I told this story of my relationship to motherhood at last weekend’s Mother’s Day edition of Story Sessions at City Winery, Chicago.
You know those little girls who play with baby dolls and start prepping for motherhood from the time they are still in diapers themselves? Yeah, that was not me. At 34, married three years, I was literally bargaining with my husband in six month increments: “Six more months, sweetie. I promise. We can talk about making babies in six months.”
I was never really interested in mothering. Or kids. Or mothering kids. No thank you. Full disclosure, I had a great life and when the reality of having children started to become more tangible, it freaked me the freak out. I worried I was not capable of taking care of another human that depended on me for everything.
And I was really not interested in the labor of motherhood. The cooking, the cleaning, the wiping, the folding, the putting away-ing. Ugh. Nope. I was a feminist. Evolved. Hell, Betty Friedan spoke at my college graduation. I had plans, people.
Then one day I got a call at the office. Was I Sheila? Was Donna my mother? Yes, and yes. My Mom was sitting in an emergency room in Biloxi, Mississippi, alone. My Dad was on his way, but they wanted her to hear a familiar voice until he got there. They believed she had experienced a stroke, she wasn’t herself, they were going to hand the phone to her.
“Mom? Mom? It’s Sheila. Dad is on his way. I’m right here.” The single word my Mom spoke, on loop, was taunting in its inaccuracy. “Okay. Oookkaaaaayyyyy. Ookkaayy.” Except, she wasn’t okay. She would never be okay again. It wasn’t a stroke she had, but a brain tumor that had started bleeding inside her head while she played a slot machine, cigarette to her left, Pepsi to her right. (mimic pulling a slot) Ca-ching.
My Mom had right sided paralysis the last year of her life and required total care – bathing, eating, dressing, toileting. The whole shebang. I got real responsible, real quick.
And welcome to one of the great revelations of my life: I was, in fact, capable of caring for another human being. And by caring, I don’t mean in a purely emotional way, but in a mom kind of way – in that sticky, messy, repetitive, smelly, nagging, occasionally oppressive, frosting on a cupcake kind of way. There is a gift in knowing that it was my dying Mom who taught me that lesson.
Motherhood no longer seemed so daunting to me. A couple of months later, I was pregnant.
Our first child was a girl. Our beautiful Donna, named for my mom who had died a few months earlier. She was perfect. So sweet. So easy. So considerate of her older, rookie parents. Motherhood was a dream, potent and primitive in those early days. I felt so damn happy, I barely recognized myself. Folding her little onesies regularly made me weep. Mashing sweet potatoes and peas into ice cube trays so Donna would have lunch at her sitter’s the next day gave me this ridiculous sense of pride.
Then, at 20 months old, my little girl, my baby, was diagnosed with her own brain tumor. Like grandmother, like granddaughter. Word to the wise, if your name is Donna and I love you, get yourself an MRI, stat.
Overnight, I became a Cancer Mom, which is like mothering on steroids. A couple of years after that, I became a Grieving Mom, which really and truly, is light years away from being just a mom.
After Donna died, caring for my infant son, born in the midst of our girl’s third relapse, was what kept me anchored. The responsibility of doing for him what I had done for my mom and daughter gave me a purpose and function that I needed desperately in those early days of grief.
I taught myself how to cook in those months. Growing up on a steady diet of meat, potatoes, canned vegetables, and Kraft Dinner ensured I had a lot to learn. Honestly, the cooking was a distraction from my sorrow. Recipes made sense and were orderly. In the kitchen, I could control the outcome.
I never bargained for any of it. The things I imagined would be difficult about motherhood were the things I pined for, the things that kept me sane, the things that were easy. Mundane labor was my lifeline. I fought the idea of motherhood, never realizing what a blessing it was, how fleeting it was, underestimating its power and my capacity.
Fast forward a few more years, and I became an Adoptive Mom. Another in my growing list of qualifiers to motherhood. My husband and I, probably too old and too sad to make more babies the traditional way, chose to grow our little broken family through adoption.
We thought of it as a kind of sacred pact. We agreed, with the total sincerity and earnestness that Lake Shore Liberals are lousy with, to raise another woman’s child as our own. I think, because of our grief, we believed we could more easily empathize with the loss a Birth Mother would feel.
My naivete astounds.
It turns out that no matter how well acquainted you are with grief and loss, when you grapple with the reality that another mother gave her child to you, well hells bells. That right there will mess with you.
As I cared for my youngest, knowing full well it would be my last time at the baby rodeo, the simple tasks of motherhood that had previously brought me joy or solace, instead woke the beast of my Catholic guilt. With every diaper change, every bottle, every bath in the kitchen sink, my immense gratitude that I got to care for this little bundle was tempered with the reality that another mother did not.
Another mother, because of some pretty sucky life circumstances, couldn’t change that diaper, couldn’t warm that bottle, couldn’t rinse the soap off the chubbiest baby bum I had ever seen.
In retrospect, sometimes I think about my pre-baby days and wonder if I had an unconscious inkling of what lay ahead and just kept putting motherhood off, unable, in some cosmic way, to deal with the enormity of what was to be for me.
So, um, yeah, Happy Mother’s Day, folks! For me, this day is an endurance event. 24 hours chock full of feeling all the feelings. My annual ode to perseverance. So, lift your glasses with me, let us toast to motherhood, with all its qualifiers, all its joys, all its sorrows, all its losses, all its bounties, and all its labors. Here’s to the mothers. I salute you.