Motherhood is relentless. It just keeps going and going and going. Incessantly. And on some days, that’s a lovely thing. Like days when I’ve been so sucked dry by the demands at work, or the intensity of maintaining partner relationships, or the callous and inexorable neediness of home ownership (don’t make me bring up our new water damage issue, fresh for the month of February —- a little Valentine’s present from the universe to our house; just read my December post “If By ‘Serene’ You Mean…” and add to it images of an upstairs leaking toilet, boxes of waterlogged keepsakes in the basement, and a downstairs guestroom with squishy carpet where my parents will be staying this week (since my house chooses to leak especially when my parents are coming to visit)). Like days when things are tanking but my children make me laugh by teaming up to do their “booty dance” all over me; or one of them sits next to me, in quietude, while we watch a television show; or one wraps me in a sweet embrace that lingers for a moment or two. And they do all of this because I am their mother and they do love their mother. On these days, and there are lots of them, the ways that motherhood is unrelenting can be an oasis in the middle of the spiritually desert-like conditions that surround me. But there are other days. And lots of them, too.
I have vacillated over the years between hoping my children stay tightly connected with me even into their adult lives, and hoping that I’ve taught them well enough to go off and do their own thing and not need me much at all. I’ve thought at times that good mothering means remaining open enough to “let them be who they are” quite separate from me and with the internal fortitude to venture forth without needing my input; and I’ve thought at other times that good mothering means being open enough and accessible enough that my children are inclined to come back to me to pull from my experience and the insight afforded by my vantage point, which has been built up tall and strategic by life years. And of course, mothering with grace and wit means both of these, and more. But sometimes I am surprised at the way it just continues, implacable, as I watch some of the people I am close to work at still parenting their children who are grown. Suddenly I’m curious to know if my own mother feels she’s still mothering me… and if it feels implacable to her….
I wonder if any of us really knows when we start out with small children just how much the demands of parenting never really ends. When my daughter leapt down the stairs at 2 or 3 years old, fully anticipating that I’d know, though my back was turned, that she’d need me to catch her, and I sat there at the end of the stairs (having caught her, miraculously) sobbing at the terror and near-miss of that moment, thinking, how in the hell am I going to keep her alive until she’s 18?!!, I seemed to have no idea, really, that the work doesn’t stop at 18. Now my oldest is 19 so I still don’t really have a sense of where, or if, it “stops” but I do see others pulled without mercy into parenting issues with their adult children, who are simultaneously needing a parent-child relationship and an adult-adult relationship and these are exceedingly complicated contexts for parents to manage simultaneously. And as I’ve written about before, it is so very difficult for children (even as adults) to really, truly see the personhood of their parents, and perhaps especially of their mothers; to see that mothers are people first, and then they are mothers and other roles or identities after that. I see some of the parents around me really struggling with the ways in which motherhood demands continue unabated, even years later, long after they thought their work was “done.” I think this is something that gets missed in the public imagination, and in the texts and images that permeate pop culture, and in the academic literature on family life. I think we’d do well to hear from mothers about the complexities of mothering children who are no longer “children.”