I was complaining about a photo album that I had inherited. I said to my son, this is not mine, really, I inherited it from my mother when she died.
I told him, ‘her friends made her this album when they gave her a surprise party for her 65th birthday. It is mostly pictures of her old friends’.
I was looking for some lost ID and searching every shelf and every book in our house in the vain hope that this missing ID would drop out of some book or album.
I was thinking that the album was taking up a lot of space on the shelf, but then I opened it and flipped through it.
Oh! I forgot I would be in it, wearing an oddly shaped yellow sweater that looked itchy. Sitting on the floor with my adorable first child. She was about two years old and sweet and round in overalls.
I took a moment and remembered the party. There was my schizophrenic sister brooding in the background. And look at the big pile of women celebrating my mom and performing some elaborate ceremony with candles that was surely making me sigh inwardly.
I remember all the nice women, and how they saw my mom as a role model. She was cool, she was fun, she had a boyfriend twenty years younger than her, etcetera. But for me, she was my mom, forever loving but at times impulsive and sharp witted. Then, as I turned the pages, I came across my gift to her, a drawing by my toddler and a few pages of typed writing from me.
The writing was in the same shape and tone of my blogs. It was 1994 and I was a scrambling freelance writer. I did not blog. But the style is the same – it was a painfully honest blog about how becoming a mother had changed my relationship with her.
Classic blog material. I have not changed one bit!
And now at my age, almost 60 years, with my daughter just hitting 30 years, the topic of mothers and daughters and aging resonates like a gong. It feels like when the last note of the gong is hit, the sound vibrates out, it lasts longer than you would expect, with different tones and vibrations, changing key as it recedes.
I feel it deeply, as if my spine is tingling and my nervous system has quivered and sent out waves of understanding to my heart.
What did my mom think of my offering? I vaguely remember an ‘Oh Meg’, and now I see why. She might have wondered why we had to have any tension at all? I understand now. I understand how a mother is just a person doing her best who happens to be the sun and the moon to a child.
This is what I wrote at about 32 years old for my 65 year old mother:
I did not believe them when they told me I’d get along better with my mom after I had a baby. Want an old wives’ tale, I thought to myself, not realizing that I had just deposited this piece of reasoning exactly where it belonged: in the realm of the unknowable.
When you say something is an old wives’ tale you are acknowledging the truth of the statement and the fact that it is not entirely explainable. Old women say so, and they know. What do they know?
I surmised that the infant herself would be a good mediator, cooing and smiling and diverting all the adults from their petty bickering. But I did not think that would be enough. I felt as if my mother was always either competing with me or feeling disappointed in me, and that these two extremes would continue with the child in between us. I foresaw my child becoming a pawn on the battle ground of parenting styles and popularity tests.
But I was wrong. When I found myself searching out my mother for affectionate as supportive visits without any of the tension of repressed bitterness, my brain began to puzzle on this phenomenon. I considered all the logical explanations.
Were we both, my mom and I, victims of the power of suggestion? Somebody told us that we would get along more easily so we complied unknowingly? No, that’s not the answer, although the myth may have carried us through some of the more tangled underbrush.
Was it the hormones surging through my body, making me at once the calmest and the largest person I’ve ever been? Yes, it was partly that.
It might also be appropriate here to recall the Mark Twain anecdote about the son who, as he grows older and wiser, comes to appreciate the growing intelligence of his father. However, the hormones were not affecting my mother (I don’t think) and she was, I’m sure, being especially careful not to interfere or boss. I have considered this thoroughly and I am convinced that my mother was as affected by my new parenthood as I was.
She knew that her child had moved into a truly independent sphere, and that our struggle over independence had subsided. It is not that we consciously decided to end the struggle – the decision was made by our bodies. This is the strange and wonderful thing about being a woman. Your body grounds you, you bleed, you have stages of fertility, your body stops bleeding, and you are drawn along inexorably. Pregnancy is the ultimate female experience, in which you passively volunteer you body to an act of nature while your mind stands by in amazement, Your body knows the path.
