Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

For much of my adulthood, following a path very different from hers, the idea that there was more to learn from my mother rarely crossed my mind. I didn’t have kids. I had no garden, no house of my own, and I had never been married. I didn’t even have a dog. What I had instead was a life of study and travel and living alone and late nights and coffee-shop mornings. It was as foreign to her as her life was to me.

But no matter, I had plenty of company. My girlfriends and I figured it out together and everywhere we looked, there was advice and feedback, on everything from hairstyles to retirement savings to the right heel height for a night of dancing. Television and movies offered a smorgasbord of characters to identify with, whether I felt like sinking into a couch at the coffee shop or hanging out on the steps of the Met. Or, in my case, the Art Institute. Most of this was ridiculous, and I knew it, but it was there and I could cherry pick the good stuff.

My peers populated everything. Magazines. Novels. Jazz bars. My neighborhood. The beach. Airplanes. The gym. The faculty lounge. Singapore, Spain, San Diego. Everywhere, everyone was my age, living some version of my life. I couldn’t escape myself if I tried.

Now? Not so much.

One of the surreal aspects of becoming a mother in your forties is that it’s lonely territory. I’ve yet to see a news story or a magazine headline reading, say, “Your Preschooler and Your Perimenopause.” It’s rare as a topic of public conversation, and not because of squeamishness — listen to a group of women talking about their pregnancies and you’ll hear plenty — so I can only conclude that there aren’t that many of us out here.

But I’ve found help from the unlikeliest of sources: my mom, whose youngest child reached adulthood 20 years ago. I hear her again, in ways I haven’t since I was a teen, only without the sarcastic eye roll. I watch how she navigates her life, her friendships, her marriage. I need to hear about her experiences and follow her example.

Because this is heavy stuff, growing older. It isn’t easy and it’s not photogenic enough to warrant publicity. It isn’t for the faint of heart. The ‘firsts’ we have left in our lives are less than exciting, sometimes terrifying. I have friends, more than a few, people my very age, who are navigating terrible illnesses. How often I hear the story of waking up to a normal day and going to sleep facing a life that will never again be the same. By now we’ve racked up a couple of decades of adult living, and we don’t have the wiggle room anymore to wake up, pop an aspirin, and start over again.

My mom, she’s talked about this always: healthy habits, consequences, use sunscreen, yada yada. And I’ve listened, sort of. But our conversations now, there’s a gravitas to them. The choices I make now are less about a future too far away to grasp and more about an often unforgiving present. When my husband and I navigated a recent layoff, awful for anyone but especially terrifying in middle age, I heard what she said, about using the time off as a gift, a chance to be together more than our lives usually allow. A decade ago, when the life in front of me still felt long, her ‘time is precious’ message wouldn’t have landed so firmly. It did now, and helped us find joy in a very difficult time.

I know her guidance has made me a better mother, and not just in the usual ways. I’ve learned from her that nurturing friendships with the mothers of my daughter’s friends isn’t only good for me but for my daughter as well. I’ve learned from her what “80% of the work for 20% of the credit” looks like, and that such calculations are, in the end, pretty unimportant. I’ve learned from her that prioritizing my daughter’s childhood is a valid choice, no matter how much education or work experience I got first. That it’s not a consolation prize, and the enjoyment I find in her little girls’ world is real. I’ve learned from her the power of accepting limitations — mine, my husband’s, others’ — a lesson I wasn’t at all ready for 20 years ago. Recently I asked her a question about my difficult in-laws; she said she pretty much just accepts what people have to give and doesn’t worry about the rest. There was a time when this sounded mealy-mouthed to me but now it just sounds … peaceful. This can’t be anything but good for all of us.

We’ve lived long enough now, both of us, for me to see that the discipline she instilled in me as a kid not only got me through my nutty teens and turbulent twenties but helps me now that I have 100 balls in the air all the time, and will, if I keep it up, take care of me for decades to come. It is exactly this understanding that makes me so disciplined with my daughter.

For a very long time I thought this discipline meant I was completely self-sufficient, until motherhood knocked me off my pins. I fell apart, terribly and completely. All I knew to do then was ask for help, and the vulnerability of that nearly killed me and that’s when it all finally clicked. That ultimately the greatest gift any mother can give her child is how to live with these vulnerabilities, with the limits of our bodies, of time, of control over the universe. That while a good night’s sleep, a hug, or a walk on the beach will improve much of what I am in charge of, most everything else is God’s to worry about. It is this very awareness that makes life so beautiful and so worth cherishing, so worth preserving and so worth sharing, minute by precious minute, with my child.

I’m deeply aware of how lucky I am, that we are close, that she’s healthy, that she’s bossy and loquacious and funny. That she loves the world as she does, and is so willing to share. I’m lucky she’s still teaching me, as late-in-life motherhood mashes together growing up with growing older. I’m lucky she’s here. And today I’m lucky to be able to thank her.

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Published in: on May 12, 2012 at 2:55 PM  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Kim Prince sent me here, because she knew I would want to read this post. It makes me feel heard, that someone else can articulate so well what it is like to stop being visible in popular culture. It makes me sad, missing my mom who died a decade ago. And it makes me want to know you–and your writing better.

    • Thanks, Jane! I’ve been searching for just that for a while — a community into which I might fit, preschooler and progesterone and all. Maybe I’ve found it. Looking forward to more.

  2. I’m here for a reason too! This post hit me hard and yet made me proud of the way I’ve formed community after feeling exactly the way you describe at the beginning for way too long. SouLodge on FB has completely changed my life because I’m now surrounded by moms in their 40s and 50s who non-stop share their wisdom and find value in mine too. It’s called a sanctuary for wild women, but it’s really a place to get your groove back after years of sacrificing it for other things (degrees, kids, partners, life). You might consider joining us; it’s quite the ride. Hugs to you as always!!


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