Before my son was born, when my belly was pushed to its limit with the outlines of this new life, when an unknown future confronted me and the world was new with possibilities, I sat on my husband’s lap and cried giant tears. In spite of the joy of this pregnancy, in spite of the wonder of carrying this new life, I was miserable.
“I don’t want to make my son unhappy,” I cried to Matthew. “I don’t want to do to him what my mother did to me. I don’t want him to grow up doubting himself and being afraid of everything,” I sobbed into Matthew’s shirt.
Matthew soothed me with assurances that that wouldn’t happen. He told me that I had a deeper understanding about myself than my mother ever had. I knew the warning signs of being too protective, too hands on. And I wasn’t the kind of person who needed to micromanage everything. On the contrary, I tended to let things be for a while until I understood them better.
“You won’t be the kind of mother who demands love from her child,” Matthew assured me. He will love you because you love him and you will create a wonderful life for our son.” I quieted down for a while. But a worm of doubt stayed with me for years.
Everything I did or didn’t do was suspect. When Andrew refused to breastfeed any longer at six months old, was it my fault because I had to go back to work? Would he be a sickly child because he wouldn’t be getting breast milk? Was there something wrong with my breast milk? Was I drying up? Was I a failure? Or maybe he just preferred formula because it was readily accessible while I was in my office earning money.
Expand this kind of crazy twenty questions with all the myriad topics that consume new parents and you have an idea of my own craziness. It was not easy being me. But neither did I turn into my mother. I let Andrew take the lead on walking and talking—actually, I didn’t have a choice. So that was easy. He walked at nine months but didn’t utter a coherent sentence until he was nearly two and a half. His nanny and I could understand him, but no one else could.
After I got over the breastfeeding humiliation, I didn’t care much whether Andrew ate or not, or how much he ate—unlike my mother, who would have conniption fits when my sister and I didn’t finish what was on our plates. She dragged us to the doctor all the time because we were so skinny and demanded that he tell her how to make us eat more. The doctor kept assuring her that we were perfectly healthy and would eat when we were hungry. And he was right. We are both overweight as of this writing.
Motherhood and mothering is something I am thinking about all the time lately.
When a person becomes her mother’s mother, the mothering issue is never far from the surface of everyday thoughts. With my own son, even though I questioned myself about whether I was doing right by him, I was still able to see the results of my loving and caring and hugging and kissing and fetching and carrying and cajoling and pushing, so that today he is a fine young man who makes me proud just by being himself.
Having to make decisions for my mother is excruciating. I feel like I’m back on Matthew’s lap, crying my eyes out, afraid to make a wrong decision. Growing my son meant the future. Being my mother’s brain means the end.
My sister and I are even doing a bit of pre-grieving. Whenever we go to her house, we try to clean out something. Sometimes it’s the junk drawer filled with broken steak knives, bits of string, and outdated coupons. A few weeks ago, we went through her night table drawer and reduced its clutter to a quarter of what had been there before. We’ve reduced dozens of handbags into a few good keepers. We found hoards of pennies, quarters, nickels, and dimes and converted it all into dollars, and then we took her out to dinner.
We arrange her doctor appointments, manage her financial affairs, buy her groceries, renew her prescriptions, weed out her old, fraying clothes, buy her new clothes; lately we’ve even had to buy her adult diapers, which to me is humiliating, but necessary.
Frankly, I don’t see much difference between my infant son and my mother, who has turned into my own child bit by bit. I remember thinking for years before I tried to get pregnant about how much I didn’t want to become a parent. I was grappling with so many other concerns in the early years of my marriage. And, even as far back as my teenage years, I was sure I didn’t want a child. My mother, of course, was horrified to hear this.
Then one day the urge to procreate took over and, after a bit of chemistry (i.e., fertility pills), Andrew became a reality. I was so enthralled with this development in my life that I started keeping a journal, starting with the very day I knew for sure that I was pregnant. The journal begins, “Dear Baby.” I recorded my weight and measurements as well as the development details of the baby. I wrote down my thoughts and hopes and dreams and anxieties and fears.
It’s a wonderful record of a time I barely remember, except for the extreme highs and lows. I kept that journal from 1983 to 2000, on and off, mostly off during the later years. The journal is also proof that, as much as I want to push my mother away, I am indeed her daughter. As my sister and I roamed through her house recently, throwing away and weeding out, I happened on a cache of her own journals that went back years and years, some as far back as her teenage years and some written as late as two years ago, when her handwriting was deteriorating and her language didn’t always make sense.
This connection startled me. I knew that she wrote down her thoughts. She was an obsessive note writer. For years, throughout my childhood, she would write little notes that she hid under our pillows. “Have a wonderful day in school,” one would say. Or, if she was going out at night she would write, “Miss you much.”
She also included notes in our lunch bags. And on New Year’s Eve, when we slept at our grandparents, she would write long, long letters to us that we had to open on New Year’s Day. She would fill up the pages with hopes and dreams and tell us how much she loved us.
This connection means something. It means that she is not the alien I keep thinking she is; it means that, in spite of all the grief I remember from my childhood, she truly loved her daughters, she truly loved me, and whatever her failings as a parent, she tried her best. And that is what has to count for me as I negotiate the slippery slope of dementia and assisted living facilities and the eventual end to her life.
My son is probably the most important person in my life, sometimes even more important than my husband. I think he knows that, although we don’t speak of this. He knows that I would do anything in my power to ease him through his life, although I don’t believe in unnecessary coddling. I’m tough with him when I have to be. He is my life blood—and so is my mother. We are all connected by cords and bonds and sinew and flesh that seem to be stronger than memory, stronger than sadness, stronger than blame.
It is a constant sadness that the daughter is the mother of her son and her mother. There is great anger at these circumstances. But in the end it is better to be a good mother to all who need one. And I am trying to do just that. I don’t know how well I will succeed. My son tells me that I’ve been a good mother to him. My own mother can’t voice this, but tells me that she loves me, she loves me.
It’s not a perfect love, but there is no such animal. Instead, there are human beings who try and try and try. When my son was born, I knew that the world was good, that there was a certain kind of perfection that couldn’t be bought or manufactured, or even imagined. I know that, on the day of my birth, my mother must have had the same thoughts. I know that she expected wonderful things for her children. And, even if she was unable to give me all I thought I needed, she gave me all she had to give. As I did with my son.
And that is all we can expect from ourselves and from our mothers. We try to imagine the life we’ve had in ways that might have made it better and more satisfying. But for me that won’t do any longer.
I have had to remain in my own life with the double role I now play. I’m not happy about it, but I am gradually coming to accept that there is no perfection—there is only what is. And that is what I have to deal with, what is. And my mother, who nurtured me and nursed me and helped me grow in more ways than I care to admit, is the baby now. The cycle starts all over again. My son says I am a good mother. We’ll see about that.