“You are such a good mom.” Ah, I leaned in, these words meaning more to me than my friend could know.
I had been talking about the latest challenges with my young teen, where everything felt new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. I took a minute to let the words sink in. It was the kind of thing my mom used to tell me.
My mom and I talked frequently when my baby was a baby, me needing to hear the calm of her voice, steadied by years of mothering. She seemed to meet with ease all the challenges of raising four kids close in age. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.
By the time I became a mother, my mom had been a grandparent to nine already, the oldest in college and the youngest just into the double digits. I was late to the game and met motherhood with a fair amount of hand-wringing. Those early days were especially fraught-filled. Was my baby sleeping enough? Eating enough? Hitting all the right growth markers? There was so much to worry about.
My mom didn’t always know how anxious I was, but I would call her just to hear her voice. In my postpartum funk, I couldn’t tell her I was scared and lonely—I don’t know why—but I might instead give her a mundane update of how the day was going with my infant, hoping she could intuit my struggles. I was afraid of my own fear and questioned everything I did.
As my child grew, my mom was a steady source of reassurance and always wanted to know what my little one was up to. I would tell her some tale of my busy toddler, then preschooler, then elementary student. The stories were mostly amusing, but sometimes I was exasperated or uncertain. “You’re doing a good job, Brenda,” she would say. I’d always think, “Really?” It never felt that way. But she knew what I needed to hear.
I miss that. My mom is no longer here to comfort or commiserate, to offer hope for parenting through the teen years. She passed away right before the pandemic and right as my child was entering the tween years. Now I find myself among the many motherless daughters out there, feeling my way along. While I know that I am lucky to have had my mom for as long as I did, I still miss her and her unconditional support. And I really want to know how she made it through parenting four kids from infancy to adulthood—especially through the teen years.
She used to say that she had a lot of help, especially from my dad when we were all younger. And that having a lot kids close together was just what people were doing at the time. Now she would probably tell me she did the best she could and that she was far from perfect. And that she was also buoyed by a loose network of family, friends, neighbors, and others.
I wonder now what she would say about the precocious child who has turned into a strong and independent teenager. I imagine telling her of the latest tale and hearing her say, “Oh, Brenda,” lowering her voice on the “Oh” to add to the sense that she knew it was hard. Or maybe she’d shake her head and murmur words of commiseration. My child is much like one of my siblings, whose teenage years were punctuated by frequent conflict with my parents. Would my mom tell me she could understand the challenges of parenting an iron-willed but sensitive child? Or would she think of herself as a teenager, wishing that she had been nicer to her own mother? I never imagined my mom as a teenager but only as my mom and was surprised when she told me she regretted clashing with her own mom when she was young.
So perhaps this tells me that we never quite get it right and despite the anxiety, the self-doubt, the struggles, and even the loneliness, we are making it through.
My mother leaned on her own sisters, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and I am, too. I am banking on the collective wisdom of this vast community of mothers I am part of. They look like the friend who laughs with me and the one who offers a listening ear or a word of advice and then the one who just tells me I’m doing a good job.