“Your mother is a woman, and women like her cannot be contained” –Warsan Shire
“She took as much care as if she had been the mother of us all, and served us as if she had been the daughter of us all.” –St. Augustine, Confessions
“I grew inside my mother the way [my daughter] Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. I became my mother in ways that still felt, sometimes, as elemental and violent as the moment when I’d been pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood.” –Sara Miles, Take This Bread
Even just thinking of our mothers strips us of our individuality, right? When we think of them we are forced into recognition that we are not our own. Our own flesh and blood came literally from our mother. Her cells made our cells. We spent our first days listening to the beat of her heart, the swell of her breath, the digestion of her lunch. Then after she bore us, as Sara Miles puts it, we ate her body to stay alive. We don’t like to remember that our incredible savvy adult selves didn’t start out this way. We didn’t get ourselves here. Our mothers did.
In some cryptic genetic way mothers giving birth to daughters is like a fractured feminine homage to God the Father betting God the Son. They are one in mystical, inexplicable sameness. In some ways our independence from our mothers is illusionary. Hard as we try we are still joined somehow by an invisible umbilical cord (with a few extension cords added for those who live out of state) of same-ness, doing what they did, saying what they said, believing, eventually, even what they believed. It reminds me somehow of the two women in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona–separate beings and yet hauntingly the same.
My mom is the most humble, genuine, yet passionate woman and also has the best perspective and sense of humor. When you’re 60 and have been in active-parent mode for almost forty years nothing’s really surprising or that much of an emergency and life just gets refreshingly at ease, or so it seems to be around her. Appearances truly mean not much to her–the way we all ought to be. Except in the following ways she is like a sophisticated Parisian: she will only wear leather shoes (and never wear sneakers for anything that isn’t a workout, which she doesn’t really do anyway, but how many Parisians do you know that exercise?) and designer perfume* and insists on a leather purse. She’ll use these genuine leather articles for years and not complain. She’ll use every last drop of that perfume. It’s not about maintaining an image or keeping up. A girl’s just gotta have a few quality things. I totally get it now.
Mom, I get now why you’d get excited to try to get the stain out of my favorite clothes. It makes us moms feel useful in a very direct way. We think, I’m super-mom and I alone will save that favorite dress! I will reign victorious against that drippy popcicle. I have supreme stain-removing talent. Watch and be amazed (but the offspring are never really that amazed)! It all makes sense now. Motherhood is full of tedious tasks and delayed gratification too much of the time. When we get a stain out of a shirt we get real, tangible results quickly and then we get mildly appreciated, but appreciated nonetheless. This is why we love it. Moments like these keep a mom going.
We daughters derive a false sense of power from judging our mother’s most glaring “errors.” My mother had many children, therefore I’ll have just a few. My mother didn’t make exercise a priority therefore I will. My mother married young, therefore I won’t. With quiet intent we separate ourselves from our mother’s specific most bothersome ways and hope she won’t notice so as not to hurt her feelings. But mothers know all from the get-go and are merely amused because they know girls judge those they love the most. So in some ways do we end up more like our grandmothers because of how we flip-flop? It’s an interesting thought.
Being an adult daughter around your mother is at once wonderful and difficult. I’m drawn to the honest and humorous ways that writers Carrie Fisher and Anne Lamott describe this dynamic. They get at both the intensely deep love and loyalty we have for our mothers and their tendency to drive us crazy over trivial things. “Normally, I wouldn’t have believed that the person on the other end really was Cary Grant,” writes Fisher in her memoir Wishful Drinking, “but when he told me my mother asked him to call, well that sounded eerily like some bizarre thing my mother would do.” I love that Fisher’s mom, Debbie Reynolds, moved in next door so they were neighbors. After reading Wishful Drinking I’m not at all surprised that Reynolds passed away of a broken heart days after Fisher died. Their relationship was as endearing as it was public perhaps because Fisher had the guts to be so honest about it.
Anne Lamott wrote about impatience with her own mother and their conflicted love in her memoirs, but also fictitiously through characters like Mattie of the novel Blue Shoe:
“She prayed to see [her mother] Isa through God’s eyes from the inside out. Nothing happened, that was too much of a stretch. So she prayed to see her through the eyes of a friend, the eyes of someone besides her overly critical daughter. Eventually she began to see her mother differently. She saw this gawky, tremulous woman with a badly pleated memory, working hard to keep living independently. She saw an elderly woman cadging coupons so she could pay her own way and not have to ask her skittish children for help. So Mattie stood in line as patiently as she could. She let six people go ahead of her. And by the time her mother popped back out of the waves to stand beside her in line, goggle-eyed and blinky, Mattie’s heart was soft toward her again. Mattie knew this was not clinically a miracle, but it felt like one; or maybe not a miracle, but grace, if grace meant you went from small and hassled and full of hate, tapping your foot with impatience, to holding your mother’s warm hand.”
