It’s mother’s day. I hope those of you who are mothers are having a restful day, spent just as you would wish. The older I get, the more I realize this holiday (same with father’s day) is really a loaded situation. It can be joyful or filled with sorrow. It can be a day of celebration or a day of obligation. It can be lonely. It can be overwhelming. It can be everything you always hoped, and, like many special occasion days, some times it can end up as a let down.
Growing up I loved mother’s day. Sundays were already family day for us, and my parents loved to do things up for special occasions. Obviously, mother’s day was one of those special days. Some times we would drive the hour to my maternal grandparents house to celebrate with them. We would attend their Baptist church service, then take everyone out to The Round Table for a good old fashioned southern spread. The Round Table was fixture in that part of the state. All the food was placed on lazy-susans set down in the middle of the tables. I LOVED IT! Fried chicken, rice and gravy, biscuits, butter beans and snap peas were my favorites. You just turned the gizmo around until you got to what you liked and load up your plate. Those mother’s days were fun, for sure, but more reserved and quiet. My mother’s parents were already quite old (both born in 1893) by the time I came along.
When we stayed home, my dad was always in charge of the mother’s day lunch, which was served outside unless it was raining. Usually he would grill and we might have potato salad, a green salad and fruit with some kind of sweet at the end. Once I was old enough, I would be in charge of dessert and loved to make my grandmother’s chocolate pound cake or my mom’s 1,2,3,4 cake. Dad loved corn-on -the-cob and even though it was a little early in the season, if he could find it he served it. We had special wooden plates reserved for meals when we ate food grilled outside, and cute little green plates shaped to fit one ear of corn nestled inside where it could bathe in melted butter. We always used cloth napkins because my mother didn’t care for paper, and she and her sister (my Aunt Margaret) often made fun, colorful napkins for outdoor dining.
My dad would bring home roses for my mom (yellow) and I’d make a card for her at school and my sisters and brother would buy her small gifts/cards and we would just laugh and have fun and enjoy the day together. All of my memories of such days were of laughing and carrying on. My father was the chief photographer and always wanted to have formal pictures taken right after church in our Sunday best, before we changed into our “play” clothes. He would orchestrate each shot. The last one to be taken was always just the two of them. One of my older sisters was always in charge of taking that picture.
Every year was the same. That’s one of the things I loved about my family growing up. As my sibling got older (they are 12, 10 and six years older than I am), went to college, and moved out on their own, the crowd might be smaller, but no one forgot mother’s day (or father’s day.) If they couldn’t be there, although they often came home that weekend, they made sure their greetings were sent in plenty of time to be placed on the table for my mom to open and enjoy with those of us present. Everything in my family was about tradition. There was always a certain way we did things. I found it immensely comforting to be able to predict how a holiday or special occasion would unfold. Even knowing what to expect did not take away from the magic.
On mother’s day 1990 I decided I really wanted to be a mom. Prior to that I had hoped to have a family at some point, but hadn’t feel I was ready or that we were ready. My then husband was in law school and I worked to support us. This was his second graduate degree and he had yet to be out in the world working, so I had been the sole bread winner since we married in the fall of 1987. Also, I thought waiting til 29/30 to have a child seemed like a good idea. By that time, we would be married over five years, he would be finished with his post grad degrees and getting settled into his career. We both liked the idea of making a plan and being prepared. What I was not prepared for was the way I suddenly felt as I heard the sounds of a young family walking around our little neighborhood on that Sunday.
It was not unusual for our neighborhood to be filled with families walking about on weekends. It was the coziest of places – a quiet, tree-lined street of tiny 1940’s cottages and small homes, tucked away from the main road, but close to the university. At the end of our street was a sweet little park. So while the scene was not unusual, my reaction that day was totally unexpected. Most of the time I never really noticed what was going on outside when I was inside the house. I guess that’s one of the reasons I was so taken by surprise.
