I have a photograph, now yellowed with age, of my mom holding securely to my tiny hand at the edge of the shore. She is looking down at my beaming face, and we are laughing together at the newness of this experience for us both, for she is seeing the ocean for the first time again through my two-year-old eyes. Standing at the edge of the vast sea is enough to make even grown-ups feel small, but Mom only sees hope in the seemingly endless possibilities which lie in the distant horizon. I dance in the shallow surf, becoming braver with each step, yet still anchored to Mom. “Be careful. Here it comes,” she gently cautions. “Wheee!” She playfully swings me in the air, turning me around, safe from each wave’s reaching grasp.
Somewhere inside this photograph, I still hear my mom’s caring voice undulating with the steady current. Her words are always of a mother’s wisdom; concern; love. Now that I’m grown, this is the gentle voice I try to mimic with my own children, hoping they feel as safe and content as I did in my mother’s arms. But I am bolder and a bit raspy; sometimes snappy. An artificial substitute? I hope it’s sweet enough.
I have a photograph, tucked away in my dusty high school yearbook, of my mom looking on as I prepare my SCUBA gear at the edge of the water. This is my first dive outside of the training pool and risk is finally staring me in the face, but I am determined to earn my certification. After driving me to and from dive class each week for months, Mom’s face now wears faint lines of both nervousness and pride as I brave the depths to pass my final test. “Maybe you should wait until you are a little older,” Mom offers once again. I turn around and secure my mask, pretending not to hear. I am only fourteen years old in a class of adults, but this is a passion that tugs at my soul. It is something that I just have to do—to define who I am before intolerant adolescence decides for me.
Somewhere inside this photograph, I grew up. But I wonder exactly when it is that we are no longer children. Is it when we are confident enough to let go of our mother’s hand? Is it when we prove that we can swim off by ourselves, no matter how long it takes to make our way back home? Maybe it’s when we step into our parents’ shoes and find that perhaps they pinch a little at the toe.
I have a photograph, taken at a recent vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey, of my mom watching me charge the waves with my children. Lucas and Hanna hold my attention, but the voice of their grandma, who loves them like her own, cries from a watchful distance, “Don’t you think you are letting the kids go out too far?” I turn my back to drown out her call, insulted by her perceived lack of trust in me as a mother; unaware that the ever-constant waves slowly bury her firmly-set feet in heavy sand, as if preparing an early grave.
Somewhere inside this photograph, my mother’s words of caution gradually recede from respected to resented. “Don’t you think you should…” “Isn’t that a bit much…” “Perhaps you should reconsider…” Though Mom’s advice was delivered with the same care and consideration as always, I found it leaving subtle scars on my esteem.
Wisdom now grew tired; concern seemed to carry criticism on its back; love sat quietly and dutifully in the corner.
A gray sky over the sea interrupted this family vacation and brought with it a turbulence which rocked the smooth course my mom had always helped us navigate. An unexpected rain pelted down, driving beachgoers to huddle in crowded shelters.
I stared out the window at the ugliness, which just moments ago had been beautiful, and saw my face as if looking into a mirror. The echoes of my mother’s gently-voiced concerns now boomed like thunder in my ears as my flaws and imperfections played before me in the violent images outside, superimposed on my reflection. My color, lifeless. My confidence, twisting and thrashing about like the fragile trees outside—no match for these gusts. This was a storm surged by anxiety and depression which had been brewing for ten years, though I had not seen it coming.
Everyone has always told me that I’m my own worst critic—I take everything to heart. So on this tempestuous day, I broke down with disappointment in myself for not being as calm and patient as my mother, despite the reality that the world spins faster now. For allowing stress, an uninvited guest, to follow me home and overstay his welcome. For not having more time to spend with my children, even though supermoms everywhere seemingly boast a successful career and still do everything else—perfectly. I sank with worry that my kids would not look back as fondly on their own childhood as I did on mine. Frantic drops of rain skidded down the window in union with my tears. I was drowning from within.
No one spoke as we waited out the storm in our borrowed beach house. I sat alone with my thoughts, prioritizing what matters to me most: I wish to keep my kids healthy and safe…I wish for them to feel happy and loved…I wish to teach them to be responsible and kind…I wish to help them be both giving and grateful…I wish my kids will look back and believe I gave them enough. Enough to one day pass on to their own children—like my mother did for me.
I sat up straight with a sudden realization, no longer strapped by self-doubt. When I turned around to look for my mom, I saw her for the first time as a mom who wished the same for her kids, too. For me! She still does. All this time, I have been translating her concerns for me as disapproval, when they were actually the wishes a mother has for her child. All this time…from that life-changing moment ten years ago when my first child was born, I’ve been relating to her as mother-to-mother; friend-to-friend. Somewhere within my own motherhood, boundaries had blurred, and I had forgotten that I am, and always will be, her baby.
The storm had subsided as quickly as it came. I woke early the next morning and scampered outside after Lucas and Hanna. Scourging off some stubborn sand along with resentment and insecurities, I was euphoric with my new-found perspective. The air held no memory of rain. I sat on a wooden bench by the dunes and watched my children flit up and down the beach like sandpipers, searching for treasures churned up by a generous sea. “Mommy, look what we found!” They excitedly ran up to show me unique shells, stray sand shovels, and a few coins, which by their thrilled reaction you would think were gold, and off they went again, chasing the gulls. Healthy. Safe. Happy. Loved. Responsible. Kind. Giving. Grateful.
Why have I been so hard on myself? I already had everything I could wish for. But still, I wished for one thing more—for time to stand still. I found myself humming the lullaby my mom often sang to me long ago.
Where are you going,
my baby, my own?
Turn around and you're two,
turn around and you're four,
turn around, and you're a young girl
going right out the door.
Where are you going, my little one,
In dresses and petticoats,
where have you gone?
Turn around and you're tiny,
turn around and you're grown,
turn around, and you're a young wife
with babes of your own.
I bet my mother wished for the same thing, for time to stand still. But it didn’t. She let me go, but hoped I would stay. Though I could not imagine handling it as generously as she had, I vowed to try.
I reached down when a lone pebble in the sand caught my eye. I felt its smoothness between my fingers and let it gently roll about in my palm. I wondered at its journey, as well as my own indelicate balance in the roles of both daughter and mother, and how a seemingly insignificant stone may have once been part of something much greater than itself. How far it must have ventured to land in my path on this very day. How it must have tumbled about for years through dark waters or a cleansing baptism, revealing something entirely new—refined; redefined.
I will take a photograph of this day in my mind and one day share it with my mom. I picture us standing on the shoreline, turned around to face each other this time. Her advice, untangled, worn gracefully on my wrist—always keeping me moving forward. Her concern, when holding a mirror up to my mistakes, does not shatter me. Her love, enveloping me in an embrace without stifling, still leaves room to breathe. And somewhere inside this photograph, I will find myself.