Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death from ALS. In the days leading up to her death we weren’t sure if it was the end, but it sort of seemed like it, I carried some guilt that I didn’t rush to tell everyone that this was “it” but then how do we know when someone begins to die. The end of death is far clearer than the beginning. Was it at her diagnosis? Perhaps the beginning of her death was in the days before when it seemed like she wasn’t starting to say weird things and so maybe her brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen? Or the night before when I sat in her bedroom on night watch, playing Mahjong on her first generation iPad while her partner and my sister got a few hours of sleep at three in the morning when she started needing more morphine to breath? Or that morning when we called the hospice nurses for help and they brought in an oxygen tank? She was 64 when she died which meant she was middle-aged at 32, was that when she went over the hill towards her death? Perhaps, like Jesus, she never really died and her spirit lives on in all of us. According to the Prayer of Saint Francis, it is in dying that one awakens to eternal life. Or maybe the inverse of this is true, that when we are born we begin to die, as some Buddhist philosophers would suggest.
Sometimes I wonder if mothers are resented at an individual and cultural level so much because of this truth that once we are born we are on a path to death. There is an expectation, at least in the cultures I have lived in, that mothers are supposed to protect us and nurture us and care for us. But the reality is that mom can’t save us from our inevitable deaths. Mothers die too and then we are left to figure it out on our own.
This is related to what political theorist Joan Tronto discusses as “women’s morality,” which has been used historically to suggest both that women are better at caring and also as a justification for keeping women out of political life. If we reject the notion that women are more nurturing by nature, we reject how most (though not all) societies have organized themselves for millenia. But mothers always seem to disappoint, except when we buy them flowers on mother’s day and post status updates about how awesome our mothers are. Even then, it’s a burden, an annoyance, decried as an empty gesture, a cash grab by Hallmark and other commercial interests, and another responsibility of mothers to ensure that their mothers-in-law are provided the requisite flowers.
One of the first books I ever read in full by a sociologist was More than a Labour of Love by Meg Luxton. First published in 1980, the book details the life of mothers in Flin Flon, Manitoba and makes clear that mothering is work and needs greater social supports. I read the book when I was probably about 19 or 20, in a class on Women and Work, long before I had any children but it spoke to me. The descriptions of these women’s lives were so clear, how they struggled to make ends meet, coming together to make cabbage rolls to freeze for future family meals, how they negotiated power with their husbands who held the purse strings. She included black and white photographs of these mothers at work, in their long straight 1970s hair, something about them seemed so comforting to me, maybe it’s because I was born in the 70s. Motherhood sounded both so terribly difficult but also somehow really desirable to me. I wanted to be a different generation of mother, I’d have an equal co-parenting husband, and I did, but it still wasn’t easy. It was most definitely more than a labour of love.
Although all women do not have children nor do all women want children, and to be a mother is not to be a woman nor vice versa, the cultural pressures about what it means to be a woman are often wrapped up in motherhood. Women who are child-free by choice are not believed that this is what they want, ambivalent potential mothers who discover they cannot have children can find themselves devastated to be denied the option. I read an article on Slate.com this morning that stripper (no judgement! a girl’s gotta do, alright?) turned rap star Cardi B has announced she’s pregnant which was picked up by anti-abortion activists as evidence that she’s a pro-life hero against all those feminists who apparently think every pregnancy should be terminated with an abortion. Uh wut? Apparently some fans think she should have waited to have a kid and so now the pro-lifers are like “you are an inspiration! You chose to keep your child!” Borrowing from Cardi B’s lyrics: “This is how I do. I make a fool out these bitches.”
To be a woman, means that people will have an opinion about if and when you should mother and then once you do, there’s no shortage of opinions about how one should do it. At least since Freud (and probably since the Bible and before), mothers have been blamed for just about every social ill. Autism was literally blamed on “refrigerator mothers” in the 1950s when the disorder was first being understood. Mental health problems are often assumed to be a result of bad mothering and yet when mothers push to treat their kid struggling with ADHD they’re blamed for medicating their children. Somehow pills created for issues in the brain, unlike pills created for issues in other organs, are seen as a cop-out. If only mothers provided just the right kind of love and attention and stopped stifling their children’s free expression THEN everything would be okay. Or maybe it’s more discipline? Or less discipline? Child-led discipline? I’m losing track of which way of mothering is the right way, generally it seems to be whatever it is mother’s aren’t doing is the right way and whatever thing mothers are doing is the wrong way.
