Sunday, May 9, 2010

Silver Lining: A Motherfesto

This mother's day is a biggie for me. It's because everything has changed, again.

I surrendered a body part. A very motherly body part, the mother of all parts, or, the motherpart, as it were. But that didn't really change everything, as I feared it would. I am still, after all, a mother on this motherest of all days. I'm just tempered to a different strength is all.

And I gave birth this year, in my home, and so became a mother of three. Of course, that baby changed everything, as babies do, so that we can't quite fathom what it was like before she completed our family.

But it's my relationship with my own mother that's BIG today. It's me as a daughter and as a granddaughter that is remarkable to me today. I really didn't expect things to evolve like they have, like they did.

See, I had to have a surgery. I had to have a major surgery. The logistics of a hospital stay and a 6-8 week recovery while caring for a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler are kuh-razy. It's not that I couldn't care for my children at all but I needed help - major help. Doctor's orders were not to even think about lifting any of them for a month and a half. So I needed someone to place my babies in my lap when they were hungry. Then I needed someone to peel them off my bosom when they fell asleep in my arms and to tuck them into their beds. I needed someone to bring my baby to me when she cried in the night and then to get her up from the puddle of milk she lay in with me in my bed in the morning. I needed someone to tickle my kids and coo at them and answer incessant questions about the way the world works and to teach not to hit and to pick up crayons. I needed someone to prevent them from stacking and climbing furniture and to wash spaghetti sauce out of their hair. Since I couldn't lift my babies, I couldn't be alone with them so I needed someone always to be there. I needed, needed, needed. So I called my mother. And she dropped everything.

She slept on the futon downstairs for six weeks. I handed her my 4-month old baby when I left for the hospital. I was in tears but they were obviously thrilled with each other.

She did so much. She cooked and cleaned and played and consoled and listened and laughed. She changed unremarkable diapers and catastrophic ones. She did mountains of laundry. She made borscht.

Whenever I'd thank her for doing so much she'd wave it off saying, "Of course, of course. I'd do anything. I'll do anything you need."

And in a dark cloud it was definitely her -- my beautiful silver-haired mother -- that was, that is! the silver lining.

Now I know the sentiment "I love my mother so much and she loves me too" is probably the least original thing anybody has ever uttered in all of Earth's history.

But somehow in our relationship as I grew from an infant to a golden-haired child to a softball-hurling ruffian to a frumpy preteen to an angsty acid-washed-denim-clad teen to a grungy theatre scenester to a dinner-party throwing, office-jobing young wife to the minivan-driving suburban mom I am today, I have spent a lot of time doubting it. It's not that I didn't know my mother loved me. I knew. It's that I didn't KNOW, you know?

My poor mom has been so confused over the years as to why she's had so much trouble relating to her teen-aged and adult children. She's been so hurt and befuddled by the way her children seem to prefer spending time with the in-laws and how visits home are short, far-between, and tense.

"But why does she burst into tears all the time?" she once asked me about my eldest sister. "Why does she have to be so sensitive. All I said is that she shouldn't feed her son juice if he's so fat. That's what they are saying now, you shouldn't feed kids juice, it makes them fat!"

I've tried to ever-so-delicately explain to her how one can feel overly-criticized if the only sentiments one ever hears from one's mother are critical ones. One can get a

"But it's not a criticism if he is fat! I'm just saying so! Is it my fault he's fat? Am I the one feeding him juice? Should I just not say anything? Is that what you want? Should I pretend I don't notice? That's stupid! Am I supposed to be just stupid? That's what you all want from me, for me to just be stupid and keep my mouth shut all the time?"

And like the rest of my siblings, I just gave up. I just stopped expecting her to be gentle or pleasant or emotionally supportive or, well, mother-like.

It wasn't always that way. My earliest memories of my mom are of pure love and light. I remember drifting in and out of sleep on her lap in the warm sun and thinking she was the most beautiful sight and she was the most beautiful smell and she was the most beautiful feeling in the entire world -- in fact she was the entire world -- and that world was caring and wonderful and safe.

