Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

I love the idea of mothers being recognized for what they do. I hate the sentimentalization of it - never mind that this post starts and ends with flowers. (But as I've said before, flowers are sexy. They're not sentimental.)

Anyway, what I'm reflecting on this Mother's Day is how being a mother has made me appreciate my own mother more. She had the usual portion of burdens - though if you ask her, she'll say she had far more than her share of joys. Only now, having lived through sleepless nights with sick kids and breastfeeding babies, endured the tantrums of toddlerhood, and navigated some of the drama of a grade-schooler's social life - only now do I have a visceral appreciation of how my mom did all of that - and did it with unflagging cheer and love. No wonder I'm still sometimes surprised at how hard it can be; she made it look easy.

But my mother had a few extra troubles, as well.

When I was in college but my sister was only 11, my parents' marriage ended and my father wasn't much involved with us kids for several years. To his credit, he did keep up with his financial obligations - and my mom is still quick to point that out. To her credit, she was always willing to include him (though not his girlfriend) in family events. She did what millions of other single parents have done, but that didn't make it any easier. And she did it with an abundance of grace and love.

Earlier yet, when my parents were still married, my father nearly died of complications of a chronic disease. He was in the VA hospital in Minneapolis, and we were living in North Dakota, six hours away. Over a nearly two-month period, she somehow managed to hold everything together, making the drive through blizzards and keeping us kids cared for, whether by neighbors or older relatives. My sister was only three at the time. And she didn't have the family support that would've been ideal. Her own mother was not terribly strong anymore. Her mother-in-law was more robust and could help with us kids as long as another adult was present. During one of her hospital trips, my dad's mother and sister had one of their epic fights while supposedly holding down the fort. My aunt let loose a string of swear words - my delicate ears had never heard such a barrage! - and stomped out, leaving my 81-year-old grandma in sole charge, with my mother still six hours away. It must have been a relief on so many levels when my father finally came home. (He's still doing well today.)

I got an inkling of what she must have gone through when my husband was being treated for life-threatening pneumonia and spent a month in the hospital with a couple of weeks in the ICU. (He's okay these days, too.) Our kids were one and four, and we were in Germany, where we hadn't planned to stay beyond a few weeks' vacation. In the weeks leading up to the ICU, when he spent some time hospitalized with related problems, I came to understand what a terrible conflict my mom had faced - knowing your young kids need your care, knowing your spouse needs your support and advocacy. Really, you'd need to be at the hospital 24/7, but you can't do that when you've got sole responsibility for little ones.

But the difference? When my spouse was admitted to the ICU, my mom dropped everything, flew from California to Berlin, and slept on a mattress on the floor in order to stay with my kids. I finally got to be where I was most needed. I remember the tremendous relief I felt, even in the midst of awful fear, at no longer being torn between two conflicting obligations. What the Bear remembers from that time is celebrating his fifth birthday with a cake in the hospital - and his grandma playing a "grammasaurus" at a dino-themed party once his dad finally came home.

And for all of that - as for so many other things - I will always be grateful to my mom.


Smirking Cat said...

I saw a statue once called "Maternal Instinct", and I loved it. Instead of some sweet, overly sappy statue, it was a mother wolf with her babies standing behind her, and she was brandishing her teeth and making it quite clear that one more step toward her family, and he/she/it was history. That's MY kind of maternal instinct.

Sungold said...

That sounds like a very cool statue. I just tried google to see if I could turn it up - and no matter how I varied the search terms, I kept bumping into the Britney Spears statue. Ugh.

The interesting thing about maternal instinct is that it has so often been thwarted in humans - Sarah Hrdy's book is fascinating on that topic - you might know it? Basically, the long history of infanticide, exposure, wet nursing, etc., shows that culture has trumped nature, more often that not, and often in pretty ugly ways.

At least I held off until after Mother's Day with that particular nugget! I'm not a cynic - really - but studying history sure does tend to destroy platitudes.