I did not get along as well with my mother while I was pregnant. There are two main explanations for this: the good feeling hormones of breast feeding has not kicked in; and we had a few boundary battles to finalize. I wanted less interference, and finally the battle culminated over the birth. I decided I would be more capable of calm and concentration if she did not attend my home birth. Mom was devastated by this but it was a good omen that we moved on from this decision without regret or anger.
From then on there has been less stress between us. Of course the traditional explanation is that the daughter now understands what is it like to be a mother and relents on her excessive criticism. This is absolutely true. The understanding is tangible and unfathomable – it is in the old wives’ sphere.
If the daughter changes, relents, understands and relaxes her judgement, the mother also changes. She may not admit this readily but I am prepared to argue that the mother has accepted your membership into the old wives’ party. You have a long way to go but you have taken the first step. You have made the completely insane decision to have a child. A child that will no doubt feel the same way about you as you do about your mother. You love her and she drives you crazy, both unconditionally.
You have, as well, sacrificed you young woman’s fresh body for a working mother’s body. You now have a pregnancy mask of freckles, a saggy stomach that you want to rebuild, breasts that are more loved than they ever were but seem to have personalities, and nipples that will never be pink and virginal again.
And you have done all this willingly and knowingly – accepting these consequences in exchange for an absolutely gorgeous baby that makes every moment of your life joyful. Here you have truly lost your virginity in the woman’s world. (lesbians may be shocked and disgusted by much of this but I think they will agree, especially about the insanity part).
Even your mother-in-law will give you the grudging admiration this deserves. I was surprised to discover that “old wives” are the last people to give advice or pester young wives about parenting choices. The worst offenders in this respect are young men or young couples without children, but with family plans. You may discover from these people the best ways to teach children math by three yours old, or how you are destroying your child’s life with too much or too little love, discipline, sugar, tofu, etcetera.
But old wives know something essential. They know that you are doing the best with the most demanding of situations and that what you need is support.
The result was that suddenly all the old wives in my life became people. I enjoyed their company. I was incredibly patient about their small flaws. There was a respect given to my life and my decisions that I had not felt before. I am not saying that this is good or bad. It is a truism; it just is.
I think that the male half of the partnership has a much more stressful experience. They are not given respect for procreating (it is too easy), and they are suddenly under a lot of pressure to protect the woman and child as well as they can. Which means they should be a full time supportive parent, make lots of money and never be depressed.
Now I understand why me are often so reluctant to enter into this project. They get white hairs and many visits with old wives and relatives. They get diaper bills and their woman partners are tired and less interested in sex. They only get respect if they are making money, and the whole project looks a lot more attractive when the child is a little older and the woman becomes less of a wife. (and, to be honest, more capable of bringing home some cash).
But the breeding woman cannot help herself. She cannot resist this subtle transformation into an old wife. The tendency towards nagging that accompanies eternal domestic chores, the baggy T shirt look, the increased ability to smell scents of every kind with accuracy, it is all of one piece.
Woman can accept the larger scheme of life; our minds vigorously accept that our actions are simultaneously meaningless and all meaningful. The woman is being transported into an old wives’ universe. It is powerful. The change signifies a new found respect, it is something to celebrate. A driving optimism takes over the mother of a small child. Everything will be fine, we’ll make money somehow, everything is all right in our small world. The bright eyes look to you, and you celebrate life with you child.
When I became pregnant my body changed, my mind changed and my life changed. This was an experience unlike any other. My vision of the world expanded and everything became shadowed and detailed. There is a new texture to my thoughts. My emotions unfold slowly and carefully. It feels as if a hand is pressing down on my heart, and I am giving way to this pressure, accepting the weight, enfolding it.
This love is more risky than any I have ever felt; there has been no choice. Somewhere deep inside my heart I recognize this sensation. Whose face did I turn to, my bright eyes smiling in recognition, preverbal? Whose heart beat under my cheek, whose very own sweet milk nurtured me and red womb pulsed life around me?
My daughter’s eyes follow me, her hands mimic mine, and I know that I once traced the aura of my mother with my mind. I studied her face and her strong arms as she worked and talked. Like the sap of a tree, this flows through the layers of my years. Imprinted in my spirit is an intricate blueprint for survival, delicate veins and patterns without apparent logic, sketched with an eternal pen, fool proof.