Learning, Un-Learning, Re-Learning: Mothering

My grandparents on their wedding day, their attendants on the outside edges of the picture.

Short and square, she could barely see over the edge of the steering wheel, but that size-five-foot managed to reach the accelerator with exuberance and commitment. My mother’s mother learned to drive just before her 60th year, and with every outing, attempted to make up for all those years of deprivation. Putting her large, General Motors vehicle in reverse, she would back out of the driveway at 30 mph, turning her car and her mind toward the street and the day ahead. This image of my small grandmother behind the wheel of a car is one of the strongest ones I carry to this day, fifteen years after her death. She was a woman of indomitable will, a gifted business person and from all I can gather, pretty much an absentee mother.

She had four children in four years and was often so completely overwhelmed by motherhood that she literally could not speak for weeks at a time. Fortunately, she had extended family nearby, maiden aunts who loved her kids and made themselves available when needed.

And were they ever needed. Nonnie went to work, you see. Her husband drank too much and gambled too much and they all needed the stability of a regular paycheck, so she did whatever she could find to do. And to tell you the truth, I think it was a relief to her. She never quite ‘got’ the whole mothering gig, although her children adored her, and hung on every word she said to them. The message my own mother got was this one: daughters take care of mothers. And that is exactly what my mother did during most of her growing-up life: she took care of Mother, standing between her parents when Grampa came home drunk, cleaning up his messes and their home, looking out for her siblings.

So when it came time for my mother to be a mother, she very deliberately did a lot of it differently. She never worked outside the home, choosing instead to nurture and support her husband and her kids by becoming the quintessential 1950’s housewife. She was a gracious hostess, a creative seamstress, a committed volunteer at church and school. One thing, however, remained exactly the same: the message she passed down to me — daughters take care of mothers.

And I got it. Oh, yes, I got it.

Mom, me and Dad when I was about two.

And I’ve spent a lot of years trying desperately to un-get it. At a very early age, I became a primary support system for my mother’s emotional health and well-being. It was not intentional, it just was. I was confided in, worried over, instructed in the ways of womanhood-according-to-mid-20th-century-conservative-Christianity, and generally expected to understand things that were far beyond my age or emotional capacity to understand. And I was a sponge for all of it, adoring my beautiful mother and wanting to be just like her.

Only, I wasn’t her. I was me. And it’s taken a lifetime to learn how to differentiate myself from her expectations and to find the courage to be the person God designed me to be, not the person my mother wanted me to be. This is a lesson I am still learning, on this the 68th anniversary of my birth. Still.

I hope the message stopped with me. I pray the message stopped with me. I was given the immeasurable gift of two glorious daughters, just 22 months apart, and then a son 30 months later. And while they were little, I carried around with me the image given me by my mom — stay-at-home, do-the-meals-and-the-laundry, be-sure-your-husband-is-happy-and-your-children-well-behaved. But I knew very early that I did not want that hand-me-down message to come out of my mouth or out of my unspoken expectations for either of my girls. More than anything, I wanted them to be their own unique selves.

Our three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1.

I did not mother them perfectly — not even close. I loved my kids more than life, but I often felt overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood. And I often felt more than a little bit lost. I hungered for adult companionship, for creative space, for more sleep! I often felt like a complete failure, impatient, distracted, inadequate. But one thing I did well — I enjoyed the ways my children were different from me and from one another. They were fascinating to me!

Even when I felt confused, even when I wondered if they’d live to see adulthood without killing one another, even when I wanted to walk out the front door and never look back — I was intrigued by who these small people were, each one so totally themselves. Yes, I was overbearing at times and yes, I sometimes expected too much from them. But this much I knew, right into my bones: I was their mother, they were my children. I was responsible for them — they were not responsible for me.

How could they be? They weren’t me. As I look back on those years, I believe that insight was a gift of grace, given to me by God, primarily through the gift of my marriage and our experience of living far away from family during those crucial early months of our married life. It didn’t come to me from my own experience of being mothered, nor from my mother’s experience of being mothered. And I hope and pray to God that this insight is the one that I communicated to my daughters, and not the one that came to me through our mysterious system of familial osmosis.

I’ve written here and elsewhere about my abiding love and admiration for my mother and my gratitude for the ways in which she and my father created such a remarkable and rich family life for me and my brothers. But this particular piece, this expectation of reverse-mothering-for-daughters — this does not land on any gratitude list. It’s been a difficult piece of my personal story for decades and I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.

