One of the strangest things to me about having a baby is the sudden identity switch that occurs. I suppose it’s not that sudden, you get 1o months to try it on, see how it fits, but that’s all just a dress rehearsal until you actually become a mom. And even now, the 14 months I have spent as a mom is nothing compared to the thirty-odd years I have spent NOT being a mother.
When I found out I was pregnant, my first thought was “Oh my god, I have to RAISE a CHILD.” Not just grow and birth a baby, but actually raise it. My second thought was that I was replacing myself. That sounds dramatic, but hear me out. I have spent my life being many things, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, downtrodden assistant, lawyer, wife. But first and foremost, I have always been a daughter. I have always been someone’s child, my mother’s child. And no matter what happens, or how much I grow up and pay taxes and do grown-up things, I am still my mother’s child. When we go home or my parents visit, there is still that subtle shifting of place that occurs, and we all fall into position. Whether I like it or not, my place, my label is “oldest daughter”. No matter how grown up we get, my parents still let us act like their children. They pay for dinner. They let us pick the restaurant, where we want to sit, let us squabble and pout. In short, they put us first.
So once I had O, that sense of place doesn’t quite fit anymore. Because I have replaced myself, generation-wise. Before, it ended with me. Now, I am the in-between, the link between my parents and my child. Now I am not just a child, a daughter, but also a mother. The link is complete. What that means is that I don’t get the luxury of simply being my mother’s daughter anymore. When I return home, my mother still takes care of me, but now I am taking care of someone else.
I was at a family party this weekend. My mom introduced me to a couple she had been talking with, with the words “And THIS is O’s mom!” She obviously had been talking about O, as grandmothers do. But it was such a strange thing to hear “O’s mom”. It’s not because at 14 months in that I haven’t gotten used to having a baby. It’s not that I don’t feel like his mother. But that term, those words, I don’t think have been applied to me yet. It’s always “my baby”, or “A’s son”. This was the first time that it was applied to me through him and his identity, rather than as an extension of me. It brought back memories of when I was young, and our parents were simply those ever-present tall people that gave us our boundaries. So it was “Amanda’s mom” or “Heather’s mom”. Never Donna or Nancy. As a kid, my only relation to them was how strict they were and how much they let us play. It didn’t occur to me that they were individuals, that they had personalities and lives outside of their children.
But what really struck me when I heard myself being identified as “O’s mom” was the immediate thought that I couldn’t possibly be someone’s mom because I would never be as good as my mom. That I have now inherited the title, and the power and responsibility that goes with it. That I am now responsible for his life, not just his physical life, not just keeping him alive, but the harder stuff, the making-sure-he-grows-up-happy-and-well-adjusted-and-stays-out-of-prison-and-mental hospitals stuff. My second immediate thought was poor O, the part of “mother” was being played by me, the understudy. And he deserves the main star.
My mother is a tough act to follow. I’ve tried to write her letters, to tell her how much of an impact she’s had on my life, to tell her what an amazing mother she is, but I can never seem to write anything that actually conveys even a sliver of what I want to say. It’s like trying to capture water in your fist.
I can talk about how she always encouraged me, but never pushed me. How she let me lead the way and let me be my own person, without putting her own wishes and fears for herself onto me. She encouraged us to participate, to be joiners and a part of things, but always allowed us our own opinions and decisions. She gave us space to fail. She let us make mistakes, and she made sure we learned from our mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, she made it clear what she thought was right and wrong (smoking is tacky, good grades are a requirement, you should always try to brush your hair and put on some lipstick) but she let us find our way. She gave me my love of words and reading. She makes the best cherry pies and sugar cookies at Christmas, so much so that certain family members have been known to hide these items at Christmas parties so they might steal away with one at the end of the party. She is funny and smart and beautiful and much, much kinder than I am. Though she did once have a cat put to sleep because he wouldn’t stop peeing in her closet. So kind, yeah, but don’t cross her.
But all of those things barely add up to any sort of true description of her. Besides, how can I possibly describe what makes a mother a mother? It’s the multitude of tiny things that she did and does every day, it’s the unseen and unfelt decisions that have shaped me, it’s well, everything. Because everything that she has done since having me has been about me (and my siblings).
