Becoming a mother changes your relationship with your mother. In different ways for everyone, I’m sure… for me it’s been enlightening in ways that are sometimes almost painful to consider. My relationship with my mom was not always butterflies and rainbows. My parents split up when I was 20 years old, and things were… complicated… for a few years. Looking back, I know that one significant factor was that at age 20 I had still not developed the maturity and wisdom to wrap my mind around the idea of my mother as a person, with a whole inner life that encompassed a range of thoughts and emotions beyond being my mom.
In the back of my mind I always knew that someday I would have children and that having my own children would bring me closer to my mom again. And it did. “I’m turning into my mother!” is an old cliche, but the actual experience of turning into your mother, or at least of turning into a mother and feeling those echoes of your mother deep in your bones – is so much more complex than the old cliche.
I remember I used to wonder, particularly as a bratty teenager, why my mom couldn’t go ONE DAY without getting frustrated or angry with us. It makes me laugh now as I wonder why my son can’t go ONE DAY without frustrating me. I used to wonder why she spent so much time cleaning the house – I thought it was about keeping everything clean. Now I realize that in the busy life of a mother, cleaning counts as “me time.” As you stand in front of a sink full of dirty dishes, you indulge in the meditative chore of scrubbing plates and let your mind luxuriously wander – maybe you even turn on some music and sing. Your children will let you do this in a way that, mysteriously, they will never let you sit down in a chair and just close your eyes for a moment.
I remember that I looked askance at my mother for not going back to work until after the divorce, but ohhhh how silly I now know I was, understanding absolutely nothing about the work that goes into staying at home with children and the complexity of the choice to work outside the home or not.
I also remember how my mom used to sing to us, and sing along to the tapes we played in the car. I thought her voice was so beautiful and was amazed that she could sing a harmony to any tune; I couldn’t imagine why she wasn’t a famous singer with a voice like that. Now I have a more realistic perspective on that, too, but I can only hope that one day, even just for a year or two, my children will find me as beautiful and amazing as my mother seemed to me back then.
In my adult life I’ve always been pretty independent and haven’t really sought my parents’ approval since I left the nest, so it surprises me how much it means to me that my mom thinks I am a good mother… how much I actually craved validation from her when she was here visiting after the birth of Julius. I wanted her to love my children (she does, of course), and I wanted her to think that I’m doing a good job (she does). I can’t even explain why this is – though I think my mom is a good mother, I don’t idolize her – and yet her approval is deeply reassuring somehow.
I realize how lucky that I am – that my mom is still alive and well, that the fractures in our relationship have been healed by time and by sweet little baby snuggles. Not everyone is so privileged, I know. My mom is great about not giving me unsolicited advice or challenging my parenting choices. She loves being a grandma but respects the boundaries of that relationship. When she tells me about how things were in her day, it’s as a fellow mother and not as an authority figure – and I so enjoy hearing about her experiences of early motherhood now that I can relate.
I am not my mother (just as my children are not little versions of me). But I hear her when I sing to my toddler the getting-undressed song (“hands up, hands up, hands up over your heeeead!”). I see her when I look down at my hands, hands that look so much like hers, stroking my baby’s head. I feel her at the end of the day when I just want to sit down, rest, and be alone for a while. That sense of continuity is what motherhood is all about for me – my mom and me, and my children and me – we are alike but different, attached but separate, connected through time and space.