As a child, I loathed Mother’s Day. This was because I spent most of the other days of the year resenting my mother, and tormenting her in the peculiarly horrid ways that bright children can torment their parents.
While I’m sure it was mostly my guilty conscience that plagued me on those May Sundays, part of my discomfort on Mother’s Day stemmed from the incongruousness of the images presented of mothers from the pulpit and the lesson manual that day and the day-to-day doings of my mother. I always felt that the “good” mothers, the kind that were memorialized in Mormon Mother’s Day sermons, were frenetically busy attending to every need and whim of their offspring, while also finding time to teach gospel principles, care for the needy, and perform their manifold civic duties.
My mother did little of that. She did not rise early each day to prepare nutritious breakfasts and send us all out into the world clean and combed and prayed over. She did not stay up late baking cupcakes for the school bake sale. She did not keep our perfectly decorated house spotlessly clean. She did not garden or do needlework or run for school board. In fact, to my snotty little self, it looked as though she didn’t *do* much of anything. My mother moves slowly, thinks carefully, speaks deliberately, and yet managed to spawn a bunch of fast-moving, loud-talking, intellectually fidgety children who got along easily with their quick-moving, quick-thinking, task-oriented father. I remember (or imagine?) her sitting at the dinner table, watching the rapid-fire, high-volume debates among her offspring with a look of puzzled pride. Most days I think it took her until lunchtime to catch her breath after watching the whirlwind of getting out the door to work and school, and much of the afternoon to gird up her loins for the returning onslaught of chatter, music practice, ball-playing, “listen to this!” reading aloud, and endless hyperarticulate bickering that flew in from the school bus.
To say that I failed utterly to appreciate her sensitive, contemplative nature, and the manifold gifts that came to me because of it, hardly begins to describe my ingratitude and unkindness. I was angry that she didn’t augment my overachieving by chauffeuring me everywhere, keeping my calendar, and pushing me to practice and study. I was sure that if I had a better mother, I would be valedictorian, concertmaster, class president… None of this was helped by the fact that I had a friend in my ward whose mother seemed to epitomize this ideal of Mormon motherhood–she got up to make breakfast before seminary, her laundry room was decorated with a floor-to-ceiling flow chart of her six children’s activities for the week and she was perenially bailing my friend out of the scrapes that her overcommitted, hyperachieving style got her into–bringing forgotten lunches, staying up all night to make campaign posters and prom dresses, “helping” to write English papers. She also directed road shows, planned over-the-top Homemaking meetings, fed the missionaries weekly, baked, hung wallpaper (my idea then of the highest form of domestic competence), and sang cheesy Mother’s Day duets with her daughters in Sacrament Meeting. I indulged in ridiculous fantasies of being a princess misplaced at birth, tragically landing in a home with a mother who couldn’t appreciate or complement my tremendous specialness.
My mother, saintly, endured my scorn and patiently kept teaching me lessons that it would take me half a lifetime to notice, let alone appreciate. But I am beginning to learn, oh so slowly. Sometimes, in the middle of my absurd rushing around (“hurry, kids, hurry, we have to get to the beach so that you can enjoy one of those long, timeless childhood summer days. Hurry!”), Sam will stop to notice a flower, a rock, a shell, and I can breathe and remember my mother’s pace when we went walking. Sometimes I am graceful enough to remember how my mother listened to me, as I try to keep smiling and nodding through Louisa’s endless, meandering reports of the intricate social machinations of the kindergarten playground. Sometimes, watching Peter sing loudly and joyfully and so off-key that the notion of “key” becomes meaningless, I’m granted a drop of the patience that helped my mother endure five children’s Suzuki violin and viola recitals. (The spectre of these recitals, by the way, is right up there on the list of reasons I have only three children : )).
And now, just as I am realizing that in most of the ways that matter, she is quicker than I, so far ahead of me that I may pant breathlessly along behind for the rest of my life, she is sprinting ahead to teach me a new lesson. For the last few years, she has been caring for her aging mother with a tenderness and patience which would be a fitting tribute to a mother who had been a close and helpful friend all her life. But her mother was not always such a friend–if my relationship with my mother was fraught and difficult, her relationship with her mother was nearly impossible. My mother, too, was different from her mother, in ways that made it terribly difficult for them to get along. Like all of us mothers, my grandmother was flawed and broken and human; like all mothers, she hurt her child despite her great desire to love and help. And my grandfather died when my mother was a little girl, adding a thousand layers of complexity and hardship to their struggle. When my mother joined the church in college, it was too much for her Irish Catholic mother to bear, and they barely spoke for many years.
