Soon after my son was born, my mother began coming over for day visits. She had generously offered to take a day off work each week to help around the apartment while I adjusted to life with a newborn. Each visit, she’d take on a different household task, checking a box that existed clearly on a list in my mind before baby but only hazily now. Sure, the dishes were being washed, the dog being walked, the laundry being done all alleviated the general feeling of chaos I had descended into, but really, it was her company that gave me a sliver of sanity to grasp.
It was nice to have someone around to joke with, to attempt a meal at the dining room table with, and someone to whom I could vent unabashedly. When I was ready, I knew she was the person to best understand the sentiment I was ashamed to say but couldn’t hold in any longer: “I finally understand why people have just one.”
Saying this sentence aloud carried extra weight; we had lost our first child a few days after he was born, and now present was his beautiful new sibling, presumably here with us to stay healthy, grow, and to be unendingly dependent on me. Each day was a mixed bag of grief and joy and utter despair.
But my mother nodded solemnly, in solidarity. She distinctly remembered how alone she felt in the early newborn days, and how lost and anxious she felt with this new hyper-vigilant awareness, an instinct that could not be summoned until biology and birthing had its way with her. Her silence, or unwillingness to promise a reprieve felt authentic, and I appreciated the honesty despite how daunted I was by the long mothering game, fuzzily looming in the distance. In her gaze at that moment, though, it occurred to me that she must’ve felt the exact same way I did, 30 or so years prior. And I’m an only child.
We haven’t always gotten along, my mother and I. It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s not something that either of us is proud of, either. I think we’d each like to imagine a reality in which the other agrees with everything we say, where every one of our inner thoughts expressed aloud is not judged by the other, and we aren’t afraid that the other won’t love us. The contradictions between that fantasy and reality have elevated small disagreements to prolonged contention in the past. I know it hasn’t been easy for her, either.
I spent the first several months of my son’s life muddled somewhere between grief and postpartum depression, often rolling around in both. My mother’s visits continued, and out of everyone I saw during that time, her words were somehow the most comforting, the most knowing. I wondered if she had mourned her former life just as I was now mourning mine. “You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said, just leaving, after every visit. Did anyone tell her that? I wondered. I hope she knows that she did a wonderful job, too.
My mother is an established, successful career woman. She’s one of the most intelligent people I know. She’s had many professional years to perfect a nuanced way of getting people to do what she wants them to, and over time, I have been inadvertently (although sometimes very obviously) subjected to various persuasive treatments.
Throughout adolescence and into my 20s, I always felt personally attacked by these campaigns—that somehow the overpowering need to tell me what to do was the direct result of her disbelief that I had my own trustworthy gut instinct to follow. But now, as the mother of a toddler, I get it. This is a time in his life, at nearly age 2, in which he has very little understanding of how the world works. He doesn’t understand that running off into the street could have dire consequences, that not eating his lunch now may render him very cranky later. I am his guiding force, his hand to be held by, his spoon approaching a set of pursed lips. There was a time when my mother was my sole guiding force, teaching me about the world and how to exist in it.
This instinct to mother, once turned on, doesn’t just turn off. I understand that now. It doesn’t matter that I’m no longer a helpless infant, wailing and desperate to be taken care of. It is inconsequential that I know now not to throw myself into oncoming traffic. Perhaps the fact that I am an adult, with increasingly fewer needs to be satisfied by her, is motivating force enough for her to keep offering help. The void needs to be filled somehow, right?
I’m not yet ready to not be needed, and I don’t want to even imagine the void I will feel as my son slowly needs me less. In fact, to insure I won’t know it any time soon, I’m gearing up to make a choice other than the one my mother made. Having already birthed two children differentiates me, but now I intend to conceive a third and give my son a living sibling. I know she will not have firsthand experience to relay about how to pacify two screaming children at once, or may not have confident advice to instill on how it’s all going to be OK, but I do know she’ll be there, nodding solemnly, in solidarity, when the process begins again and life is yet again new.