On Mother’s Day

I became a mother at the age of 24.

Sometimes I wish that fact gave me a pass on the first 10,000 mistakes I made. I was so young. What did I know? But there are no passes for any of us. We are held to the impossible standard of the great mothers our kids’ friends have.

As a new mom, I had two sources of guidance. My mother’s famous line: “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” And Dr. Spock which I read so much and so hard that the pages came away from the paperback binding. I would read what Dr. Spock said and then check back 99 times to make sure what I read was what I thought I read.

I was a mess as a new mother.

My own mother was MIA at the time, probably because I wanted it that way, I don’t remember. I’m betting I wanted everyone to believe I knew exactly what I was doing. But I had no clue. And no one to ask. No friends with babies, we were new to town. And my husband, as nice and kind as he was, had never had a baby either. He was as in the dark as me but got to put on a suit in the morning and go to work.

I remember the doctor telling me to put my baby to sleep on her stomach and turn her feet outward otherwise she would be pigeon-toed. Looking back, this seems unbelievable, that this was the big problem we needed to address. My pigeon-toed baby. What about feeding her? What about her crying? What about my life? Would I still have one? Or was that over now?

I read in Dr. Spock and in Our Bodies Ourselves about breastfeeding but the instructions seemed written for better women than me, women who were at home in their own bodies, women who were confident about their role in the world, women who wore long floral skirts and shawls, had wild hair falling over their beautiful faces, women who never thought about failing as mothers. They weren’t my people. I didn’t have any people. I just had me.

I ran back to work as fast as I could.

I look back at all this now and realize that my mother was right. “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” Babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults and unless there is a catastrophic intervention, the process is a study in resilience. Children can withstand an extraordinary amount of incompetence.

They see, they learn, they sort out.

They forgive.

“Oh well, my mom did the best she could.”

It’s that forgiveness that makes Mother’s Day what it is. An erasing of mistakes. An appreciation of constancy. Children love that about us, that we never quit on them. That we may have been late and ill-prepared and distracted and short-tempered but we picked them up, we held them, we carried them to the car, we made them dinner, we put them to bed, we came in the night when they cried. And we got up the next morning and yelled at them to hurry and we started over again.

Day after day, without fail.

Worry Wear

I was recently asked the question: “What advice would you give to your 22-year old self?” Several tidbits came to mind: Make your own money. Keep going to school. Don’t worry about being the only woman in class. Remember other women are your sisters not your competitors. 

But the one that I keep mulling over is this one: Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby. Where did that come from, I wondered. It was so automatic, the first thing I thought of, the first book I reached for in a mile-long corridor of books. Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby.

Having a baby, having children by whatever means, is a wonderful, joyous, unbelievably lucky thing. I know, it’s happened to me four times. And while becoming a mother is extraordinary, sacred even, it means you will never be carefree again in your life. Your carefree days will be over, become distant, then unreal, and then mythical, as if you never lived on this earth as a person without worry.

You’ll see it sometimes, a person who appears to be carefree, a young woman diving into the surf and riding a big wave to the shore, laughing for the pure joy of being in the sun and the ocean and having no fear, just being able to be her whole physical, healthy self with a mind clear of things that might happen.

Raising kids is the fine art of keeping one’s terror that something will happen to one of them under control so you don’t ruin their lives and turn them into people who are afraid to do things. Sometimes I think I overcompensated and let my kids do things that someone less preoccupied with terrible things happening might not allow.

Once, we found a big, thick rope hanging from a tree on the shore of a blue lagoon off US 1 in the Florida Keys and my three younger kids immediately started swinging on the rope and dropping into the lagoon while I cheered them on, partly glad and partly thinking there were dozens of sharp tree stumps feathered with razors just below the surface. They emerged unscathed and delighted with themselves but eventually someone took the rope down. I shouldn’t have allowed them to swing on that rope, I thought, someone wiser than me put an end to it. Overcompensating is so fraught.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to ask women I know who don’t have children if they are carefree but I know they will say they aren’t because life is never carefree for an adult or for many children, for that matter. But if I ask them if they have worry that is constant like Mormon undergarments, there every day despite what is going on in reality, in the rest of the world, they would look at me and shake their heads. No, they’d say, I’m just wearing a bra and a pair of underwear.

There were occasions, very brief, when I thought this worry business was just me. It’s not. It is a mother’s condition. It is the price we pay for the great joy, the rent owed for getting our wishes granted, the threat that makes our children’s continued life and health and well-being the stuff of amazement and celebration. It’s a peculiar appreciation for dodging imaginary bullets, being grateful for terrible things that haven’t and will probably never happen.

I thought a lot about this on Mother’s Day. What all of us mothers do to keep our worry under control, keep it from splashing all over our kids and ruining their lives. It’s a huge invisible accomplishment. I applaud us, me, you, all of us for trading our carefree lives for the Mormon underwear. And I admire those mothers who, when it’s the right time, know when to take the heavy pieces off, fold them neatly, put them in the drawer and run into the surf.

