Mother’s Day is a yearly obligation, like taxes, that sneaks up on me, fills me with dread and guilt, and forces me to tell a short series of little and white, only moderately willful–though potentially disastrous (at least if I get caught)–lies.
I know people who live for these things–these holidays and way-markers on the calendar. I’ve felt and done it myself–even tried to do it on purpose in the manner of a deliberate outward-turning “lifestyle change.” I know that these things parse the metronomic passage of time into a reliable series of meaningful events, thereby turning the calendar into digestible avocational cycles of preparation, payoff, clean-up, and recovery. The next life goal and feeling of accomplishment need only ever be as far away as the next major or minor holiday, birthday, or anniversary, and you can set your own cycle period by choosing to observe more or fewer of them, significantly reducing–if not eliminating completely–awareness of mortality and the indifferent siege of time.
It’s all very innocent and understandable and, probably, healthy.
I’m not one of those people.
It dawned on me the other day–very suddenly–that from this year on, I am set to become a Mother’s Day mother. As I smile and collect my cards and attention and flowers and free brunches, and indeed, feel loved and appreciated, I will be stuffing down a sheepish and bleak feeling, having failed, yet again, to defeat fate and the prescribed machinations of life as dictated by my station as a working class, upper-midwestern white girl.
I will, at least to some and even to perfectly good people who love and appreciate me, become an object of guilt, anxiety, and obligation. Because that is what gift-buying-and-people-appreciating holidays do to a lot of people.
Even if I’m not measuring out my life in brunch-time grapefruit spoons, the people around me will do it for me, marking time’s tick-tock by my existence and the existence of many people who, like me, have fulfilled their evolutionary duty (but with whom I enjoy no genuine personal feeling of camaraderie or community).
I will move over to join my own mother on the mothers’ side of Mother’s Day. It will be just another in a long line of similarities that, for me, are sources of both intense pride and anxious misgiving, since I’m not sure either of us entirely belongs there.
I like getting appreciation and presents and flowers and free brunch. There’s certainly nothing wrong with appreciating mothers. But my hatred of failure trumps all. It is imperial. Consuming.
Fuck you, Debbie Downer! Can’t I just hug my mother and tell you to have an extra nice day without worrying that I might send you into a spiraling existential crisis and premature labor?
No. Because just about anything can send me into a spiraling existential crisis. I was born this way.
I should tell you about my mother.
The two of us together.
I was a surprise. After a number of miscarriages and the conclusion that there would simply be no more kids, my mom found herself pregnant at age 36 in 1977. I gave her horrible morning sickness from day one right up until week 42 of the pregnancy. I perpetrated any number of false labors, many of them well premature, only to arrive a week and some days overdue and nearly die–repeatedly–in the process.
My antagonistic relationship with life was well-established long before I was even a living, breathing, legal entity, and it has not stopped since I became one.
My mother is independent and self-assured. She is deliberately rational, shrewd and articulate, with an often dark, wry sense of humor and a talent for politics and rhetoric. My mother is a strange mix of subversive and traditionalist, pragmatist and party girl, full of conviction and integrity. Less than demonstrative, her considerable empathy and understanding of the motivations of others is well-masked by her command of her own emotions.
Her self-control makes even small fractures in her facade analogous to anyone else pulling a gun.
She’s getting older now, so I can no longer say she complains about sappy greeting cards and other forms of syrupy sentimentality, but for most of my 33 years, that has been the case.
She is disgusted by the women in old movies (and in some of the new ones) who collapse pathetically and desperately against their men’s chests wailing about “HOW CAN I GO ON WITHOUT YOU?!?!?!”
“Look at this codependent creampuff! I’d like to slap her! Barry, change the channel.”
She is remarkable. A fierce, intelligent woman whose generosity, concern, and willingness to shield me from soul-sucks and other encumbrances to my innocence, my potential, and my self-worth never left me wanting for the support and confidence I needed to aspire to equal–and higher–levels of ferocity and intelligence.
I was almost always unencumbered, actually. Some people, especially my sister, would say spoiled. Moms treat their children who have tried to die just a little bit differently.
