I've been posting quite a bit about families and obligation lately.
My mother called on Saturday to tell me that she liked my "daring to disappoint" post from last Tuesday. She gave me her permission to post the following.
My parents divorced when I was six; my brother and I were raised by a single mother. (Our father visited regularly, and theirs was -- thank God -- a civil and even cordial separation.) It was not easy being a single mom to two very young sons. We might have lived in Carmel, but money was tight at times, and my mother had to cope with all of the anxieties and doubts that come in the aftermath of a divorce, separation, and the assumption of sole permanent custody.
But as we talked about on Saturday, my mother also gave a great gift to my brother and me: she always made it clear that she wasn't sacrificing her life for us. From the time we were small, our mother always took time for herself. She had her poetry group, her work with the League of Women Voters, and other social and community activities in which we were not involved. Now mind you, she was a loving and devoted mom! My brother and I grew up knowing we were cherished and protected and cared for. But we also knew that our mother did not exist merely to meet our needs -- she had a mind of her own, wants of her own, and she was going to make time for herself as well as for her sons.
What my mother wanted to do, and succeeded in doing, was liberating us from the horrible pressure of living our lives to pay back a mom who had "sacrificed everything for us." My mom had seen too many parents devote everything they had to their children, with their only joys coming from their kids' successes. She had seen some of those kids grow up into anxious and guilt-ridden adults, who were continually haunted by a sense that their mothers and fathers (more often their mothers) had given up so damned much for them. There are few burdens more awful, she felt, than having to live a life that justifies all of your parent's sacrifices!
My mother was and is a feminist. As I've written before, we grew up with Ms. Magazine and books by Germaine Greer and Kate Millett on the coffee table. But my mother's greatest feminist lesson was this: she made it clear that we could not expect women to drop everything for us. Relationships mattered, families mattered, love mattered -- but personal happiness mattered too! My mother knew that someday her sons would be in relationships with women, and she knew enough to know that how she met our needs as small boys would be reflected in many of our choices when we became boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. So she showed us two things:
1. She loved us very, very much and always would
2. Her happiness was not solely contingent upon us
I grew up with absolute certainty about both of these things, and it was and is one of the greatest gifts my mother could have given me. My mother never, ever, gave us the awful speech far too many of my students get: "After all I've done for you, you owe it to me to..." I've seen friends of mine who still struggle as adults to overcome the tremendous guilt they feel, knowing how much their parents sacrificed for them. And while I honor that their parents did make sacrifices, I urge these same friends to not pass on this dreadful legacy to their children. This doesn't mean abandoning your kids, mind you -- it's perfectly possible to shower your children with love and give them a sense of security while simultaneously making it clear to them from an early age that your happiness does not hinge on what they do!
So my belief in the importance of women's autonomy and personal freedom -- even as wives and mothers -- came to me early in life. A first-born son growing up in a household without a father (amateur psychologists, have at it!), I was very close to my mother. I still am. And my adult feminism is linked in no small way to the lessons she taught me. Motherhood, I learned, is a role -- but it need not be an all-consuming identity. The fact that my mother had a life outside of her children gave me the confidence to live out my life without fear that I would destroy her if I made mistakes or deviated from a planned path. Her commitment to her own happiness allowed me to make a similar commitment to my own -- and for that, I will forever be tremendously grateful.