I picked out cards to give for Mother’s Day last week and kept having to double check myself because I felt like I was forgetting someone. I wanted to remember my grandchildren’s mothers (my daughter and daughters in law). It wasn’t until I was back in my car heading back to work that I remembered. I didn’t get a card for my mother. It was just a moment in time that I thought of her so vividly before I just shook my head reminding myself out loud that my mother was dead. In fact, she died more than 30 years ago. In that moment, the loss felt like yesterday. It almost brought me to tears.
Did you ever stop to think of your mother in that way and her mother before her and her mother before her and on and on? The links we have in our family and the ups and downs of parenting move us forward regardless. We still grow up, move away and may even start our own family trying to keep the good things and change the patterns and bad habits that we don’t want to remember or keep.
Our family talked about grandparents recently. One child, now an adult, has no memories of this particular Grandma because she died when the child was a baby. Others in the family remember Grandma’s funny way of shopping for groceries, teaching how to spot a bargain and her love of lemon frozen yogurt that had to be part of their purchase each trip. Their memories trigger some of my own thinking of my mother’s move to California from a small upstate New York town. After a nasty divorce and a dead-end job, she packed up her car and remaining child at home and drove to California to be with her other two children and start anew. She’d never had Mexican food and couldn’t pronounce the dishes correctly but loved it. She settled in a small dated mobile home park in the shadow of Disneyland and loved every minute of the hustle and bustle of Orange County. It ultimately was her struggles to be independent as an older single woman on her own in the face of terminal cancer that helped me decide my profession as a social worker. I wanted to work with people to remain independent as she did. I felt if we had understood the system as it was in those days that she would have had a greater level of support and help when she needed it the most. We did what we could but it felt like it was barely enough.
Mothers come in all different shapes, sizes, colors and ages. However, none of us come with an instruction manual. The tasks associated with motherhood require on-the-job training. Dr. Spock’s book was helpful to some but it was the hands on at 2 a.m. that really meant the mother was putting in her training time. Some mothers have spouses or partners who share the tasks associated with parenting. Sometimes these mothers must share the child’s time with the other parent whether they think it’s a good idea or not. Sometimes the mother cannot have the child due to being in prison or on a military deployment. There are also mothers who give up their children to their mothers to raise or abandon them for others to foster or adopt because they are unable to take care of their own children. There are women, while not biological mothers, who fulfill the role for others. By example, they lead us, show us, love us, nurture us.
At what age does a mother cease to be a mother? Does she care less if her adult child is 30, 40 or 60? Can she describe that child’s birth and the color of his hair? When a new baby is placed in an elder’s arms to hold, does her expression not remind you of a new mother’s face 60 to 70 years earlier as she held her first child? The role doesn’t go away. The feelings don’t go away.
If mothers are lucky, they get old and they watch their children grow to adulthood with the pains and rewards that go with growing older. They have wishes and prayers that go out unspoken most of the time to their grown children — make wise decisions, do well in life and be good people. A mother may hope these now grown adults will stay in touch, call sometimes, visit when they can and generally remember their mother who gave them life or raised them and loved them.
Memories can play funny tricks on you when thinking about the early years. You may remember the times you were sent to your room for some trouble you got yourself into. Do you remember the times that it was your birthday and your mother asked you what kind of cake you wanted and then made it even if no one else in the family liked that kind? Do you remember being a little kid and wetting your pants on the bus? Your mother got a call from the bus driver and met you at the school with clean, dry clothes so no one else knew of your embarrassment. How about the time when you didn’t want to eat supper but wanted dessert ? Your mother said next time strawberry shortcake would be the supper and you could have all the strawberries you wanted. You can bet your mother remembers those times.
In some cases adult children are searching for their biological mother who may have had to give them to someone else to raise. In many cases the parent is searching as well, not to diminish the role of the parent had who raised this child but to understand the story and reasoning and perhaps gain a measure of acceptance as adults for one another.
There are some who say that parents will need to be taken care of some day. In some cases that may be true if ill health or decreased memory is at issue. Mostly though, parents (mothers) need to be remembered. They need to know you remember them, you think of them with love and respect and, if need be, you’ll be there for them. Although men and women are living longer these days, women still outlive their spouse by ix to seven years. If your mother is not alone at this point, it is a fair assumption that she may be in the future.
Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC, a mother & grandmother, is CEO of Elder Options Inc. providing care managed home care in the Sacramento Region since 1988.