I am a mother

May 12, 2013
Gerri Britt and Donna Britt in 2006
Gerri Britt and Donna Britt in 2006.

Last week, watching my son, 17, saunter toward the car after school, I thought for the umpteenth time, “Who is this tall, good-looking youth who walks like he hasn’t a care in the world?” Sliding into the car, Skye took one look at me, and—feeling my gaze–asked, “Why are you staring at me and smiling?”

I paused. “Because I’m your mother,” I finally blurted, sounding a bit daft. I would have sounded crazier if I’d added, “…and part of me still doesn’t believe it.”

I first became a mom three decades ago, but the fact still astounds and bewilders me. Am I a “mother” by virtue of having given birth? Or is it a title earned by having given myself over to helping transform three helpless newborns into the accomplished young men they are today?

Of all the identities I’ve embraced—daughter, sister, wife, friend–“mother” has always been the scariest. I understand how influential mothers can be. And though I often wonder who I’d be had I never given birth, another question consumes me more:

Who would I be if I’d not been born to my mother? Among my biggest blessings is that several times a week, the wondering gaze that envelopes my teenager is his maternal grandmother’s. At 89, Gerri Britt couldn’t be feistier, funnier, more attractive or more alive. I couldn’t be prouder of her. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we still get on each other’s nerves.

Mostly, in my case, because I still feel her gaze.

Each Mother’s Day, I ponder how annoyance and irritation are as much a part of motherhood as adoration and support. Being in my 50s, I’m inordinately grateful to still have Mom to inspire, assist and amuse me, to blanket me in unconditional love even as she sometimes smothers and scrutinizes me. My irritation derives from how powerful her influence remains on me. Through no fault of her own, her sideways glance or innocent suggestion feels like a nudge—or a slap. Like when I was 17, I feel her eyes, watching, studying, following me as closely as mine follow Skye and his brothers. Her gaze is so palpable, it seems to leave fingerprints.

I can’t help wondering: What’s it like not having your mother, especially on Mother’s Day? Do you still feel her gaze?

My friend Mary Jo’s mom died in 1981 at age 57, passing away before most of the seminal events of her daughter’s life—marriage, the birth of her two, now-grown sons, her achievements as a family worker. As the most “strong-headed” among her siblings, Mary Jo often butted heads as a young woman with her traditional, Mennonite mother, whose memory each year prods her less.

“Life just moves on, so she’s not as immediate,” Mary Jo says. While raising her sons, 28 and 25, she felt her mother’s presence more, “reflected more on what she was like as a mother, in some ways modeling her, in other ways, going a different path. As a parent, I understand now how difficult being a mother is. Today, I look at her with more affection and admiration.”

She pauses. “I’m three years older than she was when she died,” she says. “I thought about that when I turned 57, wondering ‘If I was dying now, would I feel I’d lived a good life? I wonder if she felt she had a life well lived. I think she probably did.’

Little in life is more agonizing than losing a mother. But death, like life, can be unpredictable. My friend Monica’s mother passed at age 87 from Alzheimer’s. For most of her life, Monica says, her distant, chronically depressed mother’s gaze didn’t feel embracing. In truth, Monica rarely felt seen by her at all. She resented her mother because she felt forced to be her caretaker. In a huge twist of fate, Monica says, the disease that took her mother away gave them a more loving relationship.

“My mother having Alzheimer’s helped me to be a better person,” she says. “For years, I didn’t get anything out of taking care of her because she demanded it.” But while assisting her mother at the nursing home where she spent her last years, Monica discovered that “caring for her wasn’t an obligation anymore…. If you had told me ten years before she died that I’d take care of her so well, I would have told you you’d lost your mind.”

Tending to her “taught me something I’d never believed—that I was genuinely a good person,” Monica explains. “When you don’t feel your parent loves you, you go, ‘Well there’s something wrong with me because parents always love their children.’” Her mother’s illness was so profound, Monica found she “had to let go of any resentment, any hurt—now they’re all gone….”

“It really was a blessing,” she concludes. “People don’t want to hear it, but if she hadn’t gotten sick, I’d still be angry and resentful.” Dealing with Alzheimer’s “was hard and tiring, but it was the best thing that could have happened for our relationship.”

Listening to my friends’ memories of their mothers make me even more grateful for the mom whose loving gaze still prods me.  For half a century, it has goaded and challenged me, making me a better student, mother, writer, human being.

I thank God it’s still there, making me crazy.

Donna Britt is a former Washington Post columnist and is the author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”

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