For years I swore I had no interest in becoming a mother. I guess I heard the biological clock ticking because I got pregnant at thirty-three, drowning out years of declaring that I would travel, write the Great American Novel, and never, ever, be tied down to changing diapers. Then, one day, I turned to my husband. “I want to have a baby. Is that alright with you?”
We had been married five years … five years of luxuriating in lazy Sunday mornings after making love and working The New York Times crossword in bed … five years of traveling to Yosemite and the seaside cliffs of Big Sur … five years of dawdling over candlelight dinners. But, I suppose five years wasn’t that long when you consider that we met and married within a year of meeting.
“So, do you want to have a baby?”
John looked at me. “I’m happy just being with you, but if you want a baby, sure, let’s do it.”
And, just like that, I became a mother. Not once, but twice over the next four years, the first time the same age my mother was when she had me. It beat turning twenty-one and becoming “legal” … it beat walking down the aisle and saying “in sickness and in health” … it beat turning sixty and trying to convince myself it’s the new “middle age.” Talk about a milestone.
Motherhood, a friend once said to me, is “a contract in perpetuity.” It doesn’t end one day when your son or daughter turns eighteen and walks out the front door to attend college. It doesn’t end when they turn twenty-two and start their careers. It doesn’t end when they bring home crises and you feel useless, knowing this is a journey they need to travel on their own.
Which brings me to my mother. There was much about HER contract with motherhood that took me years to appreciate, and sadly, only after her death. She rarely offered advice and when she did it was “try marriage at least once” and “shave your legs on your wedding night” … but she packed school lunches day in and day out for me and my brother. She planted zinnias and cooked a mean rhubarb stew. She drank cocktails as she saw her possibilities dwindle — this after working as a babysitter, then as a clerk in the local gift shop, and, finally, at the John Wanamaker store selling women’s coats. In her fifties and without a college degree and no work experience (other than housewife and mother), this was all she could get … the price she paid to fulfill her “contract.”
Those lessons — her lessons — served me well as I focused on reading and educating myself as a way to escape a similar fate.
Yet, what mother hasn’t put her ambitions on hold? What mother hasn’t left the office early to pick a child up from soccer practice, attend a parent-teacher conference, or rush home to make that school play? Being a single mother made it that much harder. I wanted to be a good mother. We carved pumpkins at Halloween and dyed eggs at Easter, I took them to see Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables at the Academy of Music. I was never going to be that star reporter at The Washington Post or write the Great American Novel, anyway. Motherhood was harder. It meant time to grow up. It meant teaching trust, integrity, loyalty, and faithfulness and trying your best to model that behavior. It meant discipline, teaching that actions have consequences, and taking away privileges. Learning and teaching life skills, wrapped up in the wisdom of the ages, by the proverbial seat of your pants. The lessons we teach should require a doctorate in philosophy and psychology, but we do the best we can.
As I look back on it, who would have imagined that when I first held those squirming little bodies, powdered those bottoms, and changed those diapers, my sons — and I — would travel the world together?
But we did. Travel that exceeded my wildest expectations. Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, England, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, Nepal, Egpyt, and Morocco.
When I introduce myself to people, I talk about my writing, but I also talk about the bigger part of my life. My sons. Writing the Great American Novel or the Great American Memoir could hardly have been as challenging or rewarding as this. So, what if I sound just like a million other proud moms? This is who I am. A mom who holds close to her heart that “contract in perpetuity” she made so long ago.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the courageous women who made and honored that “contract” to do the best they could for their children. Do you have a memory of being a mother or of your mother you would like to share?