How'd you do it? my daughter rhetorically asked soon after I arrived at her door. I had flown over 5,000 miles to meet the younger man I'd fallen in love with from his photo. As revealed in my recent piece, that "he" was my newly-born first grandchild.
Being with him was blissful. He was one gorgeous handful. As I added my own rusty hands to the more capable ones of my daughter and her husband, I reflected on raising her with far less help. Had she really been such an easy baby?
We older women often remember our easeful and seemingly instinctual approach to caregiving our children. I now question if that perception is but the myth that remains after time dulls the sharpest edges: the sleep deprivation; the shifting of identity; the relentless feeding and changing of nappies; sorting the meaning of each plaintiff cry and exploring how to soothe or teach self-soothing in a myriad of ways while juggling endless baby-related and household tasks. From the perspective of a visiting grandmother, I observed firsthand the enormous amount of work it takes to raise a healthy, happy baby.
I had hoped to provide assistance beyond the sheer joy of holding him and pushing his pram on long, loving walks. I planned to make myself available for whatever task was needed. Before visiting, I had thought it would be helpful to do some of the cooking. The only obstacle was that I'd never learned to cook.
My mom did all the cooking. Other than asking us to set the table, she preferred cooking in peace without the children around. My friends thought she had it made. They'd see her sitting at the kitchen table finishing one of the three weekly novels borrowed from the public library. On the counter, meat defrosted to be put under the broiler when my dad returned from work.
Remembering stories of the winning doll's dress designed by my teenaged mom only two years before my birth, I questioned whether being a mother had fulfilled her. A doll wearing my mother's dress had been featured in the window of FAO Schwartz' renowned toy store in Manhattan. I always believed she had other dreams beyond that of being a mother. Years later, after the birth of my own daughter, I found the courage to ask. She insisted that all she had ever wanted was to be a mother. I wondered if she had forgotten her dream of becoming a designer or simply changed her mind.
With the women's movement of the mid-sixties feeding my desire to create a far different life than hers, I turned away from all things domestic and towards art. In some unconscious way I may have been following a road that was closed for most mothers twenty years previously.
When my grandson was born, I was flooded with images of helpful, cheery grandmothers cooking up wonderful meals for their adult children's families. The desire to learn how to cook surfaced. Before leaving for London, I took some classes and learned the basics in the kitchens of good friends. And while those good intentions only helped pave that infamous, proverbial road, the impulse to learn the art of cooking remains.
Leaving my heart in London to fly back to the city where tourists sing of having left theirs, I thought about cooking. And my mother. And her mother. And my daughter. It's a long flight home with plenty of opportunity to ponder both the successes and failures inherent in the legacies we pass on through the generations.
I have many regrets about the daughter I was as an angry teen and the imperfect mother I became for my own daughter. I desire their forgiveness while knowing I can only give that to myself.
From a place of witnessing, not blaming, I face my razor-edged choices as both a daughter and a mother. Feeling deeply into those places where I failed miserably and caused pain now breaks my heart. I comfort myself for all I didn't know then and the impact of my behavior.
By extending to ourselves the nurturing, care, love and support we give others, we become for ourselves the mothers we always wanted. It's a hard lesson yet, freeing.
In accepting our imperfect, vulnerable selves we model and create the potential for authenticity in all our relationships. Free ourselves, as well, to let go our regrets and return to our own dreams, those long shelved or shiny new ones. Happy Day, mothers!