The law student was in our living room studying and I was lying with my head at the foot of the bed, which stood next to an open window, reading. It was a perfect spring day in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you could still smell the fresh mowed grass from the day before. As was typical for me, I was pretty lost in my book, a mystery by Dick Francis if I recall correctly, when out of the blue I was suddenly aware of the sound of a baby crying somewhere outside. It wasn’t a wailing cry or even that screaming cry of hunger. It was more like whimpering frustration, and a bit like a cat cry. It stopped me cold. I moved over to the window, pulled the curtains back, and stared out at a little family approaching our yard. The dad stopped pushing the stroller to check on what was ailing their baby. He leaned down, picked up the tiniest little swaddled creature I had ever seen and handed it ever so gently to the mom. She stood there looking at her child, smiling, then began to sway, only slightly, in the most even and easy way you can imagine. I remember thinking it looked so natural, so fluid. Although I could see her lips move, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I have always assumed she was singing or humming softly. Soon the cries subsided, and the mom and dad leaned in together to planted a sweet kiss upon their baby’s head. As the mom tucked the baby back into the stroller I caught my breath. My heart began to ache. Painfully so.
I turned over onto my back, lying there quietly for several minutes. At some point I noticed a salty taste in my mouth and realized I was crying. I felt confused. Kinda stupid really. I didn’t understand why I had been so effected by what I had just witnessed. I spent years baby sitting when I was growing up. I didn’t hate it, but I can’t say I loved it either. It was simply a way to make some extra spending money. I always thought I would be a mother, some day, but I had never been one to feel any kind of intense rush of emotion when I saw a baby or a mother and child. However, in that moment I knew I wanted more than anything else to be a mother, and I could not bear it if I had to wait another two or three years.
Fast forward one year, and I was eagerly awaiting the birth of my first child, due in one week. I had no idea if it would be a girl or boy. My parents came up for mother’s day, and I remember thinking it would be so nice to celebrate with my mom again for the first time in many years. They were going to stay with me until the baby came because the law student would leave the next day to start his second summer internship with a law firm in D.C., living up there with his parents until the baby came. We all felt it would be best if I had someone with me until I went into labor. My parents surprised me by making the day more about the fact that this was my first mother’s day, even though I was still pregnant, than it being about my mother and her day.
That was 27 years ago. I had another daughter in 1993 and a third in 1997. We moved from idyllic Charlottesville to Westchester County, NY when the law student graduated with honors and accepted a big law firm job in NYC. My marriage became rocky after the arrival of number two. When number three was nine months old, I learned her father had taken up with the young new hire he had been assigned to mentor. That was the first time he left. The second time was two years later, six months after my father died and one month after we moved to Massachusetts so he could take a new job. The third, and final, time was another two years later.
Between 1991 and 2001, my mother’s day experiences moved quickly from happy, cozy celebrations with my growing little family, complete with breakfast in bed and cards scribbled on in precious toddler “script”, to the older girls asking their father frantically the day before at 5PM, when he finally came home from either playing golf or “working”, “can we please go now to get mommy a present and card? We’ve been asking you all week.” He always seemed embarrassed or sometimes annoyed at having to be reminded. I always assured them they needn’t worry. They were present enough for me. But what I knew, and he either didn’t care to understand or just didn’t get it, was that their world at school was all about mother’s day for almost two weeks leading up to the event. In nursery school cards and sweet little home made gifts were worked on. In elementary school it was all the talk – what their friends were doing for their mother’s on Sunday and how their dads were helping. By the time he left for good, mother’s day had become a day I dreaded. His attitude made me feel as if I were a burden. The girls were more often than not disappointed and crushed.
Once we were left to our own devices, the girls still looked to their father for help preparing for mother’s day. That was usually a mistake. Often he couldn’t be bothered or was just too busy. The first year I was officially a “single mom”, a kind women from church asked if she could take the girls for an outing the week before mother’s day. I am not sure how she knew they needed it, but she gave them the chance to pick out a card and took them to make little gifts at a pottery studio, all at her expense. And we weren’t even close friends. She did the same for a close friend of mine who also became a single mother around the same time.
