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Jenny Witte Headshot

What I've Learned From My Mom: In the Middle of Three Generations

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My grandmother, my mother's mother, is in a nursing home right now. She suffered a stroke a few years ago, her husband passed away, and she had to move out of her home and into a place where she could be cared for around the clock. She's halfway across the country, in Minnesota, where my mother is from and where I was born, but it is my mom, the oldest in her family, who handles all of the arrangements for my grandmother, and on top of her full time job as a pediatric nurse, she spends an enormous amount of her own time making sure my grandmother, who also is suffering from dementia, has what she needs.

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Her phone rings almost all the time, it's my grandma calling again. Sometimes she is upset about one of the nurses, sometimes she is upset that her phone cord is too short, sometimes she is upset because she can't find her favorite shirt and no one will help her find it. Sometimes she is just upset. She is there alone in a wheelchair now, not in her home, and she's unhappy. And every time, my mom answers, and talks to her. No matter what we are doing she answers, and talks to my grandmother in a calm, soothing voice, telling her that yes she will go to the store and find her another shirt just like the one she lost, the one that my mom already bought and sent out to her in a little care package. She will find a longer phone cord, she will send that newspaper clipping she mentioned, she will talk to the nurses, she will arrange for the transport so she can go to bingo. She takes care of every last detail. She takes care of the financial arrangements, spending hours on the phone sometimes making sure that everything is happening the way it should. Her free time is eaten up by taking care of these things, she will answer the phone in the middle of the night, early in the morning, whenever it rings. She spends much time contemplating moving back to Minnesota to be more hands on, but decides against it every time because of how much she would miss her grandchildren. Helping to take care of my grandmother from across the country is draining, and emotional for her, and necessary. Last fall, when we visited my grandma, after we dropped her off in the nursing home I wasn't even out the front door before I was in tears. It was my mom who comforted me that day, when I should have been comforting her.

This is the type of person my mom is. She takes care of things. If I happen to mention in passing that I need to pick up some new undies for my 7-year-old, like mom magic they will appear, little packages of underwear with whatever cartoon character he is into at the moment, because she knows what he likes, most likely alongside a gallon of milk or whatever else she noticed I needed. When we were away last weekend she watched our two dogs and also decided that our living room could use a new coat of paint, so she painted it, and cleaned my garage. If she knows I'm having a particularly stressful day she'll whisk the kids away to her house where they get to play Frozen songs on her computer and play with the old Ewok village and my old Barbies that she has in storage. She keeps chocolate milk and the granola bars that the kids like stocked in her fridge, and she knows what color lollipops they each like when we go to the bank drive through. She knows how I like my coffee, even when I change my mind every other week, and seems to have a sixth sense as to just when I need a surprise coffee break the most, even getting it down to a science as to what size probably based on how exasperated I sounded on the phone. She is thoughtful, and generous beyond words.

She is also super handy. She fixes things, like broken lamps and scratched up leather bags, little kid shoes that have a broken buckle and she can get out any stain on any piece of clothing known to man. She can hang doors and help build closets, pull out ticks and splinters without even the slightest flinch or fuss, and locate that one special item you need but can't find anywhere. Her enormous amount of experience as a pediatric nurse makes her pretty much the best grandmother ever, and she has calmed me down numerous times in regards to fevers, rashes, potential broken bones, cuts, scrapes, bug bites, and mysterious ailments. She has answered the phone in the middle of the night and given me instructions on how to get a sick and cranky baby to sleep, given me advice on discipline, night terrors, potty training, what to feed them, how to do it all.

She also knows when and how to step back and let me do it my way, to let me handle things on my own, to be there waiting in case I do need help. She gives me the space to disagree with her on things, she gives me the benefit of the doubt that I am a parent myself now too. She is dependable, hardworking, kind, caring, funny, smart, giving. She is what a mother should be, and I am beyond lucky to have her.

She has taught me countless things along the way, but here are the things that resonate with me the most lately.

Don't sweat the small stuff, but pay attention to the little things. My mom has a knack for reminding me to not make a big deal out of some things, to just let them pass, especially when it comes to the kids. Sometimes you can get stuck in a phase, like the tantrum throwing toddler phase that makes you want to avoid taking them to public places. She has always reminded me when things "won't always be like this", and instead helps me focus on the sweet parts during the trying times. She reminds me how quickly it goes by, to take the tantrums with the sweet little arms around your neck in a hug, to realize how quickly they will change and how much I will miss the sweet moments.

When things need to get done just get them done. I like to procrastinate, like, a LOT. Maybe it's because I find I have a trillion things to do and it overwhelms me sometimes, maybe it's because I like working under pressure, maybe it's because I just find it hard to find the time to do it all, but if I ever need a swift proverbial kick in the butt to just get things done it will be from my mom. I find myself passing this on to my oldest child right now, especially with homework. He will spend more time trying to get out of doing homework than it takes to actually do it, and I literally will use the same exact words that my mom has used with me to convince him to just buckle down and get it finished, and so far, fingers crossed, it works like a charm.

Trust your instincts. Nowadays it seems like there are a million ways to raise a child and a million reminders of how you are doing it wrong. What to feed them, how to sleep train them, how to help them with homework, your mind can spin with all of the suggestions and guidelines and contradicting information, it can be hard to decide what really is the right way. My mom helps me have the confidence to just go with my own instincts, to make my own educated decisions, and when to tune out the nonsense.

Empower yourself as a mom. You might not have all the answers, you might not know how to do everything, but one thing my mom has taught me is how to find that source of energy and grit deep down to be the parent I need to be. It isn't something a lot of us have needed to tap into before, even in our adult lives, but it is there, and we are capable. We can get through the sleepless nights, we can throw together some type of food substance to get on the table, we can do the best we can do. And we need to, because we owe it to our children. My mom has taught me not to take the fact that these little people need me as a way to doubt myself and my ability as a parent, but to prove myself. To prove it to myself that I can do it, and once in a while I can even do it really well. After all, I have a fantastic role model.

You aren't the first one. When I was pregnant with my first, I got to a point where I was mildly terrified for this child to get out of me and I probably put too much focus on it. My mom told me, straight up, millions upon millions of women have done this already. You are not the first one that has given birth, even though this is the first time you yourself are doing this. Throughout time we've been doing it, and if they can do it, you can do it too. Putting it into perspective really helped me take it down a notch and realize not only am I not the center of the pregnancy universe, I most likely won't even be the only one giving birth that day on the maternity ward. It made it a lot less scary to remember I had all of humanity do it before I did, so I could probably just suck it up and get it done. That being said, she was also there to support me, and acknowledge my fears, and to soothe my worried mind.

I think my mom, who is in a position of caring for an elderly parent like a lot of people are nowadays, is the perfect example of what Mother's Day is all about. It's about honoring moms, and what moms do for us, and what we ourselves do as moms. We wipe little noses and draw perfect temperature baths, we read favorite stories with tired eyes and calm fears, we bring home the bacon and pack the lunches, we nurse, and nurture, protect and create. We make hard decisions, we lay down the law, we wipe away tears, both of our children and our own. The work of a mom is also truly never done, and often it can take on a new life as you get older. Caring for grandchildren, caring for an elderly parent, the caring and nurturing doesn't go away once your children are grown. Becoming a mother changes you for life, and it is something that grows and adapts and deepens you as a person, it builds you while you are building them. The channels that it creates in you may be painful while they are being forged through sleepless nights, self doubt, exhaustion, and difficult times, but they will create lifelong passageways for a love so important that you will question what you were even like before you knew it. It will be a love that will sustain you for the rest of your life.