So I find it more than a  little bit ironic that now, at the end of my mother’s long life, after years of my own heavy-duty reflective work on this complicated piece of our story . . . I am indeed responsible for my mother’s well-being. I have a hunch I had to un-learn my grandmother’s and my mother’s version of daughters take care of mothers in order to finally be able to do that in a whole and healthy way. Time will tell . . . and grace, too.

All of us, spring of 2012. My daughters and DIL are doing such good mothering!

Joining with Emily Wierenga’s weekly theme, this week the prompt is ‘mother.’

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Comments

  1. Love will tell, too. It’s one of my favorite verses…”Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” I Peter 4.8 It’s God’s love for and through me that equips me to forgive my parents (and myself) for the parenting mistakes we all make in messy, broken lives.

    Where would any of us be with Grace!!!!

    What a beautiful family you have, Diana.

  2. We always have to look out for this temptation to try to mold our children into a mold we have chosen for them. I am glad that you are shedding that chains and being your own person. Your Mom was a beautiful woman!! Happily visiting from Emily’s for I have the honor of linking-up after you.
    Much love XX
    Mia

    • Yes, we do, Mia. It’s tough for all of us, I think. Partly because we love our children so much and want the best for them. So then we start believing the lie that we always know what’s best for them — and only God and that child truly knows those things. We can surely give them loving parameters of right and wrong, instruct them in the ways of God and pray for them daily. But beyond that, they need room to be who God designed them to be.

  3. Oh Diana,
    You write all of this out so well, so beautifully. I am rejoicing with you for your mother, your children and for all of the ways that God has instructed your heart through your own mothering. You are a wise one, dear friend, and I love to hear the stories of your heart.

  4. Oh, my. This touched my heart more than you will know. I was my mother’s sounding board growing up, knowing things I never should have known, and while I love my mother deeply, I am still trying to figure out what a normal mother daughter relationship should look like and how to be just a daughter.

    Thank you for this, and the encouragement to make this generation a healthy one. (and I have 3 girls just about the same distance apart as yours – 5, 3 1/2, 1 1/2 )

    Thank you!

    • Yes – Brenna, this was it. Being a sounding board, or as I said to Charlotte – a confidante. And the more we search for health in every generation, the better off our families will be.

  5. Charlotte says:

    I can relate so well to your blog. My mother was 17 when I was born. She expected me to make up for her cold parents and for my Dad’s drinking. She was and always has been very needy. Now she is 82 and in the nursing home and I am in charge of her care. At times it is very hard to know if I am doing enough and at times I know I have done too much. She is like a spoiled child.

    • Oh, Charlotte. I hear you. My mom, for most of her life, was pretty aware of her own neediness. Even now, as she sinks into dementia, she is worrying about being ‘a burden.’ So the neediness is part of what I’m reflecting on here. But for me, it was more the level of intensity she expected in our relationship, telling me things as her confidant when I was way too young to hear them.

  6. The happiest of birthdays, Diana.

    I love this beautiful piece … so grateful that my mom, stopped some long lines of absentee parenting.

    This story will help us all think carefully and intentionally about our mothering. Thank you.

    Fondly,
    Glenda

    • I’m glad my mom broke that part of the mold, too. And what I’ve learned by watching my own children and so many others who are coming up after us is that you can be a very present mom AND work outside the home. My grandmother was not particularly present to her kids, my mom was maybe a little bit too present, especially to me. I have no idea what kind of balance I struck, but my kids? They’re doing a bang-up job of balancing things.

  7. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) says:

    I always love what you write Diana, never more than when it is about mothers! There are so many convergences here. Since Mum died I’ve come to understand more why in her case the learn, un-learn & re-learn cycle was short circuited and have an acceptance and peace for both her and my fallibilities most of the time. Tis amazing that God trusts any of us with children really.
    Love the photos, notably the 2 rebels who were not wearing white shirts in the last one!
    xx

    • Thanks so much for your strong encouragement, Jo! Acceptance is a very good thing – and you are right: the gift of children is miraculous. Thanks for coming by – and the ‘instructions’ for the photo were: blue/white/khaki. They came close and they look great. :>)

  8. Mothering can be so full of pitfalls, sometimes it’s hard to look my roll in the face, but I guess self-reflection with a heaping dose of grace, can be a good thing. I love that she sometimes wouldn’t speak for weeks, I thought just the other day, “What if I took a vow of silence for a few days.” My kids would never let me get away with it, though.
    I would love, someday, to hear how your understanding of mothering influenced your pastoring and sprictual direction, I’m finding them to be so deeply intertwined, as thought mothering is a posture that gets lived out in the world, not just in the home.