This seemed particularly clear to me recently in a Medium article doing the rounds on Facebook about the amazing kids in Florida who are changing how the US thinks about gun violence. It’s gotten over 27,000 reads. He titled it “These Magic Kids” and his basic premise is that these kids are magic because how else could we explain them since every generation before them are trash. He did a good job at listing all the ways in which earlier generations have sucked and ruined everything. I am completely in agreement that these kids are fucking amazing, like holy shit I can’t even begin to describe the awe I feel in their bravery and strength and just general awesomeness. I mean, I already wrote a thing about how young people are going to save us, anyway.
But then I had this feeling like “but… uh… hmmm…” and then my brilliant sister posted something that nailed how I had been feeling, she pointed out that these “magic” kids have been raised by mothers and teachers who have been working damn hard to get just the right evidence-based practices in place. I began to cut-and-paste a comment on every friend’s sharing of the piece saying “it’s not magic, it’s mothers” (and teachers, who are a kind of surrogate mother anyway… I mean how many of us flushed red when we accidentally called our teacher mom in 1st grade?). What pissed me off so much is that for decades there has been hand wringing about how terrible every generation is and that this is because mothers don’t work or because mothers do work or because mothers are too cold or because mothers co-sleep and have no boundaries or because they let their kids cry it out and are mean or because they breastfeed or they don’t breastfeed or for long enough and now, finally, when there is this group of awesome kids who are doing AMAZING things, it’s fucking MAGIC? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?! FUCK YOU! NO REALLY, FUCK YOU. I don’t know shit about these kids’ particular parents. I don’t know if they were helicopter parents or tiger moms or co-slept or baby-wore or were rigid disciplinarians, or any of that shit. All I know is that no one emerges in a vacuum and magic isn’t fucking real.
Obviously, some parents are jerks and bad and abusive and all that and all parents fuck up sometimes. I have had a profound heaviness in my heart lately because I was on watch when my 20 month old toddler poured a just boiled cup of tea all over his chest when I turned my back to get toast out of the toaster. It’s been almost a month and he still has scars that cover about a third of his chest and his upper right arm. He screams when I try to give him a bath now because I threw him in a cold bath to try to cool down his skin when it happened. I keep saying that I have literally scarred him for life, both physically and emotionally. Many friends have said “you didn’t do this, it was an accident. Accidents happen!” Which is true, it is so, so true.
But still, I have the sense that it is my job to protect and nurture my innocent child, and I failed in that moment. His scars are a reminder to me of the vulnerability of us all. I cannot protect him from all harms. I cannot protect him from an eventual, inevitable end. I cannot protect him or my other children from the reality that they too will someday watch me die and be left to figure it out on their own.
My mother, like most all mothers, was definitely an imperfect mother. She could be controlling and arbitrary and yell so loudly. Her problems were often framed as my fault. She was opinionated and bossy and drank too much and drove too fast up to stop signs. She rejected a lot of typical mothering things as being part of the patriarchy so she refused to cook or do our laundry or do a lot of the things that mothers are expected to do. I held a lot of resentments against her for a very long time but also resentments against a world in which my mother would die leaving me orphaned at the age of 37. When I lost the remains of my inheritance through my divorce, I felt it as a second loss of my mother. The last remaining supports she had left to care for me were taken. What I have since realized is that she left me with much more than money.
I have come to see that many of the things I thought she should do differently are actually the things that have provided me with the most protection against the struggles I have faced. That sense of being controlled by her led me to get a Ph.D. and to become a professor, which provided me with an unparalleled safety net when I divorced. Her bossiness meant that I had been eminently prepared to navigate the social world of academia full of big egos with strong opinions. Her drinking helped me see problems in my own drinking. The loss in nurturing I felt from her not doing the mundane caring meant that I find it important to cook for my kids, but lately as they criticize the meals I make to accommodate the 6 snowflakes’ food preferences in our large family, I realize why she said “fuck it” on that account. Who I am isn’t magic and it isn’t despite my mother; I am who I am because of my mother. And it was only in her dying, her ultimate failure to care for me, that I was able to realize my capacity to care for myself.