By Joan Brunwasser, Voting Integrity Editor, OpEdNews May 8, 2007
What do you give to your octogenarian mother for Mother's Day that she's sure not to receive from someone else, and that you know will be just her size? I decided that the perfect solution was to write an article about our relationship.
One of the advantages about being the filling in what is termed the "sandwich generation" is that I can simultaneously be my mother's daughter and my children's mother. This gives me a unique perspective from which to view my mother's parenting. My yardstick has drastically changed since motherhood precipitously fell into my lap in the early summer of 1980. Once you hold that small bundle in your arms – in my case, two scrawny babies seven weeks early – you realize the enormity of this never-ending job.
My home birth concluded unexpectedly as my two teeny-tiny daughters were transported to the hospital. When my parents visited them later, my mother's uncensored reaction was, "I roast chickens bigger than that!" With the smaller of the two babies weighing in at less than four pounds, she was not far off. Luckily, massive ignorance, fatigue, and basic optimism allowed me to get through those challenging first months without totally flipping out. Suddenly, I realized that perfection was not a realistic option; simple survival was the goal.
Becoming a parent has made me view my own growing up with new eyes. I now freely admit that I was a challenging teenager. "Challenging" is really a euphemism for annoying, obstinate and argumentative. In my fledgling efforts to establish myself as an independent person, I used varying degrees of responsible judgment. My mother loves to tell stories that supposedly reveal a lot about my character. They are always complimentary, and also often humorous. Here are a few.
Freshman year in college, I typed up and turned in a term paper without making a carbon copy. (The last time I made that mistake.) The professor lost it and gave me an Incomplete, assuming that I had not handed in the assignment. When I received the grade in the mail, I was outraged. I had worked really hard on that paper. It was for a psychology class, and the assignment involved a lot of painful and difficult introspection. When I got back to school after winter break, I went to see my professor and brought along all my notes to support my case. Initially, after looking them over, he offered me a B. I demurred, saying that the paper was the best thing I had ever written and I was not satisfied with that grade. My regular appearances in his office eventually wore him down, and in the end I got an A on both the paper and the class – at least partly, I think, to get rid of me. My mother was thrilled with this example of my persistence (i.e. stubbornness). I'm sure the professor was not.
Another story she loves to tell took place the summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park picking up garbage from the highway off the back of a truck. This was a very prestigious job and all of us college students who worked there needed congressional pull to get hired. That summer was memorable because of the manual work I did, the wide range of people I met, the dog abandoned in the park that I adopted, and my experience of being struck by lightning during a freak thunderstorm. I now realize how lucky I was to walk away from that last one without any permanent physical or emotional damage. I recently read As Luck Would Have It, which included a chapter about a man who was struck by lightning. While most people are not killed, a high percentage suffers serious and permanent damage such as memory loss, headaches, depression, vomiting and vertigo, tremendous pain, and loss of many bodily functions. I am quite blessed to have had no permanent after-effects whatsoever.
That summer, I drove cross country solely accompanied by my new canine companion. Although night was falling when I hit the Midwest again, I decided to keep driving instead of stopping to find a place to sleep. The menacing red light on my dashboard warned that something was terribly wrong with my car, but there were no mechanics at any of the rest stops I passed on the interstate so I decided to soldier on. My car broke down altogether at 3 a.m. as I pulled off the highway in Chicago after driving for 14 straight hours. A guy in a Wells Fargo truck stopped and gave me a ride home. My mother was thrilled that at least I had a dog with me for protection, perhaps desperately reaching for the one positive aspect of this story. If any of my kids had pulled such a stunt, as soon as I picked myself up off the floor I would have grounded them for the next 200 years. Now that I think about it, I'm not entirely sure why she tells this story. I'll have to ask her about it and get back to you.
One major benefit of moving back to my hometown was that my children grew up with regular grandparenting. My mother has been interested in every single new development and change in their lives, and their close relationship continues to this day. When my twin daughters were very small, my mother and I would wear matching Snuglis (a nifty seersucker pouch that held the baby, who would lie face in, literally close to your heart). When we went out for lunch, my rider inevitably ended up with my meal sprinkled on her head. As they grew bigger, we would get out the double stroller and walk endlessly, chatting about nothing special. This normal activity was a wonderful antidote to those many moments spent being an overwhelmed new mother, and I have great memories of this time spent together.
My mom has been extremely supportive of my mothering skills, although we were very different in this regard. Her vote of confidence has meant the world to me. While my daughters were in elementary school there were no evening hours for parent-teacher conferences, so my mother acted as my husband's stand-in. She looked forward to hearing what each teacher had to say, and she would swell with pride and nod, knowingly. Needless to say, the teachers just loved her.
As I have ventured into my uncharted (and unexpected) foray into activism, my mother has always been behind me 100 percent. No new skill or exploit was viewed as too hard, too complicated, or too outlandish for me to accomplish. To her, I was invincible. Why she felt so certain that I could handle these new challenges and responsibilities, I have no idea. Whether it was my original lending library project, joining OpEdNews, attending out-of-town conferences, speaking in public, writing articles, or venturing into producing video clips about election issues – nothing has phased her. Every time I write a new article, she is eager to hear it, even through its many evolutions, and I enjoy reading it to her. There is something so affirming about being able to count on someone to be unconditionally supportive. We all need at least one cheerleader in our corner.
Lately, when I go over to see my mom, I make her sit on the sofa, and I lie with my head in her lap as she strokes my hair and listens to me tell her about kids, family, work, my writing – anything and everything. This came about once when I was particularly stressed out because of family turmoil. I needed that physical closeness and came up with this small adjustment – it used to be her sitting on her lounger and me on the sofa. This new format has been a wild success for both of us. We can be talking about exactly the same thing, but the physical contact and soft touch of my mother's hand make all the difference. When she is stroking my hair, I feel cocooned in love. It is very satisfying for both of us. It reminds me of when she would touch my fevered brow when I was sick as a child. I have always loved her hands, so graceful and cool. I would hold them and trace her fingers with my own. Although I am no longer a child and my mother is no longer a tennis-playing jock, the comfort of that contact still remains.
One of my most prized possessions is a thin gold bracelet that my mother bought for me on the day my son was born. On Wednesdays, we would get together and hang out, culminating in a lunch date. This particular Wednesday, I had a doctor's appointment. It was near my due date, and my mother wanted to buy me a present, so she offered to take me to the local jeweler's. I'm not much of a jewelry person, but at that moment it felt like a very appealing idea. Together we picked out a lovely bracelet made up of links filled with small gemstones that was exactly my taste. I was quite excited about the purchase. When we went to the doctor's office a little later, the ultrasound revealed that birth was imminent, and my son Michael was born later that night.
This bracelet means a lot to me, and is more than just a piece of jewelry. It is a tangible connection between me, my mother, and my son. The links symbolize our intergenerational ties. I wear it every day, and like looking down on my wrist and seeing it sparkle. The bracelet belongs there; it's a part of me.
I am who I am largely because of my mother, and I work hard to pass on my values (and hers) to my children. I spend most of my free time in activism largely because I want this world to be a better place for my children. It is my gift to them, and the dedication that fuels my mission is an accolade to my mother. Thanks, Mom! Happy Mother's Day!