My grandmother’s (we called her Mamaw) youngest daughter, my mother, seemed to have little in common with her mother from the very beginning. Unlike her two older sisters, Mom favors my grandfather with her dark features and olive complexion. She was her Daddy’s favorite because she looked like him. According to Mom, she acted like him, too. She was stubborn and strong-willed, with a firm sense of right and wrong. She was unexpectedly born a girl; Mamaw believed herself to be carrying a boy. Consequently, my mother has spent her life challenging gender roles and disavowing what society deems allowable for females.
As a child Mom was a tomboy. She played football with the boys, rode horses bareback, and played percussion in the high school band. Later she would become the first woman drummer in the University of Texas Longhorn Band. Such behavior was most unbecoming of a young lady growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s. Her tall frame and preference for wearing pedal pushers rather than dresses may have seemed less than feminine to some. Mom didn’t care.
By the time I was born in 1971 my mother had been working as a pharmacist for years. She worked right up to the time that she went into labor, and returned to work after staying home with me for two years. I never knew her as a stay-at-home Mom. The right and ability for a mother not only to work but to succeed and gain accolades in her profession was bedrock in my family of origin. The workplace needs women. End of story.
When she was forty years old and I was seven, my mother broke at least one social barrier – that of age – and went to medical school. Her classmates, most of whom were in their twenties, called her Mama. It was the late 1970s, and the medical profession seemed still to be getting used to the idea that women could be excellent doctors, as well as nurses. Even if this was conceded, female medical students who wanted to specialize in something other than pediatrics or OB/GYN were likely to be seen as (and possibly to feel akin to) salmon swimming upstream.
Mom’s medical school and residency tenure was difficult for our family. Mom and I lived apart from Dad for two years at the beginning. She and I resided in San Antonio, where the medical school is, and Dad stayed back in Pleasanton, Texas, where we had been living.
To this day I have visual images of my father, living alone. I see him in my mind, inhabiting that three-bedroom, two-bathroom house by himself. I wonder if it echoed. My guess is that it got quite lonely. I didn’t think about it at the time. I have no idea why. Now I do ponder those days of his, and I belatedly hurt with him. Although intact families all across America live apart for one reason or another, I cannot imagine doing such a thing. The pain of the separation alone would suffocate my soul.
Our home in Pleasanton was on the outskirts of town, down a gravel road. A sand drive way that was about a quarter-mile long led to the house. It sat on five acres that we never did anything with. When we were together Mom did most of the yardwork and upkeep on the outside of our house. I have no idea how Dad maintained the house when he was on his own. He worked in another town about six miles away, which took most of his time and energy. He also volunteered a good chunk of his time at church, was a member of the Rotary Club, and came to San Antonio every weekend to be with us. This is just the logistical mystery. Dad awaited the sale of the house and employment in San Antonio. Until these things came to pass, our family of three lived in two homes.
Physically, our family was separated by about 35 miles; emotionally, the distance felt more like 1,000. The time apart took a toll on my parents’ marriage, and it significantly altered my life. When we were reunited, Mom had two years of school and four years of internship/residency ahead of her. Dad became my primary caretaker, often fulfilling the role of both father and mother.
Throughout those eight years I remember Mom as often gone or unavailable due to exhaustion or the need to study. Dad and I were on our own frequently as Mom worked, went to professional functions, and “moonlighted” as a pharmacist to help pay the bills. (She was and continues to be a registered pharmacist.) Family meals were regularly interrupted by pages or phone calls, or were eaten without Mom. Mom would sometimes lament that Dad and I were having fun and “living the life” while she worked. Our family operated on two different schedules—one was mine and my father’s, and the other was my mother’s. Sometimes if we were lucky, our paths would cross and we would all be together for a while.
I know that Mom sacrificed greatly and sometimes felt resentful, and I know why. She did it for our family. She did it for me. She did it so that I could have all that I ever dreamed of, and so that I would tread a path with far fewer roadblocks than she had.
Unless a woman has done some serious self-awareness work with a counselor, she will unwittingly parent the way that was modeled by her parents. Thus patterns are formed and passed down from parent to child, from generation to generation. Like her mother and (my guess is) her grandmother, Mom said I love you through her work ethic and self-sacrifice. While I’ll never grasp all that my mother did and went through to become the acclaimed physician that she is, I do know that she loves me with all of her strength. My brain gets it.
I was never asked what kind of mother, or what kind of family life I wanted, and I saw nothing wrong with this. I understood the family life that I had to be “normal”—whatever that is. I knew nothing else.
Yet while I didn’t know it then, I needed something different than what I had. I absolutely loved (and still do) that I had (have) Rosie the Riveter for a mother. Mom has always been unabashedly on my side, especially when it comes to every gender-role-challenging thing I have done and said – and there have been many. Let no person say to my mother’s daughter that she cannot do something simply because she is female. Them’s fightin’ words