All of this is, or seems, forgiven–covered by the grace of my mother’s Christlike patience. She goes to her mother not on a schedule, not watching the clock, not with a list of tasks to complete, but just to be with her. I don’t know if her mother receives or understands this gift–she is as lost in senile dementia as I was lost in adolescent self-centeredness. But the giving is no less lovely and blessed for being indifferently received: “for the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; …For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” (Hebrews 6: 7, 10)
Wow! Seriously wow!
I too remember all my adolecent condemnation of my mother. Shameful of me.
I love your essay, Kristine. It covers so much territory in that country we call mothering.
There’s a line in the movie Spanglish, Cloris Leachman, talking to the Mexican maid (paraphrased, I can’t remember it exactly): “You gave your whole life to your daughter, you have been totally devoted to her, I was a selfish drunken sot of a mother. Nothing works.”
I tried to be different than my mother, but didn’t know kindness and love were more important than the stuff she neglected. Then I tried to totally and unconditionally love my youngest daughter, and guess what? I still struggle with her. Cloris is right, nothing works.
Thank you for your description of your mother’s patience. I needed that as I deal with the first child we’ve had to stay home past 19–we were so close for so many years, then she graduated from high school and we can’t stand each other. What a cheap thrill this is, guys, brace yourself.
Oh, and yes, Happy Mother’s Day to all moms and potential moms out there. Today, for my gift, my kids and husband are visiting my mother in the rest home and fussing over Grandma. And I get some time alone after taking care of the nursery kids for two hours. Ten kids, two leaders.
Excellent post, Kristine. Thanks.
Having grown up in a family that was very abusive, both physically and otherwise, I wonder if I will ever get around to the place you are at vis-a-vis your mom today
Ahh, the frustrations of a personality mismatch. I had a similar problem growing up with my mom (she an extrovert, me an introvert); but now that I’m older I can appreciate her fast-paced, gregarious personality and forgive her for not understanding that my reflectiveness and sensitivity was not a defect.
An essay on Mother’s Day that I can not only read without gagging, but is positively a pleasure. Thanks.
If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
This post is clearly one of those things.
Kris, someday I’m going to commission you to write something about me. Even with my manifold imperfections, you’ll make me beautiful.
Thank you. It is wonderful to see a mother appreciated for who she is and what she did. All mother’s fail to live up to the ideal of the world, ward, or teenage mind but despite our shortcomings, we should be appreciated.
A wise and truthful tribute, Kristine. Thanks.
As a mother of 3, I am just now beginning to realize that mothers are imperfect people (my mother and myself included), and we will be until the day we die. Motherhood does not equate to sainthood. Even a mother with the best intentions is imperfect. I’m learning to live with my own gross imperfections, and somehow this makes me appreciate my mother more and more.
Thank you for your thoughts. They helped clarify my own.
Thanks, Kristine. You echoed a lot of the ways I felt about my mother growing up. My mother did not keep our house clean, I never saw a calendar of all 6 kids activities at all growing up, and she basically stopped cooking when I reached adolescence. As a teenager, I resented the time she spent teaching flute students in our home, thinking that surely she should be spending that time with ME. Growing up, our socks rarely matched (something that makes me now slightly obsessive about matching my son’s socks), and we often had to dig through mounds of laundry to find something to wear. I find myself falling into some of the same habits as my mother, and I cringe.
But then I think about how she was never angry if I spilled, never scolded when I tore my jeans, and I cannot recall a single performance of whatever I was doing that she did not attend. She trusted me enough to let me go to Switzerland at age 15, and supported my decision to go to Boston for college. And, like your mother, she continues to teach me lessons that I surely didn’t even know I needed to learn. At age 60, she has a re-built herself a satisfying career that keeps her busier than when she was raising 6 kids. She is more herself than she’s ever been. And she’s still a great mother.
Again, thanks for your post.
I hope that one day my daughters will be able to see past ALL of my many shortcomings with as much love and compassion as you show for your mother here. Like you, I wish that it did not take me as long as it has to appreciate my parents for all of the wonderful things that I never acknowledged behind my biting criticism of their faults. Thanks for your eloquent and touching post.
Kristine, thank you for writing this. I loved it!