In a couple of days, I’ll be celebrating the anniversary of my birth.
Most women my age (and men for that matter) shy away from revealing the number of birthdays they’ve celebrated, but not me. I’ll be turning 41. And while each birthday is a cause for small celebration, this year’s has particular significance for me, as my mother died at age 40. If I make it to Thursday (and all signs indicate I will), I will have outlived her.
I’m sure that having my relationship with my mother cut short has affected all my other relationships, especially with my kids. I don’t have a lot of female friends, and I often wonder how much the lack of a strong female role model growing up has to do with that. I never had particularly great romantic relationships until I met my husband, and I think not having a solid example of a loving relationship affected that too. But perhaps the biggest effect of growing up without a mother was that I thought I didn’t know how to be a mother. I had barely any maternal instinct at all when my first son was born, and as a result, he taught me as much as I hopefully taught him. I think he would agree that I made a lot of it up as I went along. I know that I always felt like my mistakes outnumbered my successes.
When my second child was born, though, I at least had the experience with the first kid to draw on, I thought. This will be much easier, I reasoned. In some ways it was; I was older, in a more stable living situation and had a little more financial stability.
But I continued to have those nagging doubts about this decision or that. I felt like I was frequently second-guessing myself, and couldn't fully trust my own judgment. I didn’t feel like I made as many mistakes, but I didn’t feel the sense of total confidence I expected.
I thought for a very long time that I was insufficient as a mother because I didn't have the guidance and example to follow. But I have lately questioned that thinking. Would I relate to my kids better if my mother had been around? Why did I presume she had all the answers, or would have be a perfect example of motherhood at all times? Maybe I would have chosen not to take her advice. I know from relatives and my scattered memories that she was really into being a mom, maybe more so than I am. Or maybe in different ways than I am.
I was a big fan of the now-defunct TV show "Gilmore Girls." It had a little to do with my girl crush on Lauren Graham, but more to do with my fascination of the mother-daughter relationships on the show. Lorelei and Rory were not just mother and daughter, they were friends. But Lorelei's relationship with her mother Emily was fraught with tension and far from perfect. So where did Lorelei get her mothering skills? She was the polar opposite of her mother, and was better for it.
In her book, ‘You’re Wearing That?' Deborah Tannen writes that "American popular culture, like individuals in daily life, tends to either romanticize or demonize mothers. We ricochet between “Everything I ever accomplished I owe to my mother” and “Every problem I have in my life is my mother’s fault.”
I've struggled lately with whether my shortcomings as a mother have less to do with my mother's early death and more to do with me. I'm also beginning to wonder if they're really shortcomings. I know mothers in modern America are bombarded from all sides with the notion that they're inadequate if they work, stay home, breast feed, bottle feed, put their kids in day care, or stand on their head and spit nickels. In short, they usually feel like they can't do anything right. I'm sure at some point or another, my own mother must have felt that way. She had two older brothers and a younger sister, and was an apparent overachiever, working nights as a nurse while being a mother during the day to three kids.
Maybe she and I would not have seen eye to eye on parenting issues. I can't ever know for sure. But I think I should celebrate my birthday this week without worrying over questions I don't have, and will never have the answers to. Instead of blaming my mother's absence for my imperfections, I'll try to focus on the things I'm doing right, and give her some of the credit.
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