My younger sister was born the summer after I had turned six. When the second semester of school started the following January, our mother returned to her teaching job, and it was my job to come home every other day, alternating with my older sister, and have sole care for the baby from when the nanny left at three-thirty until our mother came home around five-thirty or six o’clock. The situation repeated itself five years later when my younger brother was born, with the exception that with my older sister in high school and me a mere eighth grader, I was on duty for both of the younger ones every day. I was thirty-five years old when Kyle was born and had no doubt as to his physical care. It was second nature to me; I had been doing those things before I had learned to write in cursive.
As for the emotional needs of my son, I had two very solid rules that I had decided to follow: I would not do anything that my mother had done; and do everything that I wished she had, but hadn’t.
As an adult I could see that I had been given my childhood so I could learn what gentle, loving and supportive mothering isn’t, and then seek out and explore what it is. All through my life I was tuned in to parents and their children. Even as a teenager, I read parenting magazines in waiting rooms. I studied for my BA in Adolescent Psychology. I had learned a lot while caring for my two nieces. The ten years I waited for a child gave me plenty of time to study, learn, search, observe, question and understand what I wanted to be as a parent. I have never been silly enough to think that I could give Kyle everything, but I knew that if I gave him enough love and support, then everything else would follow. As he showed more and more of himself to me, it became clear that I was to give him a context in which he could become himself without having to shut down in the way I had to as a child.
My mother turned out to be a much better grandmother than a mother. I could tell that she was trying to heal the wounds of the past and show the caring that she had become capable of. As soon as she knew that I was pregnant, she set about sewing sleepers, blankets and baby clothes which arrived in boxes decorated with her drawings. Even though travel was difficult for her as her MS progressed, she came out to California soon after Kyle was born and did what she could to be helpful. Her artist’s eye marveled at the perfect symmetry of his face, and her teacher’s nature played little games with him to see how he would respond. This continued a year later when she came to visit again. Watching them react to each other was a delight. It eased my soul to be able to connect with her on that level, and put aside all the years of pain and distrust between us.
And then, a wonderful thing happened. One evening, after I put Kyle to sleep in his crib, I came back out in to the living room and sat down on the couch with my mother. I was exhausted. Not that I had been anything except exhausted since Kyle was born (or would cease to be anytime soon), but she started to talk to me in a way that gave me permission to acknowledge my exhaustion. She acknowledged me as a mother, as a person, even as someone she admired, and I felt the barrier I had put up between us begin to come down. I softened enough to be able to stretch out on the couch and put my head in her lap. It was the first physical contact I had allowed between us in years. As she was stroking my hair with such complete love and support, I reached through my feelings of doing the best that I could for Kyle, and I realized that she had done the best that she could as a mother.
I suddenly saw her in the light of my own motherhood. Whatever skills she did or did not have, whatever desire she did or did not have to be a mother, she had clearly struggled with the concept and had done what she could with the capabilities that she had. As I shared this with her, she opened up about her childhood, her doubts, and her fears. And her mistakes.
It did not mean that I could forgive her, but I was able to let go of the anger and the mis-trust I felt towards her. In the light of the unbounded and intense love that I was feeling for my own child, I was able to transcend the past with my mother. It all softened in those moments. I softened. I realized that she was a broken person who did the best she could with who she was. And I saw clearly that my purpose was to assure that the tragedy stopped with her. I would not bring any of it forward and sully Kyle’s spirit. I still would have my two rules for parenting, but not out of a sense of anger at what had happened to me. I would have them in the sense that it was my dharma (spiritual duty) to raise Kyle in the best way that I knew, and I had so many more resources and points of knowledge than my mother had had as a young parent.
Through the years, I wove through my continued growth and the nurturing of my child’s growth. Some of those threads are hard to look at, for there were painful lessons for both Kyle and me, but most of them are beautiful, poignant and heart-warming. All of them are mystical, and shimmer with life and love and hope.