In a society that is conflicted about motherhood, it is not considered acceptable to criticize a devoted mother's choices. Like Pip in Great Expectations, we are urged to “be grateful to them which brought you up by hand.”
I recognize that my mother likely did her best while coping with more than a dozen pregnancies, untreated mental illness, and psychologically abusive religious teaching. Her best was not good for the children she raised over those decades. I do have happy memories from my childhood, but Mother's Day tends rather to send them scurrying into corners.
This post is dedicated to the many Quiverfull "sister-moms" who are learning as adults how to mother themselves.
Panic clutches my throat in the Hallmark aisle. Its tingling waves lap at my fingertips.
“You’ve always been there for me, Mom.”
Always. Always there.
Swaddling me in your cold anxieties. Suckling me at the breast of your fear. Training me to live like you. Good enough means safe. And it’s hard to be sure. We are sinners, after all, whose self-centeredness sentenced Jesus to execution. I am three when I ask God to forgive me.
You guard me from the godless dangers of Halloween, and Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy. You feed me carefully, anxious about my nutrition. I learn to cook at your elbow. You teach me to shun the mysterious evils of shrimp, pork, excessive sugar, fortune cookies, and blue food coloring. You bake me carob chip cookies and put sesame-honey candy in my stocking.
You are anxious to protect my feminine purity. My pajama pants and girlish blue jeans are deemed immodest and “that which pertaineth to a man”. You replace them with nightgowns and denim jumpers and dress me like Laura Ingalls. You send me to Grammie’s house with a cotton dress for swimming. No matter how far away you are, I feel guilty for watching TV.
You hate your straight hair, so you teach me to curl my own fine waves. My ears stick out like yours. You tell me they are large, so I try to hide them. When you decide to perm my bangs, I pray that the chemicals will not blind me. When my waves are finished, I am relieved that I will not have to learn Braille.
You teach me to sew, but when the puffy-sleeved sateen blouse the color of rose petals fits my budding figure too well, you send it straight to storage to await a less-developed sister. I try to understand your reasons. I really do. Just like the time I got a makeup playset for Christmas and you wouldn’t let me open it. Or when I won The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School and you took me to the store to exchange it. Or the time your dad sent me Anne of Green Gables and you refused to let me read it. Later, I will return a necklace to JCPenney because when I bring it home, you pronounce it too gaudy.
Vaccines frighten you. When whooping cough strikes, watching my brother choking on his own breath terrifies me. I have my shots, so I am safe. Years later, I will make certain my babies are immunized before coming to stay at your house where their aunts have been coughing for months.
My birth must have traumatized you—you deliver the next ten babies at home. Attended only by my young engineer father. I am nine when you have me read the Emergency Childbirth Manual for firefighters. Just in case. I am six when you thrust my newborn sister into my arms as the afterbirth contractions hit you hard. I hold her and try not to watch you writhing in pain in the rocking chair. Not long after, my neck spasms. For months, I cannot turn my head, or sleep through the night. Kids at school ask why I hold my head funny, but I don’t know. You treat the tightened muscles with alternating ice and boiling hot compresses, and by nightly pinning my legs and shoulders to the carpet with your arms and legs while Dad firmly twists my head to either side. I cry.
The government and teachers’ unions frighten you—so you pull me out of school. For the next decade, I fill in workbooks by myself at the dining table. But you are there. A “keeper at home”. Cooking, cleaning, diapering, sewing, breastfeeding, potty-training, praying, gestating, napping. Always there. One afternoon you send us to our rooms to rest and you lie down, too, forgetting the saucepan on the stove. The screeching smoke alarm rouses us all. You extinguish the burning kitchen cabinet while I haul my baby sister from her crib and wait with her in the front yard.
I am both the top and bottom of my class. Sometimes I grade my own work. We skip subjects you can't teach. When you don’t like my attitude, you send me to your bedroom with the “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” quilt and the crystal prism and the cane-seat rocker, where you beat me with a wooden spoon while rainbows dance on the walls. Afterward, I apologize to the whole family for “being a bad example”.
Year after year, I take my example seriously. I dutifully make you cards and buy you gifts. When you are sick, I bring you snacks. I write letters at your bidding and sign my name. I balance your checkbook. I make clothes for you. I cook when you can’t. I learn how to teach my siblings. I bathe them, braid their long hair, sew their nightgowns and pinafores, push them on the swings, watch them at the beach. When you give birth while our old plumbing is broken, I take your bloody linens to the laundromat. I do the grocery shopping for twelve. I change a thousand diapers. When you have a breakdown, I pack your suitcase. I care for six of your children for a week while you are out-of-state. I do it again when I have two infants of my own.
“Saying thank-you hardly seems like enough...”
“I can’t imagine a force more powerful…”
“We’re lucky to have the special kind of relationship we do…”
What the fuck, Hallmark?
A thousand miles of distance couldn't keep me from feeling you always there, needing something indefinable from me.
We did have a close bond. And it took me too many anxious years to realize I could dissolve it.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
I was always there for you.