One day I was a young college student, thinking that my mother would always be there to pick me up if I fell down; the next I was a motherless daughter.
In the decade between when I lost her and when I began having children of my own, I had plenty of time to consider what her mothering meant to me. In realizing that only 18 years of memories had to last a lifetime, I soon became aware of what stood out as important, and what would most influence me as a mother.
Rather than any grand gestures, the secure gift of her presence impacted me the most, and I try to give that to my children despite a distraction-filled life.
You see, she was the mom who would stop what she was doing to play board games with rowdy teenagers, or cut our boyfriends’ hair on a tall stool in the kitchen. That’s also where we’d find her when we wanted to talk. Speaking of kitchens, ours was a messy one, papers piled high the counters, yet there was always room for one more person at the table at dinnertime.
Remembering her generosity with her time and her heart made me want to parent the way she did, in a loving and relaxed way. When I became a parent, and my own competitiveness and perfectionism threatened to sink me, I’d remember my mother. If I got wrapped around the axel about my daughter not sleeping in her crib, I’d remember the comfort folding myself into my mother’s soft body in bed when I didn’t feel well. When I’d get embarrassed that my son acted silly in class, I’d remember a mother who never made me feel bad for the low marks on my own report card under the heading, “Exhibits Self Control.”
I could remind myself that sleep methods would come and go, and report cards would end up tucked away in a folder somewhere, but being a present mom, not a perfect one, could last a lifetime, even after I was gone.
What she gave me most, in life and in death, I believe, is perspective. The perspective to realize that a child in the bed now and then, does not lead to an adult in the bed. That, like me, my kids would someday learn to exhibit self control. And that while I felt much calmer with clutter-free countertops, clutter wouldn’t detract one bit from my kids’ childhood.
And, unlike my friends who still had their mothers. I knew that it could all vanish in an instant.
Sad as that sounds, those who experience loss are often given this unsought gift of knowing what is important. Instead of running myself ragged trying to construct for my children the “perfect childhood,” lest it all be ripped away in an instant, perspective gave me permission to create tiny rituals and play to my strengths, which is what my mother did.
Mom would pull a large jar of Peter Pan peanut butter out of a brown paper grocery bag and place it wordlessly on the counter. It was a silent challenge. Whichever kid noticed first would grab the jar, open it, and scoop a finger full of peanut butter out, earning bragging rights. Skiing in the alps, it wasn’t, but it taught me that the tiny rituals are what knit families together. I may be much less laid back than my mom was, but I can institute Ice Cream for Breakfast Day on the first snow day of the year, make up silly sayings as I drive around town with my kids, tell the same old stories as I unpack the Christmas ornaments each year, and stay up later than I want to if my teenager finally feels like talking.
Mom was a lackluster costume maker and a mediocre gift giver. But she could decorate the heck out of a house and patiently read the same chapter books over and over. She practiced hospitality in our home and wherever she went with her big smile and ready laugh. Most importantly, she saw her three kids as distinct individuals, not just extensions of herself.
I can't bake cookies worth a darn, and the family is much happier on nights when Daddy cooks dinner. I get grumpy when the house is a mess, and you wouldn't want to talk to me in the morning before I've had my 3rd cup of tea. My hair braiding skills are just as bad as my math ones. But I can find humor in most circumstances, I apologize often, and I'm pretty good at seeing someone else's point of view. I am extremely loyal, will keep confidences, and am a generous ice cream scooper and snuggler.
The way I remember my mom-- she was a flesh and blood person who loved hard and didn't try to do or be all things to all people. She was enough.
The gift of her presence, and the impact of tiny rituals, not grand gestures, whether they were based on her religious faith or even a silly jar of peanut butter are what I remember most, and what helped me formulate my own To Do/To Be list as a mom.
1) Be present
2) Have Perspective
3) Play to your strengths
Of course, some days are easier than others.
What would your To Do/To Be list look like?