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A Talk with My Mom

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Jean Matlack went to Westtown School, where she met my dad, graduating in 1956. She got her B.A. from Bryn Mawr in 1960 and married my dad that June, at 21. My brother Will was born in 1962, I was born in 1964 and my sister Laura was born in 1969. She got her doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts in 1977 and spent the next 23 years as a practicing psychotherapist. She is a Kripalu-trained yogi, has done extensive mediation and is current engaged passionately in creating a green planet. My mom and dad have retired to Rockport, Maine. They have been married 52 years and have six grandchildren.

* * * * *

Me And Mom

It has not always been easy for me to be my mother's son. She became a psychotherapist during my adolescent years and had something of a wild spirit. But I respect my mom greatly for her willingness to take big risks and say things that sounded borderline crazy well before they became fashionable (she seems often ahead of her time on things like feminism, yoga and global warming). Still there were questions I wanted to ask her before it's too late. She's 72. I didn't know exactly why she did the things she did in her life.

What I found out is that, like me, she suffered from depression and profound isolation. She'd done what she could to manage those afflictions while living a fascinating life and making a difference in the world.

What follows, in honor of Mother's Day, is perhaps the most honest conversation I have ever had with my mom about her aunt (Nobel laureate Peal Buck), about becoming a mother at 23, about going to Mississippi in the sumer of 1964, about her participation in the feminist movement, about living communally while raising a family, about the legacy she hopes to pass on to her grandchildren, and about her most cherished memories of me as a kid.

* * * * *

Missionaries In China

Photo credit: Pearl Buck Foundation

ME: How do you suppose your model for motherhood was influenced by the fact that your parents were missionaries in China? [My maternal great-grandparents went to China as Presbyterian missionaries. My grandmother Grace met my grandfather Jesse in China, where he was also a missionary.]

MOM: The fact that they had led such unusual lives broadened my sense of possibility. Remember, I became a mother in the shadow of the '50s. The fact that my parents had led these adventuresome lives before I was born just made it feel to me as if you can have a family and take some risks. My parents had crossed the Pacific and gone to wild places with small children.

* * * * *

A Nobel Prize

Photo credit: JFK Library, "Nobel Laureates at the White House"

ME: What was the impact of having Pearl Buck as your aunt, in terms of your being a mother and a woman and how you've thought about all that?

MOM: The major impact on my mother preceded Pearl, which was that she was born to a mother who had lost four children and was really not available as a mother to my mother. And so that left a huge vacuum, which Pearl filled. Pearl was seven years older, and I think in many ways was a surrogate mother to my mother. And of course, Pearl was not Pearl Buck at that point. She was my mom's older sister. But she was doubtless a very large presence, given that Pearl was always a large presence.

ME: Right.

MOM: My mom said in later years that she had an inferiority complex, and I think that stemmed from both of those things, from not having a really robust sense of her own mother's presence, and Pearl's large presence. But I have to say down the road, Pearl used her connections to open doors for my mother so that my mother's writing career was fostered and supported and nurtured by Pearl's editors. And the fact of my mother having that writing career made an enormous difference in her life and in mine, so that the world I grew up in was one in which I had a mother who was available as a mother and who had a life of her own, which I have to say, my mother managed to do that in a way that I'm sure I was not able to do as skillfully. She wrote while I wasn't at home and was available when I was. I didn't have a sense of being deprived by her career.

* * * * *

A Mom At 23

Photo: my brother Will

ME: So you met dad when you were 16? And were married at 21, if I'm right? And had your first child when you were 23?  How do you think that that affected your mothering style?

