My mom finished college at the school her parents chose for her and then taught fourth grade for a year, got married, taught for another year and then spent the next 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, raising four children and running the home. We were her purpose in life.
As a mom, was strict, and she believed in spanking. For example, when my sister was almost two years old, someone left the front door open. My sister wandered out of the house and down the sidewalk past one or two other houses. A neighbor called my mom to let her know. My sister got a “good spanking” so she would learn not to go outside by herself like that. We got spanked for arguing or disobeying. It was mostly when we were small; I don’t think she did it very often once we were in school, although I do remember getting a shockingly hard slap in the face when I was 10.
You might mistakenly think that my mother didn’t like children, but she did. She had loved being a teacher, and she was good at making up games and teaching us things. She took us the library and cultivated our love of reading. She taught my sisters and me to sew and to bake. She took us to museums, taught us about art and exposed us to many types of music and to different cultures. I remember being surprised when I got to college that much of what she taught me wasn’t common knowledge. I still appreciate everything I learned from her.
It was a lot of work, being the kind of mother she was. She made a lot of our clothes. She made three meals a day and cleaned up afterwards. She did all the laundry. She vacuumed and dusted and took us to ballet and art classes and swimming lessons. My dad never helped with any of that. He came home from work, accepted the gin and tonic my mother made for him, and sat down to watch TV. He yelled if we made too much noise.
What was she feeling all that time she raised us? Did she like being a mother? Did it feel like a huge amount of work, or did she enjoy it? I have no idea. Did she see us as developing individuals she wanted to get to know or as things she needed to take care of?
Even though she liked kids, I never felt that she loved me intensely, enthusiastically, the way I fell in love with my own children. In fact, it was after I had my sons and noted the intensity of my feelings for them, that I started to feel unsatisfied with how she related to me. She did give hugs and kisses, but in a reserved way. She said, “I love you,” but in the same tone she told me, “it’s your turn this week to clean the bathroom, and you can’t go over to Sarah’s house until you have finished that and vacuumed your bedroom.” Definitely not in the “I love you to the moon and back” kind of way. Still, when I was growing up, I believed in the way children do, without over-thinking it, that she loved me, the way she said she did. I believed that Jesus loved me too, back then.
The times I really felt loved by my mother were the times I had asthma attacks in the middle of the night. I used to wake her up because I could hardly breathe. She’d get up, give me my medicine, and then take me into bed with her in the guest room. She’d sit with me until she saw I could breathe again, and then she’d fall asleep. I’d stay awake for hours. I realize not that I was experiencing a sort of high from the medication. I felt happy I could breathe and happy to have my mom lying beside me.
I was sick quite a lot when I was little. I’m sure my mother was worried about me. The story she tends to tell, though, when she talks about it, is this one: She and my dad were going on a vacation together for maybe four or five days. I think my grandparents were going too, and that’s why she arranged for some older woman to come stay at the house and take care of us while she was gone. I was nervous. “What if I have an asthma attack?” I asked.
“Then Mrs. M. will give you your medicine,” she told me.
“What if I throw it up?” I asked. I had done that before.
“Then she’ll give you another dose or take you to the doctor.”
My mom tells the story that then I did have an asthma attack and I did throw up my medication, and I was doing it in order to manipulate her and make her come home early. I don’t know; maybe I was. I was eight years old, and I don’t remember much except being afraid of Mrs. M. because she was grumpy. But I remembered hearing the story many times, and what I took from that was the I was a manipulator who tried to keep my mom from having fun. I used my health to get my way. This stuck with me, and I’m sure it’s part of why I have felt so uncomfortable with being sick and why it’s hard to go to the doctor. I’m afraid I’m making too much out of nothing.
She wasn’t always like this, though. She went through a phase when I was 11 or 12 when she decided that everyone needed “mental health days.” When I was in 7th grade, she actually let me stay home from school for a day because I was tired and feeling overwhelmed by all the homework and violin practice and whatever else was stressing me out. This was kind of an exception though. Mental health days disappeared again after 7th grade, replaced by the “tough it out” philosophy.
I don’t know. I can’t really figure out what it meant to her to be my mother, to raise me and my siblings. Maybe she was exhausted all the time. Maybe it was another time and a different perspective on parenting. Maybe she felt the same passionate way about me and my siblings as I did (do) about my sons, but her reserved nature means it wasn’t as visible as I would have wished. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
She wasn’t a bad mother, not at all. I’m not entirely sure why I feel so upset and angry. No, that’s not true. I do have some idea, and it has a lot to do with my teen years–coming up in Part III.