I was not that little girl growing up that knew she always wanted to be a mother. I rarely played with baby dolls and never had interest in babysitting as I got older. Raising children just didn’t seem to be my calling. And that was okay with me.
Even when I married at age 30, children seemed far away – something on the horizon, perhaps, but perhaps not, too. My life was full, and good. I was working, very happy and satisfied with being a social worker, helping older adults cope with the challenges of aging. My career was my identity.
Every six months or so my husband and I would get around to the subject of having kids and every six months or so I would keep putting him off. I had waited a long time to get a proposal, the least he could do was return the favor, and give me time to make a decision about having or not having kids without undue pressure. At least that is what I kept telling myself.
Truth be told, I was not that interested in having little ones. My life was wonderful without them. I loved my work, I loved my husband, and our home together. We traveled and enjoyed a lot of freedom. The idea of losing that to make room for children and diapers and sticky fingers was not one that appealed to me very much.
But life has a way of changing our plans, doesn’t it?
One afternoon my office phone rang. It was a nurse in an emergency room in Biloxi, Mississippi. Was I Sheila Quirke? Was my mother Donna Quirke? Yes, and yes. That nurse was sorry to inform me, it appeared my mother had had a stroke. My father had been informed and was on his way to the hospital. My mother had asked to speak with me.
My heart was racing. A stroke. I knew what that meant. A shiver went through me. My Mom got on the line. Her voice was almost unrecognizable. She said, “Okaaaayyy,” like a question, and kept saying “okay” over and over and over. Except it was not okay. I knew in that moment that things were definitely not okay. Her words were slurred. She did not sound at all like herself.
Over the next few weeks, my family would learn that it wasn’t a stroke that my Mom had suffered, but instead, an undiagnosed brain tumor that had started bleeding out. As soon as she was stable enough to travel, my Mom was flown back to Chicago where she would have surgery to remove the tumor.
It was cancerous. Her neurosurgeon told us bluntly that she would die from it. He was right. And the damage that was caused by the bleeding was irreversible. My Mom would never walk or talk or read or be independent again.
Just like that.
I used to pride myself in how late I would stay at the office to finish up paperwork. It was the dullest part of my job, so I would always put it off until the end of the day when the phones stopped ringing and I could sit in quiet and concentrate.
But when my Mom moved back home, all of that changed, too. At 4:30 on the dot every afternoon, I would leave my office and get in a car to travel to my parents’ home. There was laundry to be done and groceries to be bought and dinner to cook. My Dad would be exhausted from helping my Mom all day, bringing her back and forth to therapies and doctor appointments. He needed me. She needed me.
After five years of facilitating a caregiver support group, I became a caregiver myself. I didn’t even realize it right away, as I was too busy doing. Caregivers do, you see, they don’t really sit around and consider. When the people you love need you, you simply do for them. There is no other option.
One day, about three months into caring for my Mom, all of this hit me. Like a brick wall.
I was spending a Saturday with my Mom, giving my Dad a rare few hours to himself. After I got to their home, I made her bed with sheets I had laundered the night before. I bathed her, helped her use the bathroom, got her dressed, and prepared lunch for us.
I turned around to sit for a moment and realized, like a switch had just been flipped, “Oh my goodness, I think I am ready for motherhood.”
In that moment I understood with a ferocious clarity that the reason I had kept putting off having children was because I feared my selfishness would somehow preclude me from caring for another living being. And yet here I was, caring for another living being, caring for my mother – the one who had cared for me. And I was good at it. And I didn’t feel burdened by it.
I had convinced myself, in putting off motherhood, that I did not have what it took, the selflessness, to put another person’s needs ahead of my own. What I had forgotten to factor in was the love.
All of those things I had feared about motherhood were myths busted by the act of caring for my own mother. Caring was a loving act, an honor, sacred. and I was capable of it, much to my great surprise.
I shared that revelation with my Mom a few weeks later, my motherhood epiphany that I had come to so very late in life, at 35 years old. Her cognition had changed with her cancer, so I don’t know if my Mom ever truly understood the role she played in helping me find my way to motherhood. I think of it as one of her very last lessons to me – a gift of love that would take me through the rest of my years.
There is a great sadness in that for me – that I have only ever mothered without my mother. But then I remember, that were it not for my mother, I would never be a mother. For that I am truly grateful.