So as adult daughters there’s the contempt that follows us around doggedly when we are with our moms. Mom, you’re annoying. Now ten seconds later I can’t resist your care and love for me and my kids and my heart swells with comfort and gratitude! Mothers in turn are annoyed by daughters in a different way, a way I’m only nine years into understanding. I imagine that when my daughters are adults and they’re annoyed by me I’ll want their acceptance the way they want mine right now. And I’ll be annoyed with feeling like I still need to worry about them even though they are all grown up. Grandmothers at the salon tell me they still worry about their kids. It never quite goes away.
These days my mother and I are the kind of duet that gives each other space but looks forward to catching up when visiting. This is not to say that it’s always been a smooth ride. I struggled at a teenager to figure out my place in a private school of stoic, tidy Dutch folks where my friends had only a few siblings and different style of home life. I was afraid to have friends over at the house because I didn’t want them to see how messy it was, how chaotic. What if I brought friends over and the first thing they saw was my mom nursing in the easy chair? Gasp! The embarrassment potential was unfathomable. My friends’ houses felt like the Smithsonian, so quiet and clean with the lines from the vacuum still in the carpet as if the rooms were barely used. My adolescence was fraught with these dizzying juxtapositions. Of course my sister and I joined forces and blamed my mom for it all. It’s the job description of teenaged daughters. One of my favorite clients at the salon said of her teenaged daughters last week, “They’re joining forces against me! It’s my dream come true!” She doesn’t mind their criticism and wrath if it means they are getting along and bonding over it. I get it.
My mom didn’t really ever get along with her mother. She often told me as a child that she loved her because she had to love her and didn’t really like her. This baffled me. I liked Grammarie just fine. She took me to Jewel and bought me a little box of circus animal crackers on a string every time. What was not to like? Their relationship was cordial at best. Maybe that’s why I liked when they played duets during the offertory at church once in a while. They would practice during the week and I would play on, under, over the pews in the gloriously empty sanctuary. All that busy music wrapped around me–living and liquid–bouncing all around right up to the pine boards of the A-frame ceiling. With my mom on the piano and Grammarie on the organ in opposite corners at the front of the sanctuary they were collaborating, co-creating, and this was good. The sun’s morning glow would set off the lamb and the staff from the blue background in the stained glass window above the choir loft. Together they were getting it right for Sunday and it would be be beautiful. We were three generations of women alone in God’s house. In a way, you can’t get more home than that.
I don’t think my mom saw it that way nor do I blame her for that. Her rift with her mother was a common scenario among Baby Boomer girls it seems. My mother-in-law had that kind of distant relationship with her mother as well. Maybe there was an exceptionally large generation gap at that time. Certainly anything resembling attachment parenting was not the thing in the 50’s and 60’s. These women were knocked out cold to deliver their babies and fathers weren’t welcome in the delivery room. Bottle feeding was encouraged and considered the civilized new modern way of mothering. Moms were home with their kids but there were many important conversations that didn’t happen. Things just weren’t discussed. This seems to have effected girls of that era deeply. Now they are grandmas. They worked hard to not be resentful and bitter, which is easier now that their mothers have died, despite the heartache of missing them still. But those mid-twentieth-century girls raised their own daughters with much more tenderness, dialogue and affection in defiance. And we are so glad they did.
My mom really is the greatest mom on earth. I know you might be tempted to disagree. Was your mom nine months pregnant seven times? Did she deliver most of her children without drugs in her own bed? Did your mom raise said children in the suburbs on a carpenter’s wages and send them to private school? Did she use only cloth diapers? Did she breastfeed toddlers? Did she homeschool five boys until they reached high school and teach 20+ other people’s children piano lessons every week? I didn’t think so–I think you have to give me this one. I’m 37 and my youngest sibling is 17 and still in high school. That’s a lot of parenting–nearly forty years worth of kids under your roof. I can’t even begin to grasp the kind of servant’s heart this requires, the amount of energy and mental stamina and sacrifice. It’s more than a little amazing. My mom’s way more than a little amazing. Were we catholic (which many thought we were with all those kids) she’d practically be nominated for sainthood or at least one of those Today Show makeovers.
So I’ve been working on this post for a year at least. I have notes, scribbles of mom-related things that cross my mind at random times paper-clipped to pages of notebooks. This is how writing happens–when you’re doing other things, as Barbara Brown Taylor says. So a blue scrap of paper says this quote: “You’ve got it all wrong” followed by this: softens us, crumbles the crust. I have no idea who I was quoting or how it relates to mothers or motherhood, but I like that thought about mothers. When they’re at their best nobody can do as they do. Nobody can calm, smooth the jagged edges–think ocean waves on broken glass–quite like her. Moms soften the crust that the grit of life has caked onto us. Our warm-milk mothers melt that all away, revealing the tender once-baby flesh underneath–the very flesh she gave us in the first place and nourished with her milk, her body, her soul.
*Bless her heart, she did actually cry at Christmas when my dad tried to buy her imitation designer perfume from Walgreens. He never made that mistake again.