Are you my Mother?

May 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

I guess it’s all Mary’s fault. She set the bar so damn high. I didn’t realize this until, in a rage when he hit middle school and hormones, I asked Cole why the hell he thought my life didn’t matter. “You gave that up when you decided to have children,” he said.

For a moment, I was stunned. I had espoused feminist values from day one, I thought. I had allowed him to wear sparkly headbands at two. I wasn’t going to shape his gender, you know. He was going to respect women, especially me, goddamn it.

“Who the fuck taught you that?” I asked. Here, I must admit that I say fuck in front of my children, among other choice words. I also have threatened them, like you without children think you would never do. Just sayin. I didn’t know I had stolen my idea of motherhood from the fifties, from history, from TV, from Mary. How else would I figure out how to do it right? How does any young woman know? It’s not like there’s a certification. It feels somehow illegal when you drive away from the hospital, newborn precariously strapped in the car seat you bought a few days before from a place called Babies-r-us. It’s bad grammar, after all. How can it be right?

Leigh Ann says we were raised a step up from Nell. You know, the Jodie Foster movie where she and her sister are raised in the woods by a crazy mother? My mom was seventeen when she gave birth to my oldest sister, and just shy of twenty-five when I, her fourth daughter, was born. What would I have done as a mother of five at twenty-eight? I was twenty-seven when my first child was born, and I remember my mother-in-law saying something about how she wondered when we would get started having babies. I remember feeling geriatric and so young at the same time. There were risks, my mom said grimly. Biologically, it’s true; psychologically, it’s true too.

Still, I was pregnant for the first time in 1996. That is post Internet, but pre-blog, pre-facebook, pre-Gap Maternity. It was not my most fashionable moment. I wore a certain hand-me-down romper that whole huge and disgustingly sticky summer in Chattanooga. I realize this is hard for some of you to conceive. How would I know what to do without Mommy Blogs? There was What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which I read like a Pentacostal reads the Bible. My mother was a teenage mother; she really didn’t understand worrying about it. I knew there were a million things that could go wrong. I had a degree to prove it. Also, I wanted to do everything different from my sister Michele. She had not understood my Birkenstocks in college. She was not interested in midwives.

My best friends were gathering in Bali to ring out their twenties. I was trolling the nascent Internet to figure out how the hell I would get this creature out of my body. Good God! The Internet said my baby’s brain was forming. That was so much responsibility. I turned off the computer, because you could back then. You might check your email twice a day if you were compulsive.

Nothing taught me how to be a mother. My mother did not. She wasn’t that kind of mother. There is an idea out there that a mother is some spectacularly virtuous creature. What I learned from having children is that my mother (and my father, for that matter) were the same stupid, irresponsible kids they always had been. It dawned on me as the nurses handed Cole to me. I was the same stupid, irresponsible kid I had ever been. I had no clue what to do.

Motherhood had not turned my mom into anything close to Mary, and she had done it five times. She did her best; we all survived. None of us were teen mothers. None of us were addicts. That was a win. I remember one of my biggest motivators in high school was that I didn’t want to be a teen mother. Not that it was imminent, but still. I didn’t want to end up like my mother. She got us through the forest, like Nell, but I never felt this nostalgia that comes with Mother’s Day. I always felt like I was missing something.

I know, there are fabulous mothers out there. I know plenty of them, and I’m awed by them. They do put themselves behind their children, or at least equal to them. They cook, they remember birthdays; they are what all those cards in the grocery store are about. I didn’t have that picture, but I had a hundred other mothers, some my own age, some older. There were the neighbors, Mrs. Shaw, and Mrs. Jett. There were the Steinmanns and the delicious real meals they had in their refrigerator, instead of hors d’ oeuvers. There were teachers. There were my sisters, of course. There was my mom, in her youthful energy, declaring herself a “mother of the world” and taking in strays, animal and human. There were my college friends and their mothers, so many nurturers. There were men and women I worked with. I think I’m not a bad mom. At least I’m doing no permanent harm, but I don’t believe the hype. You are a person. And maybe you are a mother or a father. But that doesn’t change you into some kind of pure angel. And it shouldn’t, really. Finally, with two years distance, I can see my mother as what she always was: herself. I hope my kids can see me as me someday too.

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