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Mothers Day 2011

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Happy Mothers Day!

The World Mothers’ Index

Every year around Mothers’ Day, I’ve just discovered, an organization called Save the Children issues a report on the State of the World’s Mothers. This is an analysis of the quality of life for women and children, taking into consideration access to resources; nutrition; rates of infant mortality, and much much more. According to this year’s report, the best place to be a mother is Norway, while the worst is a no-brainer–Afghanistan.

I’ve noticed lately that in a lot of these quality-of-life reports the Scandinavians seem to frequently come out on top. Iceland is ostensibly a divine place to live—who knew? I guess you’d have to like the cold, though; maybe a better quality of life is compensation for living through long hard winters. I’d love to visit Iceland…but I digress. According to this year’s Index, the USA comes in at #31 for las madres y ninas – not terrible, but shouldn’t we be nearer the top? (Actually, that number is a slight simplification – they change with each category). Read fascinating facts and figures, plus essays by champions of women worldwide like Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times.

Dirty Laundry’s Mothers’ Index

Last year I conducted a short poll on DL asking mothers how they felt about this holiday. Since many responses came in way after the day in question, I saved their answers for this year; here are a few remarks I found particularly poignant:

I usually get my plants for the season on Mother’s Day.  It was always my mothers birthday around Mother’s Day…but now I have to defer to my mother-in-law, which of course I resent. So on Sunday I’ll be eating take-out with her in her apartment…after all, she is 90 years old, and my husband’s mother and my son’s grandmother…but I’m still getting my plants! Happy Mothers’ Day!

Hate it! I hate being dragged to a crowded restaurant where everything is tense and rushed and so f**king pastel and with other people’s children running amok. Why can’t I have a Father’s Day kind of day – sleep in, wear crappy clothes, and grill something?

Love it! Breakfast in bed. Flowers. Schmaltzy but fun

I am not that happy on Mothers Day, since I lost my mom on that day. It’s been many years now, and while I still miss her, I just smile for the sake of my children and grandchildren. Now that my children are parents, they kind of forget how important this day can be for me. It’s a hard day…

Finally, in my recent review of Susie Bright’s memoir, I mentioned that both of our mothers lost their own mothers at an early age. I wrote about this awhile ago, as part of my own memoir-in-progress, How Little We Know.

Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Mother

Once, in my late twenties, I invited my mother, Rhoda, to attend an off-Broadway play created and performed by friends of mine. It was unusual for me to include her in this sort of thing; I didn’t like being in daughter mode, in which I often felt powerless, around my peers. As we rode the downtown bus to the theater, I became increasingly anxious at the prospect of introducing my mother to my friends. Would she like them? Would she disapprove? Most of all, would she embarrass me? Even when I was a kid, my mother seldom mingled with my friends, so this was unfamiliar territory for us. My mother was a judgmental woman; should she disapprove of the play, or be critical in front of my friends afterwards, I would be humiliated.

My mother was oblivious to my concerns: from her point of view we were simply going to the theater, something we’d done many times before.  Suddenly I experienced a flash of illumination: because my mother’s mother, Lily, died when my mother was a child, Rhoda had never been in my position. She had never been an adult daughter.

This revelation struck me with such force, it was as if my mother suddenly stepped out of shadows and into light. Although Lillian Lichtenfeld’s death by pneumonia was a known piece of family history, I had never seen my mother’s loss as part of who she was, especially in her role as a mother. For the first time I understood how this intelligent woman could be so clueless in her behavior towards my siblings and me.

When Hope Edelman wrote Motherless Daughters, she spawned a national movement of grief and support groups. “Losing my mother at a young age,” one woman posted on the book’s Amazon.com site, “…was one of the strongest factors that shaped my life… unraveling that event is a process that will forever be with me.”

Edelman followed up with Motherless Mothers, in which she identified common threads among these women: they lived in a state of constant alertness, awaiting catastrophic loss. No matter how long ago their mothers died, memories and feelings surfaced when they themselves had children.

My mother was of the generation that tended not to explore their feelings, particularly around death. When Lily (who, I’ve just discovered, I cannot seem to call grandmother) died, my grandfather told Rhoda and her sister, my Aunt Janice, “You are never to speak of her again.” Not only did they obey him, but for the rest of their lives they didn’t question his orders. Only I, some eighty years later, am furious on behalf of those two little girls.


Knowing my mother’s experience, I am sometimes reluctant to name her sins. The first time I saw a therapist I could hardly utter a word against my mother without feeling it was a terrible betrayal. It is only since my mother’s death six years ago that I’m free to write about her; were she alive I’d rather die myself than risk the possibility of hurting her with my words.

It isn’t just her absence that freed me: during the two weeks that she lay first in hospital, then in hospice, I reached a place of forgiveness – at least temporarily. At one point she briefly emerged from semi-consciousness, lifted her arms, and pulled me into them. That one gesture eased the conflicts of our past, and by the time she died my anger at her had vanished: all that remained was the love.  (As I said, this was but temporary: over the years my anger has repeatedly reappeared, though tempered by much more compassion.)

Emotional abuse, say the experts, can be as difficult as the physical kind, in that it’s harder to identify. It took me a long time to name my mother’s behavior towards me. She spoke to me, more often than not, in a tone of contempt and dislike. She told me to “shut up” as casually and as frequently as some mothers say “I love you.” She repeatedly called me stupid, clumsy, and too sensitive. Sometimes I remember these things, and I wonder, Why did she hate me so? That’s how I felt: hated.

I’m  even more amazed when I recall her utter lack of involvement with me. My existence was wholly separate from my family, first as a daydreaming child,  later as a rebellious adolescent. When I got pregnant at eighteen my mother said, with bitter contempt, “I thought you were a nice girl.” Of course she was stunned: she had no inkling of who I was or what I did when I wasn’t right in front of her. Not once had she ever mentioned sex or birth control to me. If she had any expectations for my future, I have no idea what they might have been.

It’s no accident that as a mother I was inattentive: I’d never learned otherwise. But then neither did my mother—she’d been cruelly left to navigate motherhood on her own. If she was deficient, it was a deficiency for which she cannot be blamed. In later years she hinted at having regrets: she said she wished she hadn’t been so “strict” with my sister and me, strict being her euphemism I suppose for abusive. Except for this last-minute soul-searching, my mother had never, as far as I know, seriously examined her life, never tried to figure out why she was the way she was.

I, like most of my generation, have examined my life—some might say a bit too energetically—and hers as well. If I can see that she acted out of the condition of motherlessness, and can forgive her, you’d think I might forgive my own parenting mistakes. Ay, but there’s the rub: self-forgiveness doesn’t come easy.

I don’t know if my mother was able to forgive herself in the end. I do know she never stopped feeling motherless: on her deathbed she cried out for Lily. I hope my presence helped in some way: she may have lived and died motherless, but at the very least she did not have to die alone and daughterless.

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