As a young woman, my mom went gallivanting (my grandmother’s perception, anyway) off to New York, left one man standing at the altar, married and divorced another, then got pregnant by and subsequently married my father. This was all well before she was 25 years old. By the time she was 27 or so, she had a small daughter, had moved back to Minnesota, and had taken in two of her cousin’s delinquent teenage daughters.
By the time I was born, she had kept her little family together through all that, plus endured my dad’s alcoholism, plus engineered his removal to Hazelden in a midnight ultimatum that consisted of two state troopers showing up at the foot of their bed. He has been sober ever since.
The party-girl is gone from her and has been since long before I knew her. I have only heard stories.
Of my father having to carry and drag her, drunk and giggling, out of Young Republican Christmas parties. Of her dancing on tables in bars.
Of the way they met, she beckoning with her finger for him to come hither after a scotch and water or three at a recreation hall in New Haven.
She had to grow up fast.
She told me I was not allowed to get married until I was at least 25. I got married at exactly 25.
And no sleeping in the same bed with a boy before marriage. She would get alarmingly, disproportionately upset about this for a woman whose true losses of composure I could otherwise count on one hand.
I never had the balls, as a teenager, to tell her I’d done the math and knew why this was. That it wasn’t just because we were Christian or to protect me from the generically understood difficulties of teen and accidental pregnancy. That I knew it was personal.
I always sensed that marriage and motherhood left her potential cheated. That the night in a seedy Connecticut bar that she met my father (my dear and wonderful father) might have made the difference between suburban Minnesota and Manhattan or Washington, D.C. That she could have been a CEO or a senator. That in the back of her mind, she knew that.
That she carried it with her.
Her devotion to her family would never let her admit that to herself, let alone me. She has denied it repeatedly and fervently the few times it has come up, usually when I am tearfully, at least once drunkenly, spewing my own misgivings about the path I find myself on and the what-ifs that will hang, forever and ever, as a result of choices I have made and the choices I am forced to continue making every day as time grinds on and on across years, across generations.
Her eyes well up, and I know it’s not just sympathy for me.
I hate that I am writing this. It is, ultimately, the quintessential uterus contemplation post. Mothers and daughters and contemplation of the womanly, motherly, and daughterly plight inherent in living in a father’s world–being charged with the bittersweet task of bearing and raising children in it. Or that is the stage I am obligated to set for this compulsory act of womanly melodrama to make sense.
Woe be unto us.
The post itself represents just another slow, fading step into the faceless, estrogenical masses.
It’s tough to know what my mother might say about it. She might sympathize. She might furrow her brow and tell me to pull myself together. “Becky Bernhardt. That was what we called you when you were little. So dramatic.”
Plus, I’m pretty sure it’s unamerican to be ambivalent about motherhood on Mother’s Day.
More than anything, though, I worry that my mother’s status as a tragic hero is simply a mental fabrication, some elaborate narrative I’ve concocted to defend against the very likely possibility that my mother, this woman I imagine to be so smart, so gifted, so exceptional, so formidable and worthy of being somehow avenged through my own successes, might be a giant only in my mind. That there was never going to be any CEO, never any Washington, D.C. That by any and all measures unrelated to my deification of her, she is just a rebellious kid who got knocked up in the mid-60s and went on to live a pretty predictable and basic working class life, as would be expected for a rebellious kid who got knocked up in the mid-60s.
That there is no fanfare, no avenging anyone. There is just brunch.
My own daughter hasn’t made me sick in the least. No false labor yet, and she was planned, materializing just as she was supposed to. She doesn’t thrash around too much. I hope for an uneventful labor. I hope no one tries to die.
I quietly hope she is her father’s daughter.
I quietly fantasize that she is not–that she is another dramatic, wily step up in the spitfire crescendo that has been my family’s women.
Or maybe I hope that my husband’s cool, patient, and mercifully undisturbed personality is the influence necessary for her to truly thrive and make the most of being her mother’s daughter. That she will avenge me.
I hope life agrees with her.
I imagine how my mother must have wished the same for me.