What does it mean to be a mother? I faced that question as I watched my mother gradually evolve into someone I hardly knew.
I was in my early 30s looking forward to becoming a parent when my mother began her slow spiral into Alzheimer’s. At the same time, I experienced my first miscarriage. The next several years brought more miscarriages, and my mother lost the ability to hold onto her memories.
I put off trying to become a mother in my 20s because I was busy with my career as a magazine and newspaper journalist. But I had no idea what I would face in my 30s. My mother had been healthy all of her life. I expected her to be there for me and my future kids well into her 80s. But that wasn’t to be.
In her mid-70s, my mom could no longer care for herself. As I stepped into the role of caretaker, the dream of becoming a mother seemed to drift farther and farther away.
In the beginning of her illness, my mother became angry and upset at her own confusion. I made regular trips across the state to spend time with and try to understand what was happening to her. I often came home to an empty house because my husband traveled frequently.
Mothering has such deep meaning, and experiencing the loss on two levels caused sorrow to reverberate through my life. For a period of time, I felt lost.
Without my mother to comfort me in the loss of my pregnancies, I had to learn how to mother myself. I’ve always been an animal lover, and my horse Crimson filled a space for me. At times I cared for him in place of the child I could not have.
Horses and writing were my solace. Seeing my mother’s anguish was heart wrenching. I poured my grief into my journals. Writing provided a way for me to put some distance between myself and what I was feeling. Some days, when the pain was too much to bear, I would go to the barn and lean my head against my horse’s neck. Crimson would stand like a statue absorbing my emotions.
Amazingly, despite this decade of loss, a part of me felt more alive than I’d ever felt before. A sense of compassion for others and appreciation for each moment grew within me as I experienced the ragged edges of life – my mother’s illness and my own miscarriages. And I couldn’t help but be inspired by my mother’s will to live, communicate and love even as her faculties slipped away.
At the age of 40, I gave birth to Sydney, a beautiful baby girl. I experienced both the ecstasy of becoming a parent and the sadness of not being able to share the experience with my mother.
Yet, I couldn’t help but be grateful for moments of connection. When I was in the hospital after giving birth to my daughter, I called my mother at the rest home. Usually she was unable to answer or talk on the phone. But that day, by some miracle, she picked up the phone, and I told her about her granddaughter. My mother seemed to understand the news.
I learned to embrace special memories for both of us. As the days and weeks went by, my mother forgot who her granddaughter was. Sometimes she’d say, “Who’s that little boy?”
I would gently explain, “That’s Sydney, Mom. She’s my daughter.”
While my mother couldn’t hold onto the words, she intuited that my baby belonged to our family. Seeing the look of love on Mom’s face when she was with Sydney taught me that the bonds of mothering run so much deeper than words.
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