Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Praise of Other Mothers

Here is one of the heartbreaking things motherhood has taught me. There are things I will miss.

When my first daughter was born, I found it impossible to let anyone else care for her. I nursed her, I understood her every grimace or squeal or smile. I thought that no one could know what I know. And maybe I was right, maybe no one could know what I knew. But, what I also learned was that I couldn't do it all. I ground myself to a nub caring for her 24/7, risking my health, my sanity, and my marriage.

By the time my second daughter came, I knew I needed help. So I found it. I scheduled childcare hours the way a thirsty woman would drink from a well.

And then it happened. I missed some things.

I missed understanding the exact nuances of my second daughters night time feedings. I did not miss her first smile, but I missed her second, third or fourth. I did not miss her first steps, but I missed the exact moment when those steps switched from being frankenstien waddles to a real run. I saw the transition happening, but couldn't tell you the day she got the hang of it.

For me, this is a bittersweet heartbreak. I know I needed the rest, the time to center myself, to connect with my mate or to help out my own mom. But my heart could break for the moments I missed.

Today I'm seeing these moments of missing differently. Today I am seeing them from a daughter's eyes. And what I'm seeing is that while a mother's heart may break, perhaps a daughters world is expanding.

Today I am returning to a home I have been to many times. Snugged a mile inland from the New Hampshire Seacoast there is a house that feels like one I could have called my own but didn't. It is the house where my best friend's family lived. In my girl days it was green and had a widows walk on top. The family room had red carpet, and the counter at the kitchen had two stools where we would sit while my buddy's mom, the woman of the house, cooked us dinner, made us carrot cake, and welcomed us home on many weekends during our boarding school years.

My parents were farther away. They were getting divorced. They were working hard at their own lives, doing what they had to do to right a course that had gone wrong. Our whole family needed them to be doing this work. But they missed some things. And I'm sure they feel heart break for the moments their burdens kept them from me or my brother.

But in exchange, I had the pleasure of many happy times with my best friend's mother. She was not my mother, she was an other mother, but a woman who cared for me as if I were her own.

In particular, I remember one gloomy winter night at boarding school. We had all just returned from Christmas break and the prospect of a long and arduous winter term pressed on in on us. My best friend called her mom from the pay phone in the hallway, and in an hour she was there, after curfew, to rescue us from the night. Our house mother gave her permission to spring us from the dorm where we lived with forty other girls. She drove us down Main St to Friendly's where we ordered sundaes with butter crunch ice cream. She hugged us as we cried our high school girl cries. But by the end of our sundaes, we were laughing. We were out past sign in. It was bitter cold. And we were eating ice cream. We felt better.

Today I'm in a plane on my way back to the coast where you can get butter crunch ice cream at Friendly's. It is early fall. The weather will be crisp and clear, the best of what New England has to offer. But it is not a happy visit. This other mother of mine has surrendered to an illness, which she managed and fought, with the tenacity and gumption that defined who she was. And in the midst of this moment, I am, in a way, grateful for some of the moments that my own mother missed. The small heart breaks of missing that she endured, that enabled me to have my time with this other mother. To be cared for and loved by her. Because her way was a different way than my own mothers, not better or worse, just different. And in experiencing the difference I got to learn something about the kind of warmth and friendship the world outside my family could offer me.

As the plane launches me east to care for this part of my life that requires my presence today, a new other mother enters my life. She has brown hair, a big smile and a daughter in the same Kindergarten class as my own. We ride bikes to school together in the mornings. She trails her daughter behind a red townie with Hawaiian flower decals. I ride next to my own daughter whose purple mermaid two wheeler sounds part bike, part train as she clickity clacks along our street still on training wheels.

Today this other mother will pick up my girl from school. She will tenderly click the snap of my daughter's pink bike helmet, careful not to pinch the chin it protects. She will help her unlock her bike and walk it through campus. Then she will ride two five year old girls safely home. And by doing so, she will, in the way that only other mothers can, show my girl something new about how the world outside our family loves her.


  1. Wow. Didn't know you had it in you. Awesome.

  2. Lee said...
    Cristina, this is such a beautiful tribute to both you and Pat. Thank you for sharing and it was wonderful to see you and share the celebration of her full and boundess and caring love...

  3. Surrogate moms rock. Nice post.

  4. Cristina, this is so beautiful. I, too, had a 2nd mother who nurtured me, held me while I threw up, and just flat out loved me for many years. I was heartbroken when she passed away. Thank you for this tribute.

  5. Love this Cristina. You are wonderful friend, almost-daughter, mother to the "other" family and your own.
    Best to you with the coming of #3.

  6. In praise of such lyrical praise songs.

  7. Cristina, I just read this for the second time, and was touched all over again by your amazing writing and by the heart that comes flowing off the page. This is a beautiful piece, so well written.