Guest post: What does it mean to be a mother? My daughter's plans for parenting her children when she's gone
Today, MN blogger Kate Gross - who is fighting cancer - will be spending what may be her last Mother's Day with her mother, her grandmother and her own children.
In this guest post, Kate’s mother Jean considers what it means to be a parent, and her daughter’s quest to provide love and support for her sons long after she's gone.
Posted on: Sun 30-Mar-14 10:32:51
(34 comments )
Today we will have three generations of mothers at our house. There’s Kate’s Grandear who had her hundredth birthday in February and is mother to Kate’s Dad. There’s Billy’s mother, over from Ireland, and me. There’s Kate, mother to Oscar and Isaac. So it’s a good time to write about being a mother.
The last few months I’ve watched Kate engaged in a great deal of advance mothering, doing all she can to smooth Oscar and Isaac’s path through life by remote control. She has thought carefully about all the things she would have done with them as they got older. As a result she’s recording the Narnia canon on her iPad so they can still listen to her reading the books aloud, one day. This week it’s been The Horse and his Boy (I hope we make it to The Last Battle). There is a bookshelf planned, too, for the boys’ bedroom, with her favourite books arranged shelf by shelf in age bands. She continues to write a book based around her blogs and new essays, so that Oscar and Isaac will know who she was and how much she loved them.
Billy is filling a digital archive with photos and film and family memories. And then there’s a Trust fund to be set up so that kind donors can make it possible for family and friends to take Oscar and Isaac to the far-away places that have been important to Kate. She wants them to grow up to be citizens of the world, like she is. She would have taken them to India, to Hampi and Rajasthan. To Vietnam where she travelled with her sister, and the Middle East, where she grew up. To Africa - especially Rwanda and Sierra Leone. To America, where she and Billy always wanted to take the boys to live for a while. And maybe even to study abroad, to expand their horizons further still.
This advance mothering feels like planning a kind of treasure hunt for the boys to follow, with each clue telling them more about their mother. Kate is explaining herself to her children, and in so doing giving them an explanation of themselves. Actually, they are luckier than most. So many of us don’t ever have that explanation, because our parents age and we are always too busy and don’t have time to ask. I remember my father dying, at nearly eighty. He had a small collection of books in his bedroom, bookended on a side table. I knew they defined him in some way, but I didn’t ask why until it was too late.
More practically, Kate has written an instruction manual telling us, amongst other things, how to manage the boys’ everyday lives – school lunches, playdates, clothes, washing, when they’ll need their eyes tested.
What is it, then, mothering? You protect (when you can). You comfort (when you are there – disembodied comfort is difficult). You pass on who you are, and what you’ve learned. Mothering changes as your children grow older. It starts with a visceral connectedness. It’s the closest to our evolutionary past we’ll ever come. John Bowlby wrote beautifully about the biological attachment system, the force-field linking child and mother. Mother at the centre, predators not far away, child straying no further than a twenty yard radius before being pulled back by invisible strings.
This advance mothering feels like planning a kind of treasure hunt for the boys to follow, with each clue telling them more about their mother. Kate is explaining herself to her children, and in so doing giving them an explanation of themselves. Actually, they are luckier than most. So many of us don't ever have that explanation, because our parents age and we are always too busy and don't have time to ask.
The urge to protect and comfort is all-consuming. It doesn’t stay so fierce. In the early years of primary school, another circle forms around our children and they begin (ever so slowly) to drift off. Friends, mates, the big wide world. When I was a primary teacher I taught six to seven-year-olds and somewhere part-way through the year they stopped inadvertently calling me ‘mummy’.
So you relax a bit, unless the children are ill or in trouble. They reach adolescence and define new selves. They spend so long looking in the mirror that they temporarily stop seeing other people. They bring home a series of Massively Unsuitable Boyfriends. There is a long period when they actually become pretty boring. I seem to remember just wondering when Kate would grow up and start liking sensible, civilised things instead of getting muddy at Glastonbury and wearing dreadful shoes and eating mould from the fridge.