There's a drastic thing that happens here, up North, with the light throughout the seasons. The amount and quality of sunlight changes very much. In the summertime there's only rich and buttery sunlight. You wake up in the full sun and you try to sleep at night with it beaming through the cracks in your curtains. But the winters are so dark. You drive to work before the sun rises or you walk to school as the stars fade and when it's time to head home again, already, the sun has set and it's dark. If you go outside at noon the sky will be cloudless and blue and full of light. But that sun is so high up in that blue sky and that sun is so far away that there's barely any warmth in it. It is pale, weak, white light.  Even so, it makes the snow sparkle when it shines.

That is how I've felt about my mom. She has been so far away. For so long. And now it's spring and she's back. She came back because I needed her. And I'm so glad I needed her. This is the most profound healing I have ever experienced in my life.

My beautiful silvery mother.

My post-surgery recovery plan was to nurse and care for my kids as much as I could, to rest whenever I was fatigued, to take my dog for long walks through the melting trails in the warming sunlight, to write long blog posts full of way too much gynaecological information, to eat my mother's borscht, and to get better. It totally worked.

My mother gleefully took my baby in her arms and made cooey-kissy faces as she giggled and giggled and giggled. If I should ever walk in on my mom feeding my baby a bottle of my own breastmilk I'd feel like I was interrupting something so intimate, like they were lovers caught coming up for air. The way my mom fed her a bottle was just so intentional. It was really beautiful.

And the games she'd play with my 4-year old -- letting her lead the way into an ever more complex imaginative scenario for hours. I rarely make so much time to play with my girl. And the love and understanding she showed to my toddler even though he behaves like a total caveman these days -- flinging food at the walls, grabbing her glasses and trying to smash them, yelling "No!" at every possible opportunity, and communicating mostly in grunts and stomps. All she ever had to say about my babies was how good and beautiful they were, what a brilliant job they did of making poopies and burping and sleeping and scribbling on paper. She's just so affectionate with babies and small children. She just lavished them with so much love. I couldn't help but to take it personally on so many levels.

I love seeing my children loved. It's like indirect sunlight. It makes me leaf-out and turn green. So as she lavished affection on her grandchildren I felt loved. I took it personally that way.

I understood that she was taking care of them for me. So I felt nurtured and cared for by her. I took it personally that way.


I wondered where her love and affection for me went. I mean, I'm quite ashamed to admit it but these thoughts did cross my mind: I did a good job of making poopies too! Do you know how hard it is to poop after a major abdominal surgery during which your bowels are actually lifted out of your abdominal cavity, washed, and put back in place for you? I did a fantastic job of pooping! Aren't I a good girl? Don't I deserve a hug and a pat on the head, Mommy?

Sigh. I couldn't help but to take it personally.

When I was a teenager I got very sick with mononucleosis. I was absolutely sapped. I slept about 23 hours a day sleeping. My appetite dwindled to nothing. My mom took me to the doctor and he sent me to the hospital. I puked on the admissions desk and then my throat began to swell and swell and swell. I was sent to a city hospital by ambulance hours away from my Northern home. After a few days my parents came to visit me in the city hospital. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my mother and father standing in the doorway of my pediatric room and they just looked so devastated and so frightened.

"Oh boy, I thought. You two are going to be no help whatsoever."

They seemed scared of me. Perhaps because I was contagious. Perhaps because I was hurling a glare at them that only a teenager could muster. In any case, they kept their distance.

"Just how did you get this disease anyway?" my father decided to break the ice with.

Oh, man. Mono is known as "the kissing disease." But I can assure you that I did NOT get mono from kissing boys. I wish. I had recently won a national debating trophy. I was chubby, fourteen, and wore blue-tinted glasses and sweatshirts with puff-paint wolves on them. I very very very much would have liked to have gotten mono from kissing boys. But alas, no boys were up for kissing me, the Master Debater, and the irony of having to suffer the kissing disease without having enjoyed the kissing was dispiriting to say the least.

