06/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Motherhood: A Tough Gig

My mother died on April 17th. She was 87, and ill for four years - none of which matters. There is no right time to lose your mother. In the last four years, she barely resembled herself. In the last several weeks, I see her as she was when she was well: lively, elegant, feisty.
People warn me that Mother's Day will be difficult this year. I respond that my mother, Anna, always scoffed at Mother's Day.

"Happy Hallmark Day," she'd say.

Yet when I brought her boxes of Swiss handkerchiefs or baskets of violets, she smiled and accepted them graciously with "Oh, my, you shouldn't have bothered."

I admit that I've never noticed as many advertisements for Mother's Day as I have since she died. The Hallmark cards in Duane Reade assault me as I walk the aisles. Yes, this is the first year that I will not buy cards and gifts for my mother despite her protests. But I don't feel motherless: Perhaps I would if I had lost her at a more tender age.

From the moment my first-born David was two- months-old and I celebrated Mother's Day, I loved it. I have sweet memories of my three bringing me cold toast and jam on a tray before the sun was up...far earlier than I would have preferred to awaken on a day designated to indulge me. To this day, I have the bottle of peach hand cream, vanilla spray cologne, clay hand prints, heart-shaped clay brooch with glitter, and countless misshapen potholders and lanyard key chains that my children gave me. I carry cards in my wallet, and a drawer filled with notes penned in their hands as they got older - appreciation and love.
These are my most precious possessions.

Before my mother died, I found a gold box lined in red velvet and covered with rhinestones pushed to the back of a shelf in my mother's closet that I'd given her for Mother's Day when I was ten. At ten, I thought the box was beautiful. I'd often wondered where it went - why it wasn't displayed like the treasures from my children. Indeed, it was rather gaudy...but still...
She and I did not share the same sentiments when it came to mothering: She often said, "Any cat can have kittens." My take on motherhood is not biological. It is one of nurturing.

I think back on my mother as a woman - her life in an era when women were hesitant to seize options that my generation grabbed with a sense of entitlement. In 1961, my mother was a contestant on Password, playing with Darren McGavin and Arlene Dahl. My fourth grade teacher wheeled the giant TV into my classroom and there was my mother - the winner! $650 and a Polaroid Camera. I remember my father's reaction that night when she was glowing and then her face falling. "You keep making money like that and you'll throw me into a new tax bracket," he said. Even winning Password wasn't about her. And motherhood is not only about us - it's about our children. And being a wife is about our husbands. Her generation lacked the confidence and sense of entitlement than mine owned. We can be mothers and then some.
My mother and I were friends as well as mother and daughter. In my estimation, there was a sense of competition in our relationship as she grappled with a new concept of "feminism:" When I returned to work once my youngest was school age, and published my first novel under my "maiden" name, my mother was concerned that my husband might feel castrated. She also lamented that she wished she had the time to write a book. And she didn't have time because she was the wife of a demanding man - her full-time job.

Julia Ward Howe (author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, activist, abolitionist, suffragist, and mother ) resurrected the ancient holiday in the United States and dedicated it not only to mothers but to peace. In the early 1900's, Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia school teacher, began a movement to mark the day as a national holiday. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day the second Sunday in May. It wasn't about cards and gifts: It was about recognition.

Perhaps my mother Anna might have felt differently about Mother's Day had she known about the other Anna, and Julia, who had the courage to applaud those often invisible creatures called mothers. We mothers who are magicians and dream weavers - and hold the power to land our children on their feet as grown-ups, or on the couch.

The physical, emotional and mental energy we mothers invest increases as our kids get older. When they're small, Oreos and Flintstone Band-Aids are easy remedies for scrapes and worries. As the mother of three 20- somethings, I make concerted (and not always successful) efforts to not interfere and to hide my sighs as they move on with their lives. On the night that I had an emergency C-section with my third child, my mother came into the recovery room and exclaimed, "You don't know what I've been through tonight!" Back then, I was furious. "Hey! I'm the one who had the surgery!" Now I get it as I have grown-up children of my own.

Some people tell me they never liked their mothers. They condemn them and blame them.
Sometimes I meet their mothers who seem like nice-enough women, and I assume the persona I see is not the one they see - in much the same way that we know our spouses differently from someone not married to them. I suppose it's all a question of dynamics. Of course, there are those who probably shouldn't have become mothers - hearkening back to my mother's feline theory of procreation. But then again, maybe women who are mistakenly mothers have hearts and souls as broken as their children. Who knows?

One thing is certain: Motherhood is the toughest gig in town.