Eventually the girls took it upon themselves to figure out a way to prepare some kind of breakfast for their exhausted mom on mother’s day. Wanting to help and take some of the pressure off, I would prepare my coffee the night before so they could just flip the switch and “make mommy’s coffee.” I would act all shocked and happily surprised the next morning when they dragged me downstairs to the kitchen. As they got older, they began to walk to Starbucks to get me a coffee and scone for breakfast.
I have kept each and every card the girls have made or bought for me every birthday and mother’s day. I have framed their little hand prints made in nursery school and the poems written in kindergarten and first or second grade about why they love their mother. I will always be eternally grateful for the gift of motherhood. I cannot imagine my life without those three girls. Yet, while all of these memories are dear to my heart, some are tinged with emotions that are difficult for me to talk about.
When I started this journey, I never once imagined how it would unfold. I mean, who would even entertain the idea that they might end up raising their children alone without any help or encouragement from the father? For so many years when I heard women talk about how they had a good working relationship with their former spouse, father of their children, and how he would take the children to give her a break the entire day before mother’s day, just because, and make sure the kids had flowers or candy or cards or things to prepare for her breakfast I would become enraged. I allowed those feelings of resentment and anger to simmer in me for far longer than I should have.
As I think about it today, I feel embarrassed. I tried so hard not to let my resentment and disappointment show. I never wanted my children to think I wasn’t happy to be their mother or felt for one moment that I wished I hadn’t had children. But after a while, all those feelings I worked so hard to keep bottled up began to color my enjoyment of days like mother’s day. There came a time when I was just too tired and overwhelmed with single motherhood day-in and day-out and all the years of doing what needed to be done, feeling like I always had to be the bad cop because there was no one else there to take on that role and give me a break just once in a while. All I longed for on mother’s day was peace and quiet and alone time – just time to myself in my garden to dig, maybe drink some coffee on the front porch and listen to some classical music.
Eventually all three were either away at school, or had graduated from college and lived on their own, therefore no longer constantly needed my attention and help. As the years went on, I saw less and less of them on a daily basis. At first I reveled in my freedom. I missed them tremendously, but I also felt grateful to have less daily responsibility for other people. The last two years I lived in Massachusetts, the older two had settled down in jobs and apartments in the greater Boston area and I was able to enjoy them every now and then either at home or where they lived. It was so easy to get together. The youngest was in college in Connecticut. No one was home with me, but no one was too far away either.
Now I live four and a half hours, without traffic, from two of my three children. While the third one has lived with us this year as she transitions back into school full time after taking time off, it has been hard to negotiate living with a 20/21 year old who, until recently, did not have her license and resented the heck out of the fact that she had to live at home, and depend on me for her transportation, while all of her friends were away at college anywhere but here. It is complicated because I know she is grateful and her anger is really about the choices she made that brought her into this situation, but still we have had a very bumpy road this year. Today she really put in a wonderful effort for me. My heart was full of gratitude.
This isn’t my first mother’s day away from some or all my children; I have spent mother’s day alone while all three were away at school, but this is my first mother’s day away from the home where I raised them. This is really the first of many mother’s days for me as a mother of grown and independent young women. Within the next five years, it is likely at least one of them will become a mother and have a family of her own. My life has taken all kinds of turn the past couple of years and, as things have unfolded, I have realized that I spent too much time while my children were growing up holding on to anger and resentment and wishing for freedom. It took me too long to let go of feeling let down.
Today all I wished for was to see each of their smiling faces and their delight in having me sit at the kitchen table while they tried their very best to put together a breakfast their “mumsie” would enjoy. It’s been kind of melancholy for me today.
I love my life, don’t get me wrong. I have been so very lucky. I have had many amazing experiences, some truly wonderful and some pretty tough, but each one has made me the person I am today. I prefer not to live with regret, but I do wish I had been able to sit back more and just take in some of those moments that didn’t turn out exactly as I had hoped when my children were growing up. I hate to think any one of them would wonder if I really enjoyed being a mother, because I honestly feel it was a privilege to raise them on my own.
So, to all the mothers out there, I hope your day was blessed.
And thanks again for dropping by. I am always happy to hear from visitors, so don’t be shy. Drop me a note.
Until next time…