I think I then told my parents, "I want you to leave now." (A lie.) And also, "I really don't need you here." (Also a lie.)

And so they left.

That was twenty-one years ago and I haven't forgiven them yet.

It's the reason I didn't tell them when I had a miscarriage. I didn't want them to look at me like that again -- helpless and distant. It's the reason I didn't want to tell them I had cervical cancer and was having a hysterectomy. I didn't want them to ask, "Just how did you get this disease, anyhow?" and then to stand there helpless and needing me to reassure them that everything was all right, that it would be okay. I just didn't think I could take it if they did that.

That nasty case of mono kept me in the hospital until a really kind doctor came to sit down at my bedside. He just rubbed my back a bit, patted my hands, and told me that he knew I felt really rotten, like a dishrag that had been wrung out (not a lie), but that it was time for me to start getting better now. He said that he put something in my IV that would make me get better in a day or two. Then he gave me a little kiss me on top of my head and went on with his rounds. And I did get better. In a day or two.

Looking back on my tween and teen years it is very obvious to me that I was starving for parental affection. I was well-housed and well-churched. My dad kept an eye on my top-notch marks and made sure I always had an academic challenge. My mom made me three-square meals a day and bought me the clothes I asked for. Friends of mine from poor and broken homes were quite jealous of my "perfect" home. But my parents never touched me. They never told me I was beautiful and brilliant. And they stopped celebrating birthdays once we hit the ripe old age of twelve. They seemed to think that verbal praise, physical affection and gifts were bad for teenaged children. The believed that past a certain age, girls especially, shouldn't be called beautiful, and they shouldn't be touched, especially by their fathers. They thought that gifts would just spoil and ruin us. They didn't want things to "go to our heads." My parents told me they loved me and they certainly meant it. And I believed them, I did. But not completely. I knew it, but I just didn't KNOW it.

Looking back on my twenties it's obvious to me now why I was perhaps a bit too eager to reap the affections of my legions of adoring lovers. Oh, their poems and their serenades! Their raving, mad proclamations of love!

I don't think that if I could do it again that I'd spend those years in nun-like continence, but I do wish I was less free with my body, yes. I have contracted, after all, an HPV that caused cervical freaking cancer!

I almost didn't tell my mom. I considered just hiring someone so I wouldn't have to deal with the stress of having her around me when I knew I'd already be stressed. Really stressed.

But I thought about how terrible I'd feel if my one of my babies didn't ask me for help. I thought about how devastated she'd be if she found out that I didn't tell her - like she found out about the miscarriage from my sister. I thought about how she should have a chance. I thought about how very much I wanted to repair our damaged relationship and how she was really the only one, besides my husband, that I trusted to take care of my wee baby. I thought about how lucky I am to have a mother in my life and how I won't forever. So I decided suck it up and to just steel myself to the possibility that my parents might simply ask me "how I got this disease anyhow," stare, and keep their distance.

But hallelujah! I have spent more time with my mother in the past six weeks than I have in the decade before that. And she hardly ever drove me completely mental. In fact, I've enjoyed her company and it's meant the world to me. We've talked like we never have before. And she told me things. She told me about being a young mom. She told me about growing up on the farm. She told me about her mother too.

I have named my newest baby after my maternal grandmother - after my mom's mom.  So speaking my tiny daughter's name is to speak my grandmother's name as well, and it's like a conjuring of sorts. My grandmother died thirty years ago and I don't remember her much at all. But she's present in our lives now all the same.

Over the years depression and cancer has ripped and chewed through my mother's family. Depression or cancer has, in fact, taken down most of my mom's many sisters and brothers. I knew that. And I know how terrified she is of depression twisting it's way through her children's lives and now her grandchildren's lives. I didn't know before now, though, what a stronghold it had on my grandmother's life. I didn't know that my grandmother disappeared into herself when my mom was still a girl - at the ripe-old age of twelve. I didn't know that my grandmother raised her babies in a torpor of sorrow and that she retreated from her older children completely to focus what little energy she had on her youngest babies. I didn't know that she spent her last twenty years in utter misery until she died, finally, of cancer of the pretty much everything. All my mother had told me before was that my grandmother was great with babies and small children. That in her house, babies and small children were very well-loved.