Photo: my parents' wedding

MOM: Oh boy. I think at one level, of course, one has to say I was barely an adult myself. So the level of unconsciousness was extreme. And on the other hand, there was a way in which we came to it fresh. There was a life force, to create life came through in its adoring way that was really wonderful. I was newly married. Jim was getting on with his life, being a student at Oxford. I met two women, English women, who were having babies, and one of them was having her second child, and so she was a practiced hand. And so she introduced me to the whole thing. And I have to say, also in England at that time, socialized medicine made having a baby really -- you were welcomed. There was all kinds of support for doing so. And it was a wonderful experience. So instead of doing what many young women would do now, which is to find their first job and have a period of having a career, this was my first career, and it had all the freshness and enthusiasm that that should involve. So as I say, on the one hand, I just know that there was a great deal of unconsciousness and unskillfulness about it in terms of psychological astuteness. But on the other hand, there was a great freshness and enthusiasm and a kind of innocence to it that I still treasure.

* * * * *

Summer Of 1964

ME: In the summer of 1964, Will, my older brother, was a toddler and you were pregnant with me, and you went to Mississippi and saw other mothers there. What do you take from that experience in terms of what those women were dealing with and how it kind of impacted you overall as a mom?

MOM: Of course, it occurs to me that in a certain way, this was -- this venture to Mississippi was a parallel to my mom being in China with small children. I was in a foreign country. There was no two ways about that. Another striking thing about the experience was that as time went on and I was being a mother in New Haven, which was where we were living then, one of the things I hadn't sort of understood or anticipated was how isolated I felt. When you're with little children all day and you don't have any structure of contact with adults, that's really challenging. So when we went to Mississippi, I was suddenly on a college campus with lots of people around. There were six of us in the group who went, so I was in constant contact with them. We ate in the college dining room.

So I was part of a community in a way that was really different. I didn't have close contact with mothers, young mothers in that community. But I saw those mothers as I walked them out to town, and of course, I was by definition part of the black community, not part of the white community. So I saw mothers living in a kind of poverty that I didn't know anything about. And I also saw the one family that we were connected closely with was the college chaplain and his wife. And they were very involved in the civil rights movement. And I saw them taking risks that just took my breath away. The whole experience in Mississippi -- I don't think I understood when we went how dangerous it was all going to feel, and it felt very dangerous. And at the level of danger that this young couple, who were part of the college -- permanent part of the college community were taking, the kind of risks they were involved in was way more than anything I was involved in.

Photo taken by Dad, Summer 1964

ME: Were they white or black, and what were the risks they were taking?

MOM: They were black, and had children. The risks they were taking was that many, many people in that college community were not willing to be part of the civil rights movement. The chaplain and his wife were. And so they were risking being excluded, on the one hand, from their own community, and losing their job. And on the other hand, they were at risk of being violently treated by the white opposition, who were murderous.

ME: That sounds pretty scary. [Read more about my parents' experience during Freedom Summer here.]

MOM: When we arrived that summer, we were told that whites have driven through the campus shooting into the buildings. If it happened, no one was hurt by those gunshots.  But the very thought that that kind of thing could happen just struck terror in my heart, and for several days, I couldn't sleep, and I could barely eat.

* * * * *

Equal Rights For Women

ME: You started out in the kind of late 1950s era, which has actually been -- it's the topic of this show "Mad Men" on TV and moved into something quite different based on the women's rights movement. How did that kind of affect you as a mother and what you wanted for us as kids?

MOM: I realize that between the time I started being a mother and when -- by the time you guys were grown, my whole way of being a woman and certainly way of being a mother went through a huge transformation.  I started out with the assumption that Jim wanted to earn the money and I would be at home. Not that that was really at a conscious level, but when we went to England for Jim to be a student, I was going to find a job mostly to sort of amuse myself. It wasn't necessary financially, actually. It was helpful, but he had a full scholarship, a Fulbright, and we could live on that. So in retrospect, when I realized the kind of burden that inflicted on Jim, the presumption that he was going to provide for whatever needed providing for and I was free to do and be what I wanted to be.

