In the Company of Mothers

“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.

The author and her mom Lois.

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.

Learning a New Language: Love

“Every household has a first language, a kind of language of the home,” says Alex Kalman in The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration and Discover Joy in the Everyday.

If that’s true, the language of the home I grew up in was chaos.

My dad worked long hours in a Honeywell factory, assembling parts for our nation’s space program.

Sometimes he came home after his 12-hour shift. Often, he went out drinking. Sometimes he got drunk. Occasionally bad things happened. Like the time a buddy who was driving plowed into the back of a parked car, sending my dad through the windshield and to the emergency room to have his scalp stitched back together.

I learned about that the next morning when my mom sent me into my parents’ bedroom to wake my dad. I was in sixth grade at the time and, nearly 60 years later, can still picture his dried blood on my parents’ white sheets and the rows of stitches that ran up my dad’s forehead and into his balding scalp.

There was also the time my dad drove his car off the road and into a house. And the many times he just didn’t come home. By then, he owned a neighborhood bar where he and his favorite customers often stayed drinking until the wee hours of the morning.

And, no surprise, there were the frequent fights his drinking caused, fights he often didn’t remember but that I still find hard to forget.

Although there’s a lot about our COVID-induced isolation that I resent, one thing I do appreciate is that it’s given me the time and space to think more deeply about the patterns of behavior I grew up with and which ones no longer serve me.

Therapy and a supportive partner are a big help. So is Dr. Gary Chapman, whose work centers on helping people learn what he refers to as the five “love languages”:

  1. Affirming with words
  2. Giving gifts
  3. Offering physical touch
  4. Performing acts of service
  5. Spending quality time together

Although I wish the language of my home would have been different when I was growing up, I’m working hard to make love its language–and mine–now.

Simple Peace

Sixty-six degrees at eight in the morning on July 4 in Door County. My hands smell of lavender from making bouquets and the harvest piles up in an old, rusty green Suburban Garden wagon. The cold spring delayed sprigs maturing, but the first varieties are now ready. These mornings of working at a table with a sweeping view of blooming lavender rows, friends bent over the bushy plants, and collies running offer a respite from news and worries.

Yes, the world is dipping and swaying for huge reasons, and it is hard to be proud of the state of our nation. I couldn’t get into the goofy happiness of a small town 4th of July parade and snapping pictures of kids on decorated tractor wagons and the grocery store staff pushing decorated shopping carts. I haven’t absorbed the sickening news of another mass shooter at a different parade. National discord and gun violence keep Americans in an uncomfortable state of anxiety so I’m looking for moments of simple pleasure to build personal peace of mind. I’m talking really simple pleasures:

Fresh peas, shelled by someone else.

Sunshine and cool air this morning.


Two fawns playing in a neighbors’ yard.

Straight from the field strawberries.

Farmers market greens and cherry tomatoes.

Giggles of a happy infant granddaughter.

Our eight-year-old granddaughter singing.

Music while working.

A short pile of books.

Family and good friends a call or text away.

Some days you must restore your own core to keep pushing through your role in the bigger world. Here’s hoping you can create a list of simple pleasures to support minutes of personal peace.

Broken Dreams

Aniya Allen’s funeral was June 2, 2021.  Six years old, the newspapers said she wore a sparkling tiara in her small pink coffin. The second to die of three young children caught in gun violence in Minneapolis this May. One is still in hospital. On a local television news show, young Minneapolis school children talked about being afraid to play outside or go to the park or to see friends. They asked, begged, demanded that older kids and adults put down guns and give peace a chance and kids a chance to grow and dream. 

Unfortunately these two families are not the only ones who have lost their very young children to the senseless and unexpected gun fighting of young men with disagreements that should have been resolved with discussions, even strong words, maybe fists. Not guns shot in an alley. Not a shootout on a street corner where parents drove home from grocery stores or taking a child to McDonalds. These babies cannot be replaced, these families’ broken dreams cannot be rebuilt.

According to Brady every year 7,957 children and teens are shot in the United States. More than 1,600 will die from gun violence. Gun sales in the United States grew over 65% increase in 2019 and continue strong in 2020. Like icebergs, there is no true tally of general U.S. gun possession that accounts for arms purchased illegally or stolen. 

A child’s funeral is about the saddest gathering on earth. Eulogies for a child describe their smiles, their bright eyes, their wonderful laugh, their love of sports or dancing or swimming, their helpfulness, of pride in being a big sister or brother. All the ways a young child’s life should be talked about when families gather for birthdays or holidays, but not in a solemn church or temple service while mourning the one resting in a small pink coffin.

We have all lost Aniya Allen and Trinity Ottoson-Smith and the other 1,600 children and teens dead because of gun violence.  So many broken dreams.

Love Finds a Way in COVID-Times

Picture a wedding. What comes to mind? White dresses, bridesmaids in matching colors, extensive guest lists, showers, bachelor/bachelorette parties, walking up the aisle, flowers and music, elaborate receptions with carefully chosen (and usually expensive) food and drink, cake, first dances, honeymoons. Gifts. Lots of gifts—at showers, for bridesmaids and groomsmen, party favors for wedding guests, and gifts for the newly married couple. Of course, this vision wasn’t always so.

During WWII many couples, including my parents, improvised their weddings. Mom and Dad rescheduled twice and finally got married on the third try. Their wedding resembled the small, intimate weddings that have become common during COVID-Times. 

For some, the simplicity has been freeing. Too often weddings take on a life of their own. The couple can become performers of a script they didn’t wholeheartedly choose. 

This spring when our sons marry, they will have the essentials: love and commitment. Close friends and family standing by to support them. Meaningful vows. A pleasing setting and celebratory food. Joy. Everything they need.

Although my parents didn’t live to see their grandsons marry, there’s a pleasing symmetry in these small COVID-style weddings. When the times call for it, love finds a way.