The first time you hold them, you actually do count fingers and toes. Who knew? You trace the swirls of those soft, sweet, pink ears. The downy cheeks, the lashes, the button nose, the rosebud mouth, all go into your permanent file, memorized forever. The details are a little different for each child, but they are equally indelible. In your heart, they are perfection.
I always wanted to be a mother. It was my only career goal and I prepared for it with more zeal than I ever put into my actual education. I read. And read. And read some more. I was going to be the best mother possible for these little beings.
I was the best I knew how to be. That does not mean there are moments, many of them, of which I am less than proud. I was young. I was human. And I had a very, very hard life. But I loved them with every breath. Loved. Them.
I told them I loved them frequently. I acted in a way I believed sent them that message. My own poor, unhappy mother told other people she loved us, but she never told us. As a matter of fact, in my case at least, she actively told me I was worthless and good for nothing. She acted as though she despised us and couldn’t bear to be with us any more than was strictly necessary. She spent almost every waking hour in bed.
I worked hard at being the antithesis of my mother. Much hugging and kissing. Active involvement in school. Played games, sat and colored, took them on trips. Listened to them. Engaged with them. Because I wanted to. It was fun. It was a delight to see those adorable smiles, hear those laughs and giggles and “I love you Mommy”’s.
In the New York Times on May 10, 2012, Timothy Egan wrote a moving description of his mother and her final weeks in The Last Mother’s Day. I foolishly read it while eating my lunch. Foolishly, because two sentences into it I was a sobbing, gasping mess, choking on my salad. I should have known from the title.
He said this about losing a mother: “…you also lose the true keeper of your memories, your triumphs, your losses. Your mother is a scrapbook for all your enthusiasms. She is the one who validates and the one who shames, and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.” With my own heath ebbing, and this being the first Mother’s Day since my mother died last year, this really resonated with me. I have often considered how, with my husband gone, there is no one else who knows the details of the days of their births. While I have written down what I do remember, there is no other perspective.
In the movie Parenthood, Steve Martin is constantly striving to be the father he did not have. His neurotic fears include one in which his child has grown into a crazed shooter from the top of a building. While attempting to talk him down as he rains bullets on his helpless victims, Steve instinctively cries at one point, “Nice shot son!”, ever trying to be the supportive dad. Sometimes that is how I felt, desperate to promote their self-esteem, directly counter to the manner in which mine had been chiseled away. Anything to spare them the pain I experienced as a child who felt, who was told, she was unloved and unwanted.
So, we keep the memories. We shore up egos. We can, sadly, be the ones to tear those egos down as well, even if it is unintentional. Mothers are pretty powerful. Another reason I have had such a reverence for the role and my part in shaping the children who were placed in my care.
Things have not been easy. There have been hard times, disagreements and hurt feelings. But nothing could ever make me want to take back even one second of my life with them. I treasure all those happy memories. I cherish each one’s uniqueness. I respect each path they have chosen, even when it has taken them far away from me. Even when it has broken my heart. Because only they can determine their own journey.
They are not ‘mine’. They do not belong to me, they are their own people. But they are an integral part of who I am. Even if human and flawed, as we all are, they still hold me with a power that is stronger than gravity. Robert Munch’s book has the refrain of my motherhood:
“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always.
As long as you’re living,
My baby you’ll be.”
Thank you, my four children, for making me a mother.
Steve Martin in Parenthood on the Importance of Being Supportive (because everything is always your fault anyway):
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