As a mother you are still, always of course, only as happy as your unhappiest child, but the further they drift the less likely you are to know about the day-by-day ups, downs and heartaches. You worry, but only about what you know, which is unlikely to include the full scale of experimentation with illicit substances or the hazards of bungee jumping and riding buses on gap years.
There is a period of detachment, when contact is intermittent and mainly focused on the possibility of cash subsidies. They forget your birthday. Sometimes, you almost forget theirs. We parents are there in emergencies but, as in all long term relationships, some of the magic has gone.
But then the children finally do grow up, become less myopic and get interesting again because there is a growing common ground. You like the same things. You share the same history. What mothering feels like then is a deep friendship that neither of you ever want to lose.
And so we come to loss, or the prospect of loss. I should say a bit about what that feels like. Here’s one mother worry: as well as being Kate’s mother, I’m also Jo’s. She’s one of two. They are close, Jo and Kate. Jo never asked to be an only child; it wasn’t foreseen. I’m afraid she’ll feel lonely if Kate isn’t there.
I sometimes think about how it will be, Afterwards, for all of us. To know how that feels at worst (which really, really isn’t often), look at this film of Martha Wainwright singing Proserpina. You should only look, though, if you want a good wallow. And you have to know the story of Proserpina first:
'Proserpina, or Persephone, was the daughter of the goddess Demeter. Persephone was beautiful, and young, and wise. One day she was dancing in the sunshine of a flower-filled meadow. She was seen by Hades, god of the Underworld, who wanted her for his own. He stole her away to his kingdom, to live forever in the darkness of the land of the dead.
Persephone longed for the sunshine, and wept. She turned her face to the wall and refused to eat or drink.
Meanwhile, her mother Demeter sought for her everywhere. Finally she went to her brother Zeus and asked him to help find Persephone. From the top of Mount Olympus Zeus was able to see where Persephone was. He ordered Hades to return her to the land of the living.
Hades said he would only give Persephone back if she had not eaten or drunk a single thing from the Underworld. She had touched little, but she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. So it was agreed that Persephone could spend six months a year above ground with her mother, but she would have to spend the other six months in the Underworld.
And that is how it has been ever since, according to the story. Each spring, like grain, Persephone comes up out of the earth, and dances in the meadow. In the winter she returns to the dark. Her mother weeps again.'
The song Proserpina was written by Martha Wainright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, not long before she died of cancer at the age of sixty-four. So when she sings, Martha is not grieving for a child, but for her mother.
And so it goes – mother to daughter, daughter to mother. Mothers and sons. The story of Persephone takes us to the heart of loss that is inevitable. It also conveys the way Kate and we in her inner circle live at the moment: the long dreary winter of chemotherapy with the hope of spring and summer to come, even if not for ever.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did by chance become always summer and never winter? We might just find ourselves fearfully over-prepared (it’s a family trait): memory boxes and Narnia recordings at the ready but not needed, a Trust Fund suspended, a bench in Cambridge’s Botanic Gardens installed but awaiting its inscription. Pandora’s story (… all that remained in the box was the winged creature called Hope) is another great Greek myth.
And truly, it isn’t all bad. Since The Nuisance elbowed its way into our lives, we have become a much closer family. We have bridged the distances that grow between parents and their adult children and know and admire Kate and Jo much more than we ever would have otherwise.
On Saturday we were out in our garden in the sun collecting frogspawn in jars with Oscar and Isaac. Their tree house is being built here this week, and I’ll be going to Mothering Day roast dinner with the boys at their school – cultivating my role as what Oscar (noticing I was often there when Kate couldn’t be) once kindly called ‘the spare’.
We have so much fun. There’s still a warm fire to sit by, the garden we are creating, the view of the lake. The trinity of fire, earth and water that soothes, because it is also grounded in our evolutionary history.
‘There is a crack, there is a crack, in everything – it’s how the light gets in.’ Leonard Cohen.
There will still be three generations of mothers round a table today, and we’ll be laughing.
