Sometimes it seems hard to reflect about mother, motherhood and the powerful, indelible imprint mothers leave on their children and families. Sometimes, such reflection seems insufficient and invasive and even impossible. Who are we to think we understand our mothers? Who are we to think we understand the mothers of our children?
We men, after all, have no clue about their inner life, unable even to catch a glimpse of our own inner life. There is no school for motherhood (or for fatherhood either, for that matter) and yet parenting is the most important role and responsibility we can find and face. There are indulgent mothers, always ready to defend their child even when s/he is indefensible. There are controlling mothers whose greatest fear is that their children will embarrass them in some way, and leave them writhing in agony in public reputation. There are generous mothers whose cooking, cleaning, gardening, sewing and bathing of their children, smothering them with kindness and joy, hope and dreams has no limit. There are mothers-general who engender a marching obedience to their every order, blindly and blissfully commanding their own mini boot-camp for little ones, so careful are they to "protect" their children from their own mis-steps, cowering behind perfection as their last and only haven of security, a faux security that they will not and cannot see. There are mothers whose own lives are their 'statement' to their children, through their careers, their canvases, their volunteering, their organizing and leading outside the home, so that their children 'see' and 'appreciate' them as public figures, not as homemakers. There are mothers who retain their perception as reality of a competition with their own mothers, all the while seeking something unattainable, their mother's public acclaim, through their own mothering. There are also mothers who act on their firmly ensconced belief that they married "beneath" themselves, and spend the rest of their lives inflicting their own embarrassment in "settling" not only on their spouses but on their male offspring. There are mothers who know they "won the lottery" in their choice of husband, and who, for the most part, reinforce that belief and perception every day, in their sunny approach to all of the many threats and challenges brought by their children and their lives, including their trophy partners.
And, in some way, each mother brings with her some of all of these "archetypes" ready, at a moment's notice, to intervene with a band-aid, a hug, a cup of cocoa, a trip to the emergency department after a child's fall, a phone call to the principal after some disciplinary action against her child at school, or even a 'lecture' on the morality of how to treat a bully. What seems common regardless of the nuanced style of each mother, is the unwavering commitment to "serve" the child under whatever exigencies in which the child finds him or herself enmeshed. And that service seems inexhaustible, like a well that never goes dry, no matter how tired, over-wrought, despondent, disappointed, depressed or angry she is.
Mothers' voices, include their sighs, and the way they hold their mouth, and the way they put their hand on their hip, the way they roll their eyes, their every gesture and response is indelibly imprinted on the memories of their children. It is their whole being that is microscopically memorized and learned as the first imprint on the child's hard-drive, forever embedded in his consciousness, and later his unconscious, as the driving beat of how the universe really works. The level of energy to plant the garden in late spring, to pick the raspberries in late summer, to smock the dress of the new baby, her own and her friend's, to clean and redecorate every room in the house, to sing the hymns on Sunday in the pew, to judge the town drunk....it is the intensity and the persistence and the eventual predictability of her person that becomes the first road-map for 'how' to be in the world.
And this road-map is very different from the map being drawn by her partner, and seemingly her map overshadows his less intense, less judgemental, less 'engaged' and at the beginning less important pattern. Only later, does her intensity become a matter of some reflection, anxiety and doubt, perhaps even fear, and his map a more palatable and sustainable path.
It is mother's intensity that masks her own insecurities, her own fears, and her own anxieties; yet, this little secret is unavailable to her young child, at least until she reaches adolescence. And in too many kitchens, these insecurities dominate as if they were the 'elephant' in the room, never to be noticed, permitted a safe place and honoured, to be shared by all, in a spirit of common human vulnerability.
Only too late long after she is gone, through relocation, estrangement, or perhaps even death, does mother find a home of clarity, appreciation and reciprocal love in the hearts and minds of her children. Only much later, when the 'dust has settled' from the intensity of child-rearing-linked to career development (given that most mothers now have at least two workplaces) does the child look back on those little gestures of support, of disdain, of encouragement and of critical judgement with both a pang of pain and an even deeper consciousness of gratitude.
For some of us, it is more difficult to find the gratitude than the resentment. Mothers, after all, know us sometimes too well, and find us sometimes too hard to handle, and sometimes resort to measures they would reject if they had been less stressed themselves in the heat of the moment. And, only after we have treated our own children less than gently, less than lovingly and less than kindly are we able and willing to forgive our own mothers for their less than gentle interventions. And, not only to forgive those seemingly unkind and painful moments, but to begin the process of appreciating the risk she took when she entered into our life with all the force of her being, because she believed deeply and sincerely in the point she was making, otherwise why would she have exerted so much energy in making it.
She could have, in those moments, remained silent, and let us find our own way, but her need to coach and to counsel and to participate over-ran her need to remain silent. And there is no other motivation to her intensity than her love, linked to her own sense of self-respect, and her dignity and worth in the act of intervention with her 'own' child, regardless of how much her engagement might or would be misunderstood, resented, resisted and even rebelled against.
It was our mothers who saw the brink that we found ourselves teetering over, and stood on that brink with us, when there was really no one else there. Father was off working, making a living, 'bringing home the bacon' as he was programmed to do. Mother was both watching and holding out a hand for us to clutch, if we chose, to hold us back from falling off the cliff, when the wind and the sheer thrill of the danger were beckoning us over.
So there is this dramatic paradox to our mothers. They know we have to find our cliff; they know they have to walk beside us when we are in most danger; and they know that they are unable to do more than be present and available when they most want to take our place in our danger. In loving us, they have to let us find our dangers, and our limits and our mountains, all the while knowing that they cannot love us out of those dangers, only through them, hopeful that we can and will emerge at least only partially scathed, and not destroyed. In such moments, they have had to rely on their previous moments of 'mothering' that prepared us for those greatest challenges and risks, and that they had an intimate and irreplaceable role in our apprenticeship as risk-takers.
So our mother's childhoods, wherever and however they were spent, become significant histories to help us understand our own development. How and when they met their partners, whom they dated, which subjects they did well and which they avoided in school, which potted plants they poured their alcoholic drinks into at the formal dances in the King Edward Hotel, while attending nursing school, which beach and rock outcropping they liked best in Five-Mile Bay for their picnics, which dinner guest they most looked forward to spending time with....these are all significant finger signs along the road to our adulthood. And we cannot forget their appearances, first as children, and later as adults, when we encounter moments that evoke those signposts.
While living in this moment, we are also intimately connected to all of those moments when our mother was "there" beside us, sometimes when we least wanted her to be there, sometimes when we most wanted to leave and join our friends, and sometimes when we had no choice. And only long after she has left us do we turn around from our seemingly interminable walk "away" and reflect on just how integral she is to who we are, how we think and do things, what we appreciate and denigrate and how and for what we dream.
There are so many empty spaces in our lives in which there might have been words, gestures and communications of appreciation, starting with our mothers, opportunities that we have missed, ignored, avoided or even resisted. And it is our failure to fill those empty spaces with our thanks and our joy and even our hurts that continues to plague us with our own incompleteness, and our own omissions and our own insecurities.
And, on this mother's day 2014, fourteen years after the death of my own mother, her intensity and her commitment and her willingness to take risks that most mothers around our neighbourhood would have studiously avoided, and did, are her most compelling and most appreciated gifts in my life. And for her part in my life, I am finally willing and able to be grateful, and let that gratitude trump all previous resentments.