Back-floating into Motherhood
For years I thought I knew her better than I knew anyone else, though in truth I saw her - as so many of us see our mothers - as merely an extension of myself, as I was of her when I lived in her womb.
She was always there. She stayed home with us until I was 10 and my brother was 5, though she always worked part-time as a fitness instructor, blaring "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" over the basement cassette player and working out moves to her latest aerobics dance.
I didn't start to see her distinctly, a ferocious and uncompromising and heartbreakingly kind woman, until a few years ago, about seven months after my oldest son was born.
"I want to give you an exercise," the therapist said. "I want you to write an obituary for your mom."
Recounting the story now seems morbid, but what my counselor was really trying to do -- I learned later when I took counseling classes myself in studying to become a pastor -- was help me to distinctly separate from my mom, to see her as a unique person herself, and not merely as she related to me, her eldest daughter.
I only went back to that counselor a couple of more times. We moved from the West Coast back to the Midwest, for the first time, and I felt like we'd made some progress in the few sessions I'd had. I never did turn in an obituary. But merely drafting it in my head transformed the way I saw my mom.
The obituary began with when and where she was born. 1956, a month early while on a visit to her grandparents in St. Paul, Minn., back to a small pastoral town in Iowa, shortly before journeying across America's cornfields and heartland to western Nebraska, later Missouri and finally returning to the home of her parents' parents, in Minnesota. Later, she'd give birth to me on her 29th birthday.
I started to hear my mom's words to me when we talked, almost every day, as a reflection not of me but of her. Her concern for me was not a reflection of my own ineptitude but of her own deep love. What I sometimes heard as paranoia or as smothering I realized came instead from a deeply rooted desire for closeness, relationship, and expressed affection, something that she and her own mom had never quite perfected, both of them free-spirited and wild and wise but my grandma pragmatic and showing affection cautiously, while my mom sprayed her affection like a fire hydrant that had been uncapped, spraying water into the air ceaselessly and seeking out love, affection and connection wherever she went. Everyone loved her.
She had innumerable friends; they all relied on her from time to time and I remember her walking around the house with the oversized cordless phone, carrying dusting wipes and rearranging the pillows on the couch before we left the house. I do it now, too. I never knew how important pillows would be to me.
My first pregnancy had been somewhat unexpected; just a few months after my husband and I got married and moved from the Midwest to Las Vegas. We told my mom over Skype and I noticed that she became speechless, for perhaps the first time I'd ever seen.
"Why can't she support me?" I wondered.
Later I thought about her own journey. She and my dad battled infertility, and she did not become pregnant until more than four years after getting married; after dating for five years first, all they'd wanted was to become parents. As a result I was spoiled: more with attention than with material gifts. My parents were dazzled by my very presence, and we spent hours together playing on the floor and at the park, making picnics and laughing.
It took another five years before my brother was born. I can barely recall her pregnancy or maternity clothes. As a daughter I always saw her as an impossible ideal. I looked at her wedding photos and thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, prettier even than Princess Diana.
She told me later that she'd bought the first wedding dress she'd seen that she could afford with a small amount of cash her grandfather had given her. Her parents had gotten divorced when she was in high school, and their family never had much money. Looking at her wedding album later she saw only flaws and imperfections. I wished she could see what I saw.
Only later did I realize that while she could not see herself the way I saw her, the person she saw the way that I saw her was me. On my wedding day she was a bundle of nerves and inexpressible joy. At my wedding shower she had sat next to me as I opened gifts, so overjoyed for me, her excitement even greater than my own as I opened myriad wine glasses and delicately crafted dinnerware from her army of devoted friends.
Since we lived far apart for my first pregnancy, when I got pregnant again back in the Midwest I was determined to do things differently. I invited my mom to my 13-week ultrasound and, unexpectedly early, we found out together that I was having another boy. She sat by my side, bated breath, as I told my husband, and she noticed how much he loved me. Their love for me had competed at times; now I saw her acceptance of a fact we'd both sometimes struggled to admit: we were both growing older, and times had changed.
