This particular Mother’s Day, I find myself feeling particularly reflective. With one exception, it will be the first year I’ve lived more than fifteen minutes away from my mom. Simultaneously, a death in my partner’s family has me thinking a lot about motherhood, and my own relationship with my mother.Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mom was both parent and best friend. She shared with me her love of horror stories, mysteries, and all things offbeat and strange. For a kid who rarely fit in with her peers, my mom’s companionship made the world a less lonesome place. For these things, I always was and still am deeply grateful. But it was only when I reached adulthood that I began to understand what it took for her raise me and my brother.
She often told us that her primary goal in raising us was to give us more than she had growing up. I’m sure a lot of parents say this, but I’m also sure doing so for my mom required superhuman levels of resilience, and if we’re being honest, stubbornness. While she was still a kid herself, her own mother left her father and her. Her father was kind, gentle, brilliant, and larger than life; he also struggled with alcoholism for most of her youth. Without many options, mom grew up quickly. She learned how to pay the bills and budget for groceries before she could drive. While still in high school, she took on two part-time jobs and moved out on her own. She would tell us these stories without shame or embarrassment, but instead with a deep love and devotion to her father and the network of helpful aunts and uncles who all lived in the same small, Florida city.
So when she said her goal was to give us more, she wasn’t referring to material goods or status symbols. Her goal was to provide us with stability, safety, the knowledge that we were loved and always had a safe harbor when we needed it. I can’t imagine delivering on these promises was easy. When I was four, my mom and dad moved from Florida to Georgia. A relative had been able to help dad get a job that would support us, allowing him to work one job instead of the two to three he worked in Florida at any given time. My mom left Florida, her father, and the eleven aunts and uncles who had been her support network for her entire life, so that her kids might have an opportunity at a more stable life.
We were a working class family at best, usually just plain poor. As a kid, I watched but didn’t fully understand the sacrifices my parents, but especially my mom, made to take care of us. I remember the evenings that mom would tell us we were having pancakes or Spaghettios for dinner and ask why she wasn’t eating. She would, in turn, answer that she ate a lunch, or her stomach was upset. In truth, we were out of money, and running low on food, pay day was still an uncomfortable distance away, and mom was metering out what was left to make sure her kids had lunch and dinner until dad’s next paycheck came in. My dad worked in apartment maintenance, and an apartment complex being bought or sold always meant upheaval for our family. Both dad’s job and our home would be uncertain for a few tense weeks while a new company decided whether or not they were keeping the old staff. I, of course, wasn’t privy to the conversations where my parents repeatedly strategized a job path for my dad that kept us within a good school system. When one such upheaval forced us to move outside of the school district, mom “borrowed” a friend’s address and drove us to and from our respective schools every morning. I was an adult before I fully appreciated the lengths my mom went to to make sure our birthdays and Christmases were special; or the finagling she had to do to buy us the annual round of school supplies.
Her efforts to give us more than she had reached far beyond family finances. I’m still astonished at how often my peers reflect on parents who sifted through dresser drawers or read diaries. Mom was steadfast that even as children we would have our privacy, and she respected our personal spaces. She encouraged our individual identities without qualm or hesitation. When I shared none of my brother’s interest for sports, popularity, or the things I think of as usual teenage trappings, she helped me carve out a path to be the weird kid I needed to be. It was my mom who first introduced me to The Labyrinth, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Night of the Living Dead. She bought the copies of The Beauty Myth and the Margaret Atwood novels that I devoured when I found feminism. Then she sat outside with me in the evenings as we discussed whatever I was reading at length. Most importantly, she allowed me to grow into the person I am today without judgment.
I can look at my mom now and only imagine the fortitude and resolve it took to overcome the tumult of her childhood and undertake the task of raising a family. Now that I’m an adult, the shape of our relationship has changed. I can see her now as a fully formed person – with her own faults and quirks – not just a parent and role model. There certainly have been times when our individual, stubborn personalities have caused us to lock horns. Right now though, in the midst of a weird and hectic Mother’s Day weekend, I can’t help but feel grateful that the person who was my first and primary example of what women could be was, and still is, such a kick ass lady.