectly good holiday co-opted by greeting card companies and candy stores—I don’t let that spoil my pleasure in Halloween or Christmas or Easter. I don’t hate Mother’s Day because some women who are mothers (you know who you are) use the day to ever-so-subtly assert their superiority over their friends. This attitude doesn’t bother me the other 364 days of the year; I’m not going to get all bent out of shape about it on the 365th.
I hate Mother’s Day because one week after I turned 34, and eleven months after my father died, my mother died too. I was so not ready to be a motherless child. But then, no one ever is.
My mother’s mother outlived my mother, who was her youngest daughter. My grandmother was a really strong woman whose own mother had died when she was just a child. She was widowed young—my grandfather was twice her age when they married—and by the time my mother died, my grandmother had already outlived her other two daughters, all three of the men they’d married and all but one of her siblings. She was a woman who faced many tragedies, but she never wasted a breath of her life on self-pity.
I hate Mother’s Day because all day long I go around in a funk that’s composed of self-pity and compounded by jealousy. Yes, I am pathetic enough to envy people who still have their mothers when I do not. And knowing that I am capable of that kind of pettiness makes me feel even worse. Your mother would be so ashamed of you!
I’m sure my grandmother hated Mother’s Day too and yet there she was, every year, wearing the white flower corsage that told everyone she was honoring her dead mother (pink or red flowers are for women whose mothers are still alive). She always wore a hat too—my grandmother loved hats—and bright red lipstick. And year after year, her hats and red lipstick proudly told the world, “I’m still here.”
My mother wore bright lipstick too. Her favorite shade was an orange called “Tangerine Dream.” Not every woman can wear orange lipstick but my mother rocked it.
She favored bright clothing as well and never work black except for funerals. The monochrome monotony of my wardrobe palette depressed her and she was always sending me clothes in colors she thought I should be wearing—pale blues and soft pinks and pastel purples. She planted pastel flowers too—daffodils and sweet peas and irises and azaleas. My mother loathed white flowers as the riot of color in her yard testified. She would have hated wearing white flowers on Mother’s Day. But not as much as I do.
When we decided to publish a collection of short essays in honor of Mother’s Day, I secretly hoped I wouldn’t have to write one. I love my mother, but I’ve never been great at writing emotional, poignant essays. The few personal stories I’ve ever penned largely used humor to mask any actual feelings, a reflection of my nearly life-long inability to verbalize any emotions that ran deeper than “I am happy” or “I am not happy, and am also not really sure why.”
At first, it might be surprising that I struggle to write emotion, given that I studied journalism in college. But journalism is not creative writing, and I was taught to “write tight” and employ the inverse pyramid technique, wherein you stuff everything important at the beginning, for those readers who tend to lose focus. In an essay about my mother, though, there’s pressure to be poetic, to conjure deep emotions, to flow and be moving.
This inability (or possibly subconscious refusal) to verbalize emotions is definitely not something I picked up from my mother. My mother is terribly emotional, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. My mother loves unconditionally, but also with abandon. She is always the first to say “love ya” at the end of a phone call, and slips the words in multiple times a day in text messaging conversations. When you text it back, she never fails to respond with the emoticon with the largest smile there is. She started telling my boyfriend-now-husband that she loved him far sooner than he was prepared for (especially considering so many in-laws never start saying that). I often tell people I love them only under the influence of alcohol, while being under the influence is probably the only way to get my mother to stop saying she loves you.
Don’t take my lack of verbalization to mean I don’t actually have emotions. I do. Maybe not in the dramatic, poetic, writerly way some others do, but they’re there. I love people. And I love my mother very, very much. I always tell her I love her, but in writing, I’m afraid my words fall flat and ring hollow. Nowhere is this made as painfully obvious as in my pitiful attempts to sign Mother’s Day cards each year. “Thanks for being a great mom!” Seriously, four year olds are more expressive.
I’ve often wondered if my mom notices this, or if she just knows how I feel and knows how I am and has stopped letting it bother her. Or maybe, even worse, she notices and it does bother her. Mothers and daughters are often very different people, but a difference in this particular area could foreseeably cause a lot of relationship grief.
Do I disappoint my mother in this way? For someone so expressive with their love, it must be difficult to feel satisfied in a relationship where one person is so hesitant. And that’s what it is, really–hesitancy. I hesitate to vocalize positive emotions, because of the fear of sounding fake, or perhaps because the expression leaves you vulnerable.
My mother would never be afraid of being vulnerable to someone she loved deeply, and therein lies another of her greatest strengths. Not only does she give her love unconditionally, she gives of herself freely.
I hope I’m not emotionally disappointing to my mother. I hope she knows how much I love her and, even though we’re very different people, how much I respect her and the choices she has made. And I hope that when words fail, this will be enough: I’m throwing away my journalism training here and putting the most important part at the end. Mom, I love you.