Now my boys are growing up, and I'm still learning, and seeing my mom in new ways. She sends me articles about feminism and tells me about her frequent calls to her congressman. She accessorizes fashionable outfits and plans vacations and has even learned to text, though she still abhors social media. Recently she has discovered emojis and voice-texting, a source of constant unintentional humor.
Just the other day I remembered something about my mom I'd long forgotten. It happened when I was about 8, and our family was taking one of our first big trips as the four of us. My dad had gotten an award for youth sports management, and we'd spent three days at Disneyworld before driving to West Palm Beach.
For the first time I can remember, I got a glimpse of my mom as the woman she was - not only my mother.
She was laying on her back, legs and arms splayed, carried by the current of the Atlantic Ocean. She'd ventured out further into the waves than any of us; my little brother was playing in the sand because he was afraid of the water, and my dad was sitting with him.
I had waded in a few feet in my red sporty one-piece swimsuit, cheeks, nose and shoulders already bright pink from the Florida sun on my pale white Midwestern skin.
I could barely see her out there, back-floating and buoyed by the waves as they carried her in and out, staring up at the brilliant sun.
Her meticulously curled brown hair made flaccid by the salty water, her mascara running past her eyes, she was smiling.
I remembered she'd told me she used lifeguard and be a diver, spending her summers at the pool. The oldest of four, attending high school a year or two too early for Title IX, she was an athlete nonetheless, graceful and powerful and unafraid.
I shouted at her. She was too far away. What was she doing, anyway?
She swam towards me and blinked, the beads of water on her forehead shimmering.
"It's so fun!" she said. "I'm back-floating! The water carries you! Just try it!"
I couldn't do it then, and I wouldn't figure it out for years. My torso always sunk into the water no matter how hard I tried, my legs would start kicking frantically and the relaxation was ruined. I felt like I was drowning.
Still, my mom's words stuck with me.
A few days ago, in the dead part of winter in the Upper Midwest, I decided to swim laps at the local pool. I pulled my sporty one-piece over my child-bearing hips and twisted my hair into a bun, securing my rainbow goggles around my face.
Jumping in, I was at first shivering and then elated, the water falling over me and parting with little resistance, like seemingly nothing else in my life, which resisted me at every turn and pulled me into conflict and frustration and tension and stress.
Did we have milk? Was the floor clean? Did my youngest have his mittens? Did I pay that bill? Was I doing OK: at work, at home, at life?
I did my usual lap swimming routine, an inefficient and inexperienced swimmer, I nonetheless kept moving forward from one wall to the other. At one point I flipped over onto my back and began stroking backwards, staring at the ceiling above.
For an instant, lying there on my back, suspended in the pool, I felt my body held aloft by the water. I paused my frenetic movement. I thought of my mom.
She had felt this feeling, on that hot August day in the Atlantic Ocean. She had experienced this briefest relief, this impossible assurance that she did not need to hold it all together, at least for a moment. The water lifted her up and promised not to let her fall. She relaxed into it, wrecking her hair and her makeup and prematurely aging her skin, though she'd never look her age.
The water that held her was holding me too, and the more I saw her for who she was, the more I saw myself and the unbroken cord of women who loved and protected the ones they loved, fiercely and imperfectly and painfully.
Women and mothers together, we refused to entirely forget who we were, to be defined as who the world wanted us to be. Our strength was internal but also external, borrowed from one another, from the women who bore us and battled with us and loved us.
That same week I saw a video taken of my grandmother, my mom's mom.
"Beryl Braaten, age 87, still hopeful that the Equal Rights Amendment (for women) can pass ... "
I share my grandmother's hope, that as I see my mom and my mom's strength and love and unconquerable beauty, that all women will be seen - mothers, grandmothers, daughters, human beings.