Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mother's Day Your Way

This post is dedicated with love and affection to R, J, J and others who know who they are. I'm sorry that your mothers have not provided you with the best of memories. I hope that you will look to the future with hope, knowing that you get to create your own future history even as your past history was thrust upon you.

As we approach this Sunday's celebration of Mother's Day, I am reminded that not everyone has a Hallmark Greeting Card's version of Mom or fond memories of life with the one who was mother. Even for those of us with good memories of childhood and motherly care, our relationships with our mothers are complex and multidimensional.

My mother is 82 and has lived with us since 2000 when we moved from Amarillo to Boulder County. We had actually invited Mom and Dad to live with us all the way back in 1985, when our daughter was born, in Honolulu. We wanted an easier life for Mom and Dad, and we wanted our daughter to have a relationship with her grandparents. As it turned out, Dad died in 1988, and Mom moved to San Diego in 1994, after my youngest brother died, to be grandmother on site with his then 5-year old son. Mom proved to be a real blessing in my nephew's life and a support for my widowed sister-in-law. Mom has a servant's heart when it comes to doing for her family.

Shortly after we all began to live together here in Colorado, I got terribly sick with chronic hives. I was tested for allergies, lupus, and all sorts of other possible medical conditions, and we never did figure out the hives' origins. It was only when I left for my first ever, alone vacation six months after moving in together that I figured out the problem.

Mom and I were locked into a passive-aggressive fight over control of the kitchen. We never confronted one another about the issue, but we each rearranged the pots and pans, dishes and pantry items as soon as the other left the kitchen. My hives went away when I realized, while sitting in a hotel room alone in Vancouver, that I wasn't going to win this battle, and I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I had to cede ownership of the kitchen in order for there to be peace and harmony within our family. It was the right decision to make, even though I still bristle at it from time to time. When I am able to talk about the kitchen stories with perspective, they're actually quite hilarious and would make a great sitcom premise.

If the only serious issue between Mom and me were the kitchen, it really wouldn't be much fodder for blogging or generate undercurrents of resentment and anger. The really sticky situation is the one of my being supplanted by my mother for my grandsons' relationship with a grandmotherly icon. When my two grandsons, now almost 10 and 12, were born, Mom muscled her way into the grandmother's role without, so far as I have been able to discern, a thought as to how I might be feeling about what was happening.

I say that about my mother not to be particularly judgmental, but to say with honesty that this lack of self-reflection is both her strength and her flaw. I don't think my mother could have withstood all the trials she has had as a refugee, immigrant, arranged marriage bride in a foreign country without the psychological cover offered by her brand of tough-mindedness.

I remember resorting to the same brand of tough-minded narcissism when I was in a bad first marriage that was sending me over the edge towards suicide. Sometimes that's what mothers do to save themselves so that they will still be around to serve and save their families. Judgment in such cases is so wrong, because it lacks compassion for and understanding of how circumscribed some women's lives can become.

For our daughter, my mother's presence in the household was a gift during her high school years. There was a nurturing female presence to cuddle and spoil our daughter when I was called repeatedly into the role of authority figure and disciplinarian. Meanwhile, my husband was consulting on a schedule of two weeks away and one weekend at home for almost ten years. Mom blessed us with a lot of housekeeping help even when it wasn't done the way that I would have preferred. In terms of living together, I have been a filial Chinese daughter, and my husband has enjoyed the blessings of a mother-in-law who thinks he's king.

Both women and men around my age, 62, are very much the spread inside the sandwich, squeezed by parents who are living longer and children who are maturing slower than in prior generations. On good days, we are grateful for what we have, including our relationships with our parents and children, despite the sacrifices that we have made and continue to make. On bad days, we wonder when it will be our turn, when we won't be caring for both the older generation and the younger one. The key to living successfully, happily, is to enjoy the moments as they occur and not to wait for what you imagine will be the more successful, more happy times that may or may not come to you in this lifetime. Live now, be happy now, make memories now.

In 1870 Julia Ward Howe wrote a proclamation for a Mother's Day as a pacifist cry for women, who shape the new generations of their nations, to stand in solidarity against the bloodiness of war and the unspeakable sacrifice of our youth on the killing fields of national arrogance and economic hubris. I could gladly and unreservedly celebrate such a Mother's Day and such a purpose.

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