With my son in Princeton
My son, my only child, was born months after my mother succumbed, fighting, to colon cancer. She was 55. I was 30. When the doctors diagnosed cancer, I immediately got pregnant.
I had spent a lot of my life up to that point doing everything I could not to become my mother. I looked down on her “bourgeois” life-style as the tennis-playing, Saks-shopping wife of a successful surgeon. She never finished college, because she took a job to pay for my father’s medical education.
With my mother
I finished college, spent two years studying in Germany, and then completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. I had married, yes, but was working as the press secretary for a liberal Congresswoman in Washington, D.C., while my husband finished his dissertation. Later I took a high-paying job as the director of State Relations as NYU.
Suddenly she was dying and all I wanted to do was experience motherhood with her. I wanted, needed to bond with her. I wanted to learn everything she had to teach me. Nothing mattered more to me. She bugged the heck out of me but she was still my best friend. She had cancer. I set about getting pregnant with the same determination I had directed to getting work.
Shortly after I conceived, I found that she had only a few months left. I quit my fancy job and moved home. She lived long enough to see an ultrasound of my son while he was still in a frog-state, bouncing himself off the sides of my womb. I remember the day. We had gone from the gynecologist to the oncologist, and the news was good and bad. Shortly after that, the doctor put her on oxygen. She died on October 2, 1990. My son was born May 3, 1991.
My Son in Santa Barbara, circa 1996
Six and a half years later, I left my marriage. I managed to win joint custody of my son, but the only job I could get in my field was in a different state. At the time, I never imagined that the separation would last so long. Ten years. I came to regret many decisions that seemed at the time to be best. I made every choice with my son’s best interests in mind. I didn’t think enough, in retrospect, about my own. I didn’t realize how poorly I would endure the time I lost with him.
With my son in Pittsburgh
Long-distance mothering sucks. It requires a huge amount of effort, patience, endurance, and love. Love in the face of countless setbacks and awful, heart-breaking partings. Love for another person makes it possible to turn the keys in the engine and drive on after you have just pulled over to the side of the road to weep and wail and rage. Love bends you like the willow in the storm and keeps you alive for the long road ahead, when your children are older and still need you. I, after all, still need my mother.
This year my son is living with me under my own roof, and the best part of my day comes at 6 am, when I rise to make breakfast and to pack a lunch for him. Sometimes I also help him get to work, at 7 am, on time. I cannot begin to describe how good this is for me, how my heart heals a little more with each sandwich I make. Being able to be here for him is the best thing about life now.
Becoming a mother without your own mother to talk to is hard, because it isn’t until you have actually had your own children that the questions you need to ask occur to you. You see your own children doing things that you think you might have done, or that may or may not be normal for someone in your family, and you want to know. But mostly you simply want to share the experience of mothering with the woman who brought you into the world.
If I spent my young adult years running away from my sometimes suffocating mother, I spend my middle years yearning for her arms around me.
I was born blue. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and was choking me. A metaphor for the future, perhaps. Our mother was Norwegian, so she was powerful, domineering, and sometimes intrusive. She was also outspoken and smart and capable and beautiful and funny.
Friends, my sister and mother in Santa Barbara
After she died, our family fell apart. Dad self-destructed and completely neglected my sister. I was, as I had always been, at least since she was six, far away, unable to help her.
It is a terrible thing to have a relationship with someone whom you love and want to help, someone who needs your help but who does not know how to ask you. It is especially difficult when that person is still so young that she or he does not even realize what trouble she or he is in, and therefore does not perceive a need for help, and doesn’t ask.
So this is a strange posting for Mother’s Day. The message I set out to convey was that this annoying holiday is for once a very happy day for me, and that is for all kinds of reasons. The foremost reasons are my son and my sister and her twins.
I am also really tremendously grateful to my new friends, so many of whom are mothers of my age or so. I am thinking of my partner’s sister, who has just lost both her parents, and of my sisters in AM, each of whom could tell a poignant story about loss and mothering, and of my dear friend in Poughkeepsie, who has also lost her mother. Mothering is painful and rewarding, suffocating and renewing. I’m lucky to have so many wonderful, vibrant mothers in my life.