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Last

The fourth baby was almost seven years old.

Adopting an older child is not like adopting a baby. It is, as they say, a horse of a different color. It is an act somewhere between liberating someone from prison and taking them hostage.

I’d brought new clothes for her. The orphanage said they wanted her orphanage clothes back for other children but I cheated and kept her pink shirt and too-small flowered pants. They are still in a drawer in my dresser.

She’d worn her orphan clothes on our little excursions around Managua, to see the doctor for her ‘physical,’ to get her visa from the American Embassy. We drove past playgrounds and I asked her if she’d ever been to a playground. “No, ” she said, “I’ve never been anywhere.”

She sat on my lap in the car and leaned into me even though we had just barely met. I knew that my Nicaraguan friend had been coaching her for weeks about America and flying in an airplane. Now I think she coached her in how to be an instant daughter. This is your big chance, I can hear her saying. Don’t mess it up.

The night before we left Nicaragua, she emptied the suitcase of the new clothes to pick out what she would wear on the airplane. I’d brought pink things for her. Pink hat, pink shirt, pink shoes. And she marveled at these things. That they were hers to keep. It amazed me that she was grateful already, pleased with everything and uncritical, unquestioning. She had no suspicion or fear, never asked a question about America.

I could have been taking her to the moon.

That it was a mistake, a gross miscalculation was evident from the beginning. She wasn’t a baby a person could carry, wrap in a blanket, and rock in the dark. She was a fully formed person who would have to be led by the hand. At any given moment, she could pull away and run screaming in the other direction. Part of me wished she would.

We went to bed late in a tiny bedroom with two single beds, so close together there was barely room to walk. It was hot, I remember. It was always hot in Nicaragua but the nights were the worst. Still. No breeze. Endless. A little light came through the barred window. Every once in a while, my friend’s dog, chained up in the yard, would bark at a passerby. The night was florid with tension, my own, the world’s. Thick with it.

In the night, I woke to watch her sleeping. I stretched out my hand, thinking that if she was a baby, it would be so easy, I would be so easy, I would have no fear. And then she opened her eyes and took my hand. And we stayed that way, hand in hand, for a long minute. And then we went back to sleep.

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Qualm: The Daily Post

The Third Baby

The third baby put me face to face with the concept of overreach.

I’d started thinking about adopting another boy minutes after the first one landed in Milwaukee. Adoption is addictive in the extreme. If one orphan is good, two or three or four or five are even better. Why stop now?

It’s game show adrenaline. What’s behind Door #3? A new relative.

This boy was sick and covered with scabies. I rubbed him down with halved lemons like my friend told me. Lemons will kill the scabies, she told me at a picnic soon after he came. The other parents moved away when they heard her advice. They were adoptive parents, too, so they’d seen a lot. But nobody likes scabies. It makes their skin crawl.

After the scabies, the asthma came. And then the steroids. He developed the thick neck of a doping athlete. He was unhappy most of the time. And, as it happens with unhappy people, the world started to revolve around him.

I knew this was happening but didn’t know how to stop it. Driving with the boys in the backseat, I’d watch in the rear view mirror. Was his breathing right? Was his chest heaving? Meanwhile, the first boy played with his truck and looked out the window. Nothing was ever wrong with him so I didn’t have to look.

I’d feel the third baby’s sweaty forehead in the middle of the night and study his face. Were his nostrils flaring? Or were they normal? I wanted to measure his nostrils, have data, create a chart to put on the wall. What was normal? What was abnormal? Should we be going to the ER? I’d heard of kids dying from asthma. And I believed it would only be my vigilance that would keep this kid from dying. It could happen any minute.

But then, as it happens, the worrying became addictive. And it went on for years, this extra concern, the hovering, even after we’d gotten control of his asthma. It took a long time to let him not be sick. But by then he was nested and protected by all of us. And he thrived there. He was happy and unassuming. He acted like he thought everyone grew up being in the center.

 

 

 

 

The Second Baby

I know what it is to be a perfect mother. I was one once. But it didn’t last.

I was shocked into perfection by the surprise adoption of this two-year old boy from Nicaragua. He was small and thin, birdlike. And he was very sick. This was worrisome at the same time it was a perverse gift. Sick orphans have low standards. I measured up.

I know that now. I didn’t know it then. Then, I thought God himself had delivered this boy to my arms. I believed I was put on earth to be his mother. Think about this. Think about what a halo I had. I was golden. I could do no wrong.

And neither could he. Everything he did was tiny and precious. He clung to me like a spider monkey in a tall tree, wrapping his long arms around my neck, only letting go long enough to point at something, a bird, a cookie.

He laid on my chest while I sang a song I made up for him. It only had two lines. Do you like being a baby? Do you like it very much? It seemed that he did like it very much. It suited him. He was good at being a baby. Perfect. It’s what happens when a child has a perfect mother.