  9. What beautiful and rich story telling, Diane. And that photograph of your entire family, oh what beautiful faces and hearts there. I am so privileged to know these parts of your story. So much strength and grace and tenderness in the telling. Happy Birthday?? Isn’t there a bit of tender healing in the moving out and away from mom’s and making our own way. I am grateful for what mine gave me and taught me and that she loved me..but I too am re-learning many things which I do not choose to repeat. There is some freedom in that and Grace from God too. Love your write here, friend.

    • Indeed, Elizabeth. We all have to un-learn and re-learn as we mature. And somehow in that process, hold on tightly to what is good and true and release what isn’t. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am always glad to see you here.

  10. Diana, I appreciate your story and the insight you offer here. I, too, am trying to find that balance of mothering. It is such a challenging job. I can relate to much of what you experienced from your mother. The understanding you share is always a healthy example of balance and reason for me. Thank you.

    • Thanks you, Kim, for your kind and encouraging words. And finding that balance is a truly a lifelong job. Many blessings as you navigate, trying to lean into Jesus as you do.

  11. Paul Willingham says:

    Diane:

    I see some parallels in your experience as a parent. I just wish I could have read this 50 years ago when the insight may have been helpful. However, we are proud of our children, their choices of life partners and their children (our grandchildren). They have far surpassed our hopes and dreams for them, in spite of our shortcomings as parents.

    Thank you for sharing in such a thoughtful and expressive manner.

    Paul W

    • Indeed, Paul!! Our children do far surpass our own paltry abilities as parents. Thank God for that truth. And really, if we love our kids and we pray for them, if we try our best to communicate clearly – grace covers a multitude of failings. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a word. I appreciate it.

  12. Diana, this is sobering stuff. I think that in the recent chaos, I let my daughter mother me (because she was so good at it). Not good. Not sustainable. Now I find myself in a position of reasserting myself as her parent. It’s awkward for both of us. But I think it’s the only way forward.

    • I was very good at it, too, and I relished the attention I gained through it. It took about 15 years for me to see that it was not healthy. My mom was my best friend as a teenager – what does that tell you? I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture. I actually think the way we navigated things was pretty interesting. We learned to read books together and pass notes about what we found (especially Catherine Marshall, as I recall!) and Mom was my primary spiritual role model. But when I was younger – that’s when this began. I carried far too much information about her ill treatment at the hands of my paternal grandmother. That information would have been good to share with me as a adult, not as a 10 year old. But as mothers and daughters, we do shift roles somewhat readily through this life, I think. And somehow, we survive. We learn how to sift the good from the not so good and we make shifts inside to make space for new realities.

  13. I need to ponder this for awhile. It’s a difficult transition at times.

    • Yes, Susan. Sometimes it is. At this stage of my life, it is somewhat expected that I should mother-my-mother. But when I (or she) was 7-10 years old? Not so much. For my mom it was sometimes actual physically caring for her mother; for me, it was much more emotionally true.

  14. oh friend. it’s never easy to write about our mother’s shortcomings. because in a sense, we’re always trying to take care of them … to watch out for their feelings, to be loyal, and in some ways this is good i guess. because that’s part of what makes family safe. but there also comes a point when you have to realize you are NOT responsible for their well being and to entrust them to God’s care. i recently had to do this with my father actually. love you so much. thank you for being candid with us. xo

    • No, it’s not easy. . .at all. Thanks for your words of encouragement, Emily. And many blessings as you continue to work this whole boundary thing out in your own family setting. We all need to do it, for many different reasons, and it’s usually painful. And then there comes the time – like I’m in right now – when you truly are your parent’s caretaker and you must make decisions you never thought you’d have to make. I am so grateful for my brother and for my husband’s sister, because we keep working this whole thing out together.

  15. hanging out on your blog archives tonight for awhile…enjoying myself.
    I resonated here: “I’ve written here and elsewhere about my abiding love and admiration for my mother . . . But this particular piece . . . does not land on any gratitude list. It’s been a difficult piece of my personal story for decades and I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.”

    this helps me see that my statement would have been ” – this way of black and white way of thinking – (if this is right, then that is wrong) does not land on any gratitude list . . .I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.”

    that black and white way of thinking makes it hard for this adult daughter with ADHD (recently discovered) to separate and accept both things about her as being true. This simply statement of yours really spoke to me tonight. God is working and moving in this area and I am slowly seeing it.

    • Thanks for commenting on this old post, Carol – it made me go back and read it. I like what I said here. And I believe it, too. We do have to un-learn a lot in order to learn what is true and good for us. Many blessings to you as you continue to work this truth out in your own life and experience.