My first job, as I said, was having kids, and we did, and I was busy and involved in that. What I hadn't anticipated, as what I mentioned before, was the isolation and the loss that was involved in that for me. I had been a serious student at Bryn Mawr, and I was very involved and alive in intellectual life, and suddenly, that was all over, which I was not greatly upset about but relieved to have it over, but on the other hand, as time went on, I was bored. I was missing the kind of stimulation that I had had previously.

So I remember there was a book called "Man's World, Woman's Place" by a sociologist. I read that book, and it really described my experience in a way that was startling. So when the women's movement came along, it really hit me hard. It was like this wake-up call. I was an apple ready to be picked. And so gradually, over a period of really several years, I tentatively walked into the possibility of combining having a life in the world in some way and being a mother. First I had a part-time job in Ithaca, and then when we came to Amherst, I, again after a pause, began graduate school.

I have to say, the whole process of doing those two things at the same time was always difficult and always provoked anxiety in me. I never felt really comfortable, and I often felt as if I was worried that I was doing harm to you kids by not being there all the time. And I wasn't certainly secure that I was going to be able to pull off what I was going to do in the world, either. So it was a very tentative balancing act, always. And it felt like I was going against the grain. There weren't easy child care arrangements available. It was often trying to create something, and often sometimes that worked out well and sometimes it worked out not well. So it was difficult, and yet it felt like the road I somehow felt propelled to follow.

Mom writing her dissertation

ME: Why was that?  What was so important to you about trying to work?

MOM: I'm not sure I know the answer to that, Tom.  Really. It felt necessary. I really was battling depression, and being at home with no external connection with the world beyond the family was the place where I dropped into depression. There were clearly issues between Jim and me that were unsettled in those years, and I think I also wanted another venue in my life that wasn't charged in that way. I think probably it was also a sense that I wanted to be a player in that game, that feminist world that was very exciting and interesting to me. Very early on, I attended a feminist counseling collective. I went to that every week for years and years and years. Those were women with whom I, in a sense, had to have a ticket of membership with. I had to have something going on career-wise. That was your ticket of entrance. Those relationships were very important to me, and I wanted to belong. And many of them were struggling with the same kind of balancing act, so that was a place where I could talk about that. That's the best I can do. It was complex.

* * * * *

My House

ME: I wanted to talk about the communal living situation, which has been a little bit of a bone of contention, I suppose. [My parents bought a double house in Amherst and invited like-minded graduate students to live with us and participate in our daily life.] But I just wanted to get your take on what it was about and why it was important to you as a mother in that situation at that time.

MOM: Well, I think it's important to put it in context. That was in 1971. And so I had just begun the migration into having some work in the world. We were -- it must be said -- still sort of coming out of the whole period when it looked like Jim was going to go to jail for two years [for sending his draft card back to selective service]. That was a defining moment in our lives. And I think the most important thing to note is that this business of being at home with small children and feeling isolated in that situation was something that I was trying to figure how to do it in a way that solved that in some way. You were also, by then, really in the whole energy field, if you will, the 60s and early 70s. Everybody was experimenting with everything, and I think that's important to put into this mix of understanding the context. There was experimentation going on all -- on all fronts. Nothing was assumed to be the way it had to be, pretty much.

I think that what we did was done in a kind of rash and impulsive way. But the most honest answer I can give is it was an attempt to address what felt like a stifling kind of isolation -- that mom, dad and kids -- that situation felt like to me, particularly. Being a faculty wife at Cornell had not been a satisfying role. I hated it. I didn't find companionship or relationship amongst the faculty wives to be satisfying. So I was looking for some way to have a context for living that was more satisfying. The fact is that we basically opened our doors to graduate students who we didn't know, and that just seems risky and rash to me. And I'm astonished we didn't have any huge disasters of a dramatic sort, at least. And what really happened is that gradually, I transitioned into have a life outside the home that was satisfying, and the need to have a communal base at home ceased to be so important or interesting, in a certain way. And I think that's the explanation for why we basically backed out of that communal living situation over time.