And then he got bigger. He stopped pointing and started talking. He grew impatient with my two-line song and went off in search of toys with batteries. He wanted to run around and chase things. He liked throwing balls everywhere. He hid under tables and headed the other way when I called.

And then I pretty much forgot the part about God choosing me to be his mother and I just ran after him. Sometimes I yelled at him and made him cry.  Sometimes carrying him and an armload of groceries made me cry. I lost my halo and just became his mom.

Now he’s grown and works running a machine that makes metal parts. The machine throws off grey dust that, by the end of the day, covers his arms. Sometimes, the grinders on the machine nick his knuckles. He laughs about this. I tell him he should wear a mask at work. He nods but I know he won’t.

He doesn’t remember anything about my two-line song. He doesn’t remember being a baby and liking it very much. He doesn’t remember me when I had a halo, when I was golden and could do no wrong. He just remembers me the way I am.

 

 

 

 

We Get Better with Time

This much is clear to me about being a mother. Age makes us better. Death makes us extraordinary.

My mother, gone now twelve years, has reached near sainthood. When the local paper solicited photos of mothers ‘no longer with us’ along with a short descriptive phrase for a Mother’s Day montage, I sent the editor my favorite picture of my mother, the one taken at Niagara Falls in 1938 on the honeymoon trip memorialized for decades by the little notebook of expenses my father kept tucked in the scrapbook. Gas – 37 cents.

I thought for a minute and wrote the words: beautiful, gentle, an enigma.

When she was alive, my mother was a constant puzzle and source of worry. I wondered every day what was the matter and would often ask her. She never admitted anything being the matter until I was a teenager and it became my job to drive her to see her psychiatrist. I don’t know why she didn’t drive herself, she had a beautiful black Thunderbird. Why was I driving? I don’t remember.

One fact is very telling. I’ve searched my memory time and again, going over every event, recalling our family dinners, remembering my mother working the register at our store, sitting in the front seat on our long road trips, wrapping a nickel in a handkerchief and sending me to the corner store for a popsicle, rolling up her jeans before getting in a rowboat, writing out the list of household chores, putting the last presents under the tree, telling me everything was fine and not to worry.

I never heard my mother laugh.

I don’t think she was unhappy every single day that I knew her. I just think that she kept herself wrapped as tight as a time capsule buried next to the town’s library. No one was ever going to get inside her head.

Well, maybe someone did, but it wasn’t me. I was just a spectator.

I loved my mother but she was a mystery that was exhausting. She could only be available to me so much and it wasn’t very much.

But that’s what it was.

It used to really bother me but now when I think of her, I describe her as beautiful, gentle, and an enigma. Those are the words that come to mind all these many years later after I learned to give up trying to understand her and to just accept her for the beautiful, gentle, enigmatic person that she was.

This is what we do. As they get older, we gradually let our mothers off the hook. When they die, we finally let everything puzzling and sorrow-making go. Their essence is left and it glows.

That’s why I believe that mothers improve with age and then explode with brilliance in death.

I’m banking on it because my turn is next.

Today is the Day We Wash All the Black Bras

I handed my little granddaughter one black bra and told her to put it down the laundry chute. Then called to her, “Hey, take this one, too.” She waited for me to toss it. “Today is the day we wash all the black bras.”

“Ok,” she said, opening and slamming the little laundry chute door. I love seven-year old girls. They’re so obedient and unquestioning.

I have the power to create the Black Bra Washing Day tradition. I could do it, just like that. By declaring it. I have that power. It’s awesome. I’m a mother and grandmother. She could be thirty before she figures out that not everyone is washing their black bras on Mother’s Day.

The power is incredible, long-lasting and mostly plied unconsciously.

Years ago at the State Fair, my young daughter, maybe eight or nine years old, kept eyeing the double Ferris Wheel. She looked at me with big eyes, “could we go on that?” I shuddered. Told her how high it was, how being really high made my knees feel funny, that I couldn’t possibly go on it. The man I was with looked at me, shook his head a tiny bit and leaned over to whisper.

“You’re making her afraid.”

I was. In that moment, I had passed on my fear of heights to her as surely as if I’d unraveled her genetic code and scribbled RUN AWAY on it. I used my power to limit her options.

What else was I passing on?

So much of being a mother is unconscious. The tiniest touches. Holding hands. The view of mom’s head from the backseat of the car. The constancy. There is refuge and comfort there that never ends or fails. It’s not the heroic, the climbed mountains, the rescues that define us as mothers. It’s not our words, the lectures, advice, or solutions. It’s just being steady and true. Always. That’s the power.

A long time ago, in a time of terrible trouble, a therapist asked me what would help me get through the day.

“Making a pot of soup,” I said, wanting to have the smell of simmering soup in my apartment, that normal smell, that comfort.

“And calling my mother.”