And even if it hasn’t always been about us, that’s her genius. She makes us kids feel like we are her entire world. Now that I’m a mom, clearly I see that’s not true. She had a life before me, she has an internal life and relationships and worries and dreams that do not revolve around me. But she never let me know or feel that. Ever.
My mom always used to say that I couldn’t understand how much she loved us, that I wouldn’t understand a mother’s love for her children until I had my own. She was right and wrong about that. Yes, it took having a child to experience the depth and sweet pain that is a love for a child. Yes, once I had O I instantly understood what she meant. But she was wrong that I didn’t know how much she loves us. My mother’s love is a living, breathing thing. I can feel it in the room with us, even over the phone. My mother may have done many things that upset me or made me angry or that I didn’t understand, but I have never, ever doubted how much she loved me.
A few months ago, O and I were visiting my parents’ house. I was sick, with some form of bronchitis, the kind where you can’t sleep because lying down makes you cough, sitting up makes you cough, everything makes you cough. I was feeling especially lousy, but as everyone with kids knows, it doesn’t matter how badly you might feel, the kids keep on going. There is no “off” button, or even a “slow down” button. They don’t intuit that you need some down time. Being sick sucks, being sick with a toddler is it’s own kind of hell. But I was at my parents’ house, which made it all bearable. Because my mom is that kind of mom. She let me rest, let me sleep, bought me medicine, made me soup and grilled cheese. She scooped O up and took over, and I didn’t have to worry because I knew she would take care of him. Didn’t have to even feel guilty, because she’s my mom. It’s what she does.
And then O got sick too. A different kind of sick, almost worse, because he was in pain and scared and there wasn’t really anything we could do at first, as he was just constipated. It was the worst day I’ve had with him since the early newborn days. He would be fine, playing and gurgling happily, banging things, grinning at me as I sprawled on the couch and tried to breathe without hurting. Then all of a sudden, he’d get this confused, panicked look on his face and run over to me. I would instantly forget about whatever misery I was currently feeling, and lift him up and just hold him. He would scrunch up on me, hold on as tight as he could with his little hands, and just cry. This happened all day long. I was crying, O was crying, my mom was crying. There is absolutely nothing worse than your child being in pain and you not knowing how to fix it. Constipation is not something that I ever thought was that big of a deal, until you see how far it can go.
But through all of this, I remember thinking, it’s going to be okay. I can handle this, we can handle this, because my mom’s here. I wasn’t scared or worried like I would have been had I been on my own. My mom is one of those women that can be a bit scattered in her daily life, losing keys or her mobile phone. But when it matters, my mother has the take charge ability of a four star general. She is calm, she is decisive, she is in charge. She doesn’t get over anxious or excited, she doesn’t fret, she just has that instinct on how to make things better.
We spent the day, her taking care of me, me taking care of O, her stepping in to take care of O when I needed her too. A full cycle complete, mother to daughter, daughter to son. We did things to make O better I never thought I would do, but we did it with calm and assured professionalism. My mom, because that’s just who she is. Me, because like a good solider, I was just following her lead. I have never been so happy to see poop in my life. My mom and I changed his diaper, and fell onto the couch, exhausted, victorious.
The thing is, I’m not my mother. I am not even close to being like her as a mother. I am more selfish and moody, more used to having things a certain way. I am not patient or calm. I don’t know how to sew on buttons or debone a chicken. I don’t sing well, I don’t have her knack for walking into any place and immediately making it feel like a home. I inherited many things from her, many wonderful things, but I did not inherit her calm and easy personality.
But lucky for O, the one thing I’ve got going for me is that I’m a quick learner. And even if I’m not her, even if I will never be as mom-like as my mom, at least she’s my mom. Which means she’s O’s grandmother. Which means something’s got to trickle down. And what I’ve realized, in writing this, is that I am like her in one way, in the most important way. I love O with a capacity that is limitless. I love him so much it hurts when I really think about it. I love him so much that I know I have to let him grow up and be his own person and live a life without me. And no matter what I don’t have as a mom, no matter how many mistakes I make with O, the one thing that he will never ever doubt, is how much I love him. And with that as my foundation, I can’t go wrong. Besides, whenever I don’t know what to do, I can just call my mother.
So thank you Mom. Thank you, for All of It.