Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mothers and daughters

Today, as I opened up my email, the first one to appear was from my mom. It was something she had forwarded to me, in her usual fashion, to remind me that she's thinking of me and loves me. She knows the last several months have been very difficult for me. She has listened to me talk over and over again about my kids, my husband, my job. She's offered advice that usually falls in the realm of, "I'm worried about you," and "Take care of yourself." She's a terrific mom.

She wasn't always that way, though. I remember as a child that she was very tightly wound. A teacher herself, she always warned me, "Don't ever go into teaching!" My mother was a perfectionist in every aspect of her life, one of those moms who went through the early treacherous waters of trying to balance a career and a family. Her career was very important to her. Not that she enjoy it, mind you, but that she was good at it. That she got everything done and done well. We had family dinners every night, extracurricular activities, and a relatively spotless (compared to mine, anyway!) house. What we didn't have was strong connections. I knew my parents loved me, in a logical kind of "well, of course they love their children because that's what parents do" way. But I often didn't feel it.

My mom grew up as an only child of two parents who also balanced work and family. She was frequently left to care for the house and cook dinner at an early age so that her parents could run the family business. Her parents were not affectionate, whereas my mother was a child who desperately needed affection. It's my own speculation, but I believe this combination led her to develop an extremely strong work ethic along with an intense sense of loneliness. She often commented as I grew up about how she never wanted me to be an only child. And I wasn't--I have one brother, two years younger.

It was critically important to my mother that she do more for us than was done for her as a child. And she tried to be more nurturing, more loving. Before the days where books on parenting were a dime a dozen, she ventured into uncharted territory and worked hard to make changes. But like so many things in life, we often fall back to the patterns of what we know. I would describe my own childhood as lonely and isolated; of one filled with feelings of misunderstanding and depression. There were traumatic events of which I didn't feel that I could disclose to my parents, which only led to more separation. It was hard on me and I know it had to be hard on my mother. She had envisioned such a different connection with me, her only daughter. I know this now because of being a mother myself. But as a child, I could have never understood it, never understood her fear and desperation and want for something different for both of us.

As we grow into adults, the gift of perspective is one that reconnects us with our parents and rejoins that which was once tentative. I can't point to a specific time when I came to realize my mother was a person, just trying her best, like me. I can recall, however, many points in the last several years where I have been taught lessons in humility in my own life, moments where I have made mistakes that I would have so quickly called my mother on. But now, instead of calling my mother on her mistakes, I call her to discuss MY mistakes. And always the question I ask is, "How do I live with myself when I make these mistakes?"

I don't believe that age necessarily brings wisdom. Instead, I believe that reflections over our own experiences makes us more wise, more worldly. My mother left teaching many years ago to find her own calling--that of a social worker. I was a teenager when she took the courageous step to leave a career she excelled in to follow the path she had always longed for. And she excels now. Her work is a tremendous source of satisfaction and pride for her. And I am proud of her, likewise. Her wisdom is not a logical, grounded one. Instead, it is one that calls from the heart, the soul. A wisdom that I truly believe is uniquely hers, and I am blessed to receive it and connect with it.

On a recent visit with my mom and dad, she made a statement to me that gave me great pause. She told me I was her best friend. Part of me was afraid; it's a huge undertaking to be someone's best friend, much less your own mother's! But part of me was tremendously honored and humbled. I spent the first twenty years of my life finding faults in my mom, and the last twenty growing to understand her. She's a complex human being. She is different than me in so many ways. But at the end of the day, she is a nurturing, loving woman who cares for her daughter in a way that so many people never experience. As my mom has grown in her capacity of a mother, I have grown in my capacity as a person, and thus in my appreciation of her. Her heart is one of the biggest I've ever known. She has taught me to love and to trust and to believe in and nurture myself and others. And if she's this great of a mom now, just think how fabulous she'll be in another ten years!

My goal as a mom myself is to have the kind of relationship with my children that I have with my mother now. Even if I'm halfway successful, they'll be far better off than most. When I think of my relationship with my mom, I'm reminded of the phrase, "Life is a journey, not a destination." My, what a journey it has been, and how lucky I have been to take it with you.

Thanks, Mom. I love you.

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