07/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Mother Load: Putting Others First

Motherhood is not a relationship of emotional equals. The hard, enduring truth that you are selfish and your mother is not, and that you must pay her selflessness forward to your own children, who may never thank you and certainly will never love you as much as you love them. I call it the "Mother Load."

When I was a child I thought my mother was perfect, in part because of the many wonderful things she did for me. There was the implicit understanding that everything I did and felt and wanted was more important than anything she might do, feel, or want. Now that I am an adult, the unequal nature of our relationship pains me, although when I was a child everything seemed just right. My mother was always there for me, and she always had the answer I needed. She was fair, compassionate, curious, energetic. She had (and still has) a no-nonsense approach to nearly everything, and did not believe in a problem without a solution. She was a bit of a worrier, but she knew when worry was taking an unproductive turn; then she would say, "Drop that rock." She is up to any challenge, which she calls the "'Oh, I can do that' disease." Apparently it plagues all the women in our family.

My mother taught me that the happiest individuals in the world are those who put other people first, which is exactly what she has done -- and continues to do -- as a mother. Over time I have come to see that she does not have all the answers. She is inherently suspicious of babysitters, although she seems to be softening a bit as her grandchildren get older and are proving to be more or less normal. She still firmly believes that all females over the age of ten must wear a slip with a skirt. She does not know how to get wax off a sterling silver candlestick and she has an unfortunate tendency to overcook vegetables. Other than that, she is good at almost everything.

When I was in college my parents would call me every Sunday night. This was back in the day when cell phones didn't exist and a long-distance conversation seemed as extravagant as a trip to Tahiti. I would give them the minute details of my week, incredibly boring stuff in retrospect, and they seemed interested in all of it. After college the weekly calls continued, supplemented by bursts of constant contact when I was either in labor with a grandchild or had an urgent need (such as when I hosted my first Easter dinner; I will never forget my mother remarking to my father, "She's twenty-seven years old and doesn't know how to bake a ham!"). Now that I am much more pressed for time, and have so many main characters in my little life dramedy, it is often the case that my mother is more interested in the details of my week than I am. But it's all part of the same message: she is the giver; I am the taker. She is still the marsupial mother carrying me around in her pouch, and I'm still enjoying the ride.

I am replicating that relationship with my own boys. I suppose this is what they mean by "pay it forward." Although, honestly, being unselfish is so hard that I wonder if it's completely necessary. Say I am eating a bowl of ice cream and one of my sons asks for the last bite. Is it OK for me to say no? Similarly, if one of my boys wants me to lie down with him before he falls asleep and all I want to do is get into my own bed and have a few minutes to myself, can I refuse? Denying requests like these does not seem right. But what about "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy"? Because there are definitely days when Mama wants that last spoonful of ice cream.

Unless you are a complete narcissist, you raise children with the expectation that after a certain age, they will not think about you all that much. At least not until they begin to worry about your health, and then you become a depressing topic of conversation, as in "What are we going to do about Mom?" But there is a long period in between their early childhood and your eventual demise when they are focusing on their own lives and you need to find something else to do.

Enter work. When your children are young, you work to keep alive that part of you that does not wholly enjoy, say, throwing pebbles into a puddle with a toddler thirty-seven times in a row. When your children are older, work is a different sort of refuge: you are needed there. If you don't show up at work, your coworkers worry. If you don't show up at home, your teenage children have a party and eventually your neighbors call the police.

But you will forgive your children, just as you forgive them for being the takers while you remain the giver. That is the Mother Load, whether your children ever realize it or not.