I see now how it's just a pattern repeated. Suffering can be passed from mother to daughter to daughter like a dark, terrible knot of pain at the center of a set of nesting dolls. My loving mother who is so affectionate with babies and young kids but so utterly unable to connect with young women has suffered too much for that legacy. She suffered when her own mother retreated from her and again when she was unable to stay connected to her daughters and so we turned away from her.

Such is life. That is the past and the present is now.

My doctor gave me the thumbs up to exercise at my 6-week follow up appointment. So I went back to the gym and have resumed my usual workout. I'm not as out of shape as I expected I'd be. In fact, I'm quite whizzy. And as I whizzed around the track behind my babies in my double-stroller along with an army of other mom's and babies in strollers, I thought, "You know, you're pretty awesome for being so whizzy. You've really been through a lot and look how you can go. You can probably do anything you want."

And then a question welled up. "What do I want? What do I really really really want?"

And the answer came quick.

I want to heal.

I want to look unflinchingly at that dark knot of pain and untangle it and poke around to see what hurts and where and to set it all free. I want to NOT hand it down to my daughters. I will NOT turn away from them when they are young women. I will NOT become distant and lost. For me and for my daughters and their daughters and for my mother and her mother, I will heal.

See, I love my mother so much and she loves me too.

This is my Mother's Day manifesto: a year of focused healing.

Some Light Mending:
my mother mending a few things around my house...


  1. I'm so glad you're finding healing - with your mother and yourself. I think that maybe I am in a similar place to where you have been. I don't yet see my way out. But reading this gives me a little hope. So thank you for that.

    Happy Mother's Day!

  2. Wow....beautiful...& makes me question that maybe, just maybe, I don't KNOW either. I'm so happy to see you find a path to Amber said, we should all be so lucky....

  3. Thanks. You totally made me cry. Again. This brings back a lot of memories of my relationship with my mom as a child and makes me question and mull over my relationship with her now too. Only I can't imagine her ever dropping anything to watch my girls for me. Asking her to have them (or even one!) for an over night once in 3 years is like pulling teeth. Only worse. It hurts me deeply that she'd rather ride her bike and go wine touring with a new guy she's dating than spend time with her grandkids. I could say more but I don't think I have the energy or strength right now. I'm really glad you had such a great experience with having your mom come and help to take care of you and your children though. That's really really special.

  4. Your mom sounds awesome. What a loving woman. It's no wonder you are the mother and person that you are who you are today. I hope you had a wonderful mother's day and that your recovery has come along nicely!

  5. Thank you so much for your honesty in this post. It rings so true about the relationship I have with my mother, and it makes me wonder what hers was like with her mother. I became a mother 5 months ago at 35, and feel more love for my own mother since then than I have since I was little. Seriously, at least since I was 15, when we clashed and drifted apart. She loves my little boy so much, and has been such a godsend, that I can ignore the criticism and and focus on the joy that both of us feel, and that he feels when he sees her. A year of healing indeed. I wish you luck with yours as well.

  6. Hi, Betsy. I stumbled upon your blog, and I've been reading it voraciously ever since. Thank you especially for this post. It made me cry, but in a good way. I am so glad you're finding the healing you need. When I was pregnant with my twins, I went in to pre-term labor at 24 weeks. My mom was there within the day, from across the country. She stayed through Christmas, cooking, cleaning, supporting. She came back when the boys were born ten weeks later, and she didn't leave. She stayed and helped me find my sanity in the midst of caring for two colicky infants. Then, she took us home with her when she had to go back to work. She made a place in her home for my new little family, and we live here now. We've gotten our feet back under us, my hubby and I, and moved into our own apartment. But every day, my mother, my angel, my strength, is there should I need her. We are the lucky ones, the ones with mothers who love, mothers who help. Thank you for your writing. It is lovely.


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