My sons are all grown up, and they probably have very little real use for a mother. But here I am. Still their mother. They send me Mother’s Day flowers. They unabashedly hug me and tell me they love me. And I certainly love them back. But what exactly is my job description? What does it mean to be the mother of men, not boys?
When my children were actual children, I intuitively understood how to parent them. (Parent wasn’t a verb back then, but never mind.) If I had doubts about my role or practical questions, I knew where to turn. The well-worn pages of Drs. Spock, Haim Ginott, and Lee Salk. Or, in a pinch, my own mother. Diaper rash? Refusal to go to school? These experts had solutions. As a result, I felt confident much of the time. Even when I stumbled, or bribed the boys with M&M’s, or failed to recognize the sinus infection, the Wise Ones were there to lift me up and keep me going.
But as my kids entered adulthood, things changed. I never quite knew what function I was supposed to serve. There was no literature on mothering someone who was past the age of eighteen. Only TV comedians joking about men’s mothers calling too often or at the wrong time. The old mother-in-law meme. In popular culture, the mothers of adult men are almost always either a burden or a joke.
When my children came of age, in the 1990s, there were no cell phones for easy contact, no texting, no Facebook snooping. I watched my sons from a respectful distance. College, relationships, grad school, first jobs. I assumed that they needed space in which to find themselves. I kept thinking about Doctor Spock and his disapproval of playpens. “Let them explore,” he had written. I trusted that advice still applied.
During those years, I had a demanding career outside the home which I loved. I advanced professionally and I threw myself into my work. But my career never provided me with the same kind of intimate, gut-searing, belly-laughing satisfaction as did being a mother. I didn’t mind the physical emptiness of the nest, but as a Mother Hen, I missed being a flight instructor. I had loved answering my kids’ questions, soaring with them as they discovered the world. Now they were flying solo and I felt as if I had gotten a pink slip from the airline that had hired me for life.
I also missed the wackiness inherent in sharing a house with small, creative people who were frequently changing their rooms into jungles or building marble chutes from the dining room to the bathtub. I missed the excitement of teenagers who brought home exotic girlfriends and stray cats. (Once they all had a friendly food fight in my absence with soggy sweet potatoes.) There were painful moments during their adolescence, but seldom dull ones.
When my sons were in their twenties, I felt weirdly removed from their day-to-day lives. I wasn’t alone. I would talk to friends and ask them about their own children, all of whom were now young adults. Clearly they missed their kids, too, but they would talk about them in vague terms. . .because, well, their connection to 25-year-olds was vague, maybe a bit tenuous. “She’s doing well.” Or “He’s finding himself.” Or “You know how it is: They’re busy,” they’d say.
I felt closer to my children as they turned thirty, then forty. As a family, we started reaching out in different ways. Maybe the ease of new technology helped us to connect more frequently. Or maybe we all felt the passing of time, the urgency of acknowledging each other in meaningful ways. I have to admit, however, that the role of Mother of Grey-Haired Men still remains somewhat of a mystery.
At the birth of the first grandchild, I felt as if I were momentarily taken out of mothballs. My opinion was sought and it felt good to be useful, in a maternal sort of way. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that much of my baby lore was out of date. Babies no longer sleep on their stomachs. Breast pumps are high tech. Honey is a no-no for babies under one year. Who knew?
I have friends who say that their raison d’être vis à vis their grown up children is linked to money. They see themselves essentially as walking Visa cards, providing down payments for houses, handing out bonus trips to Caribbean resorts, or picking up the tab when the extended family goes to restaurants. Even if I had more disposable income, I’m not sure I’d like the role of sugar-mommy very much.
One friend brings her grown daughters and their husbands to the South of France for three weeks every summer. She’s a diehard Francophile. She rents a house, pays for it, buys airline tickets for everyone, and expects them to show up. “They love it,” she says. But I’m not so sure. I’d be willing to bet that one of these Julys, a son-in-law is going to wish he were going some place of his own choosing. Offer a selection, Dr.Spock used to say, at least when it came to vegetables.
Other friends define the mother-adult child relationship as purely friendship. “We’re buddies now.” “They’re my best friends!” they proclaim.
Yes, of course, I, too, cherish the “quasi-peer” quality of my current relationship with my sons. My kids are smart and funny and compassionate. They have all the qualities of the people I like best. Together, we never fail to have stimulating conversations. We can talk about feelings. If we go out for pizza, we agree on anchovies. We can do things together and feel like chums. Up to a point.
Because, let’s face it, my emotional investment is different. I am never just listening to my children’s news with friendly objectivity. I’m constantly doing “the mother thing” in my head. I never really stop thinking about the well-being of my kids. Even if those kids have several decades under their belts and the beginnings of hair loss. If my colleague says he’s quitting his job to climb Kilimanjaro, I wish him well and advise him on hiking poles when he asks. If my son makes the same announcement, I immediately wonder if his marriage is on the rocks. At the very least I worry about his asthma at high altitude.
Do I articulate these thoughts out loud? Heck no. I go back to the paradigm of how to look at the messy finger paintings of kindergarten. I apply the old advice. Don’t make statements. Don’t say it’s pretty. Don’t make assumptions that the yellow glob is a butterfly.
Instead, just say. “Tell me about it.”
Tell me about it. The questionable real estate purchase. The weird job change. The new diet. The sudden fanatic interest in playing squash. Whatever my children share with me, I don’t presume to be able to distinguish their butterflies from their monsters.
Sometimes my grey haired boys ask for advice. Sometimes they come to me with a heavy heart and I listen. I stress over their struggles and disappointments, but I am powerless to do much of anything. I still remember Doctor Spock’s counsel for dozens of conditions. Earache? Watch if the baby is tugging at his ear lobe. High Fever? Consider a cold bath. But there’s no simple solution to offer an adult child who is going through a divorce, dealing with job disappointment, or whose spouse suffers from chronic physical pain.
A few weeks ago, one of the grandchildren asked me if I was rich or poor.
“Neither,” I answered. “But I certainly do have treasures.”
“What kind of treasures?” he inquired, wide-eyed.
“My children and my grand-children,” I explained. “All my babies.”
“Oh,” he said. “I sometimes forget that my Daddy was once your baby.”
“I know you forget,” I said, “but I never do.”
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Gabriella Brand‘s writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Room Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Echoes, PIF, The Citron Review, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize Nominee. Gabriella mostly lives in New England, where she teaches foreign languages and plots adventures. She has done a variety of long-distance treks in Asia and Europe and, so far, has lived to write about them. Her website is: gabriellabrand.net.