By Jean Gross
Tears in my eyes reading your post. Enjoy your day with your family.
Thank you for sharing your story.
to all of you.
Beautiful post. Thank you.
You all are in my prayers and may god give you strength to carry on.
I do hope that the Narnia recordings grow dusty due to not being needed. Have a wonderful day today.
Happy Mothering Sunday
you never know how strong you are until there is no choice but to be strong. so they say. motherhood never seems to stop providing more opportunities to be strong.
peace be with all of you x
Happy mothers day to all the lovely mums here. Whether you have got a present/card or you haven't. This day you should think of it as a day which you could praise your self for all the hard work you have done as a mother/grand mother. Maybe make some time for your self, send the kids to bed early and have a nice hot bath with candles and bubbles, use relaxing oil. We all at mumz net know how much we do as mums and appreciate one an other, remember we play a big role in our kids life, we keep the family going, we cook, clean, shop, look after, care, love, sacrifice, pretend to be ok, remember their birthdays, and a lot more.....
What a beautiful writing about something that must've so hard to deal with. I hope you have had a lovely day with all your family.
Beautifully written, I'm shedding a tear or two, and am going to go upstairs and say goodnight to my children, very very grateful that I have them and they have me, for however much time we have.
You are clearly a very close, strong family.
I read this having just returned from an afternoon in the Cambridge Botanic Gardens with our two teenage boys. At one point we sat on a bench enjoyng the sunshine, and I thought about how lucky I am. Having read your blogpost, I realise I dont really appreciate how lucky.
I hope and pray that you and your daughter don't need the elaborate plans you've made. I hope that no bench I sit on in the BG will bear your daughter's name. But if it does, then I will know that her boys will be growing up in a loving strong supportive family, and that they will be ok.
Thinking of you all.
What a beautiful thought provoking piece. I hope Kate's plans, well laid and comprehensive as they are, are not needed for a long, long time.
An absolutely lovely piece of writing, written with so much love. Hoping for the very best for Kate.
An honest and beautifully written piece. Thank you so much for sharing your story - I hope those Narnia recordings grow dusty in a cupboard, not required for many many years.
Your mothering of your daughters and of your grandsons will continue that essential thread. And Kate having been so prepared, not only her preparations but Billy will be able to continue her mothering. It is one person's special way of doing it, but she can pass it on, it doesn't need to be gender specific.
One of the loveliest images of God and mothering is of a hen with her chicks under her wings. May Oscar and Isaac find those wings always there, from Kate for as long as possible. Her chicks will be safe because if what she has done, mothered in turn by you.
I can barely reply for the sadness I feel at your post.
Your love shines through, for your daughter and your grandchildren.
They are so lucky to have you, and you are lucky to share this time with them.
I have 2 siblings with cancer, and I hope when the time comes I will face this time with the love and courage you have shown in your post.
thank you again. I wish you and your daughter strength and love.
Thank you for sharing the love that resides in your family.
Me, I am a little like you. A mother who desperately loves her daughter. A mother who knows that there is no end to her love. A mother who cherishes every ordinary moment, knowing it will never come again, which makes it special at the same time.
Except I have already lost my daughter. Mia. 13 months, a little red-head, with a joyous smile.
How I hope that this is a journey of loss is one you do not take.
My plans for my little red-head girl, sit in my head, unfulfilled too. Narnia is there, The Silver Brumby too, and The Singing Tree. School lunches and make-up, travels and adventures, worries and laughter, all sit on a shelf in my mind, ready to share with Mia. How I wish I could.
Make the plans, fill them with love, and my wish for you all is to throw them away to enjoy being together, being in the moment, rejoicing in each other. Love is all that matters.
I hope you had a wonderful day. Beautiful writing.
I also hope you had a wonderful day . No-one should have to be this brave.
Raz234 - JohnnyBarthes was referring to the writing by Jean Gross in the OP. I find it strange that your post, although well intentioned, made no reference to the OP who writes very movingly about mothering, and the heartbreaking difficulties facing her family at this present time.
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