The absent grandmother

I want to have kids, but I don’t want them now. I don’t want them now for several reasons: career, finances, personal situations. But I also don’t want them now because I want to be the kind of mother my mother was to me. 

My mom loved us. Not in the way that all parents love their children (but certainly this too), but in an all-encompassing, specific and tailored love. She loved us with a deep deep empathy for our need to create ourselves, even long after it was a cute expression in our toddler bodies. She winced but supported our crazy hairstyles, our late night friendships, our disinterest in certain classes. She thought carefully about how to approach my brothers as they started exploring alcohol and drugs. 

My mother accepted the ultimate lack of control she could have over us if she wanted us to become independent beings, able to navigate our own lives with confidence and agency. She explored our personalities and interests in the same way she might a stranger, completely rapt in our feelings and thoughts of the moment. She didn’t harken back to yesterday, a year ago. She didn’t try to push us toward who she thought we would be. We just were, and she was happy to witness. 

I think she was able to do this, in part, because of how much she valued her own independence. My mother wanted to mother: it was in her bones. But she was also smart and entrepreneurial, numbers-savvy and customer oriented and imbued with a profound sense of integrity. For all of her life as my mother, she had her own business in one way or another. A cleaning business, Watkins, Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, a welcoming service, a printing gig, all of these sometimes supplemented with things like waitressing. 

She told me once that she used to feel bad when I was little – she would be in her office, a space she always set aside for herself, working. I would drag a warm blanket and lay by her feet. She would look at me and feel she wasn’t doing enough.

I told her not to feel bad. I had loved that. I didn’t want her to get on the floor and play with me, I just wanted to be near her, and she was always happy to have me. “You were my buddies,” she told me. “I was always glad to have you with me.” What kind of love is that? So close to a big, warm hug but also the widest, open arms to send you chasing your own dreams. She wanted us to be free. 

When my mother was dying, but before she believed she was dying, she talked about coming to live with me and my husband and eventually being a caretaker for our future children. “I won’t pay rent,” she said. “But I will watch over your children. I will bring them to you on your lunch break – I’ll even order your food for you so you can just show up and be with them. Wouldn’t that be nice?” My mother was very much looking forward to grandmothering. She saw it as an opportunity to be the kind of mother she had wanted to be. 

When she died, I had this thought: Now I will have to love them with the love of two mothers.

My mother was devastated by not having my grandmother more involved in our lives. By the time my mom had us kids, grandma was already deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s. The first time I met many of my relatives, we had flown to Boston for my grandmother’s funeral. 

Once my mother was crying next to me in bed and I asked her, Why are you crying?

Sometimes you just need to cry, honey. Sometimes I still miss my mom.

Now when I think about having children, I am thinking also about the mythos I will create about my mother. What will I tell them? What stories will they associate with her existence? I only have one memory of my grandmother, a woman I met only a couple of times as a child: I put my shoes in the most out-of-the-way place I could find, and still she yelled, No! Move them! 

What stories will I tell my children about my mother? How can she possibly be described?

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