ME: During that period, do you remember any humorous events?

MOM: I have to tell you a story. It was when Will was 13 or so and you were about 11. And you came downstairs and marched into the dining room and announced, "I will never have hair on my penis." It was a marvelous moment because it was so clear that you had seen William, who was by then fully adolescent, and it was this marvelous refusal on your part to have something happen to you that I knew perfectly well was going to happen to you. It was a very touching moment to me. Your innocence and your insistence and your enthusiasm, and determination, all of which of course was irrelevant because of what was inevitably going to happen.

* * * * *

Stay-At-Home Parents

Photo credit: flickr: devinf

ME: One of the things we talk about a lot is the changing gender roles for men and women now. How do you compare what the changes in gender roles are now to what you were going through when you were an active mom and trying to sort out the feminist movement and all that?

MOM: Well, I think there's a great difference, and I also think there's a similarity. As I said, the cultural norms that were extant when I started being a mother really changed in the next 10 or 15 years radically. I think that mothers now have a free choice in a way that, in my generation, we were forging those paths. Those paths are open now. On the other hand, and certainly there are things like child care and there's an acceptance of a working life that didn't exist. And certainly there's a -- there's an expectation, as you know so well, of fathers that's very different. But I think some of the things that are surprisingly the same are that I do think that women still carry, at some level, the mothering and the working are two very competing and strong responsibilities in their lives, and that that balancing act is still very difficult. I also think that if a woman decides to be at home full-time, it's very tough not to have a loss of self-esteem. We still live in a world where work in the world is how you show an identity; it's held with a ready acknowledgement of value. So I think that's still tough.

ME: What do you think about stay-at-home dads?

MOM: Well, I was just going to say, I think that's a battle for stay-at-home dads, too. Not that they couldn't do it, but it's an uphill climb, and it's not supported by the culture. So that makes it an extra challenge for a stay-at-home man. Frankly, I think it'd be tougher for a man was my expectation.

* * * * *

Mom's Legacy

Photo credit: our family camp in Maine

ME: What legacy would you like to leave your grandchildren?

MOM: Oh my goodness. Well, I think I received from my parents a legacy that they loved me and that their basic feeling about life was that it was good and that happiness was possible and beauty and joy were accessible. And I hope very much that that's something I've been able to carry in my own life such that you three have that in your bloodstreams.

There's a sentence about legacy that I like: "the life you live is the legacy you leave."

So I guess at one level, that's what I am leaving my grandchildren, for better or worse. It's the life I've lived. I hope they also know that I am deeply, deeply interested in them and their lives. I love them, but I hope they know that, for sure. But I think in terms of legacy itself, I think probably I hope that they see in my life that I've taken risks and lived passionately and made mistakes. Everybody does. I hope they might see that I've learned from my mistakes or that learning came from my mistakes until now. I guess that's the best I feel like I can say. At one level, it seems to me one doesn't assess one's own legacy one leaves. That's for those who come afterwards.

* * * * *

My Birth

Photo: me, cold and happy

ME: Do you have a cherished memory of the two of us together?

MOM: I want to say your life started out very intensely for me, because of the fact of your birth size and the length of the birth, the actual birth process is something we shared.  [I was 11 pounds 13 ounces and 25.5 inches long.] And the miracle is that I was able to birth you without a Caesarean. I was also aware that this was the only time I was going to be with you without William. And I cherished it. We were in Grace-New Haven Hospital, where we had rooming in. So you were with me the whole time. And I just remember that being a very blessed time, and then I had a kidney infection, so they kept me in the hospital two extra days, while I was on antibiotics. And I was very grateful for that, because I knew the world was going to change radically when we got home. And similarly, I have to say I know I indulged you in nighttime nursing because I was with you alone then, also. The daytime, the business of feeding you in the daytime with a 2-year-old wandering loose was not easy. So those nighttime feeds were something that I think went along much longer than probably I would've trained you out of it sooner.

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