I’ve been sick for the last week, the kind of sick that makes you stay in bed even though you know you have tons of things to do. I confess I crawled out to the computer a few times to send incoherent emails to work. But mostly, all I do is sleep, cough or lie in bed feeling crummy.
Luckily, I have had The Husband around (due to a current bout of his periodic employment retention impairment) and he has been wonderful, fetching medicine and liquids, driving me to the doctor. He even made matzoh ball soup!
But when I get sick like this, the only person I want is my mother. Let me start off by saying that my mother and I fought with each other my entire life, but when I would get sick, she was the BEST, most attentive and nurturing mother you could imagine. I’m the oldest of three, so being home from school meant it was just my mother and me with no distracting younger sibs for a few hours. She would let me lie in her big bed, on the white chenille bedspread that left little dents all over my skin when I fell asleep on it, and read Little Golden Books to me. “What do daddies do all day? Daddies work while children play.” And Mommies take care of you when you are sick.
My mother was the youngest of 8 children. When she was 7 years old, she got pneumonia and went to the hospital. So did her mother, but only one of them came home. My grandmother died at the age of 48 (long before she ever got to be my grandmother, of course). According to my mother, no one ever spoke about her mother’s death or comforted her. Her father and older siblings raised her. However, as she would remind me nearly every day, there is no substitute for your mother. She told me stories about how affected she was by this loss. For example, on Mother’s Day, she said, people wore a carnation in honor of their mothers, and if your mother was alive, you wore a red one, but if she had died, you wore a white one. This was devastating to my mother – to be wearing the lone white carnation in a schoolyard of red carnationed children.
When it came time to be a mother herself, she felt really unprepared and inadequate. I was not an easy baby and when I would cry for hours, my mother told me she would cry too, asking, “What do you WANT from me?” That set the theme for our relationship, pretty much.
My mother loved me, in her way. She was proud of me, but she was not interested in me…unless I was sick! Then I was fascinating. We were best friends. We played endless card games while enjoying the tea and toast that was the cure-all menu for every illness. She sang 1940s songs to me and told me plots of Bette Davis movies as though they were fairy tales. We talked and we laughed. She tickled my back for hours. Once, I threw up all over the breakfast dishes in the kitchen sink. I watched as my mother cleaned up everything without complaint. I thought that was the most selfless, loving, maternal thing I had ever seen and I remember thinking I would never be able to achieve such lofty heights of mothering when I had kids. These are all such strong positive memories for me (not the throwing up part).
But the rest of the time, we were just not on the same wavelength. Once I learned about skew lines in geometry, I knew that that described my relationship with my mother: 2 lines on 2 different planes that will never intersect. My younger brother and sister enjoyed a more harmonious connection with her, though. Recently, I read something about Harry Harlow’s famous experiments with baby rhesus monkeys that were raised with wire mothers instead of real monkey mothers. Sadly, they soon displayed severe symptoms of mental illness because they did not have any motherly nurturing and warmth, thus proving how essential it is to all of us. Some of the wire mothers were covered in cloth, while others were not, but those had bottles of milk attached to them. The baby monkeys chose the cloth mothers every time. They would stretch out to get nutrition from the wire mother with the bottle, but clung to the cloth mother.
But what became of the baby monkeys later in life? It turns out that when they had their own babies, the “motherless mothers” were negligent or even abusive to their firstborn offspring. These monkeys were unable to bond with their infants because they themselves had been deprived of a maternal connection. But wait – somehow, the monkeys’ maternal behaviors improved with subsequent births. Their difficulties seemed to lie only with caring for that first baby.
Well, THAT certainly explains a lot! In the movie, “Mother,” with Debbie Reynolds and Albert Brooks, there is a moment when Albert suddenly understands why Debbie was always so much more loving to his brother, Dr. Fleischman from the show “Northern Exposure,” and then he runs around the house gleefully singing, “I know why she hates me! I know why she hates me!” When I read about the resulting deficient parenting skills of the wire-raised mothers, I had my Albert-Debbie moment! Realizing that it was more about my mother’s own lack of maternal programming rather than my inherent despicability, a big bright light came on for me. You’re never too old to try to make some sense out of the many ways in which your mother affected you, and that can be surprisingly uplifting.
Like my commadres on this website, once again I am reminded of the power we hold as mothers. Our words really matter, of course, and vacations and toys and all that create nice memories. But that feeling I got when I knew my mother was going to spend the whole day with me because she truly wanted to, taking care of me and caring ABOUT me, was the best feeling ever. Yes, I’m all grown up, but this week, while I’m sick, I still want my mommy.
[Warning: it’s important to remember that it was a different era back then, and my mother did not work. I especially do NOT want to make any working moms feel worse about that agonizing internal conflict between work responsibilities and the lurking possibility of a sick kid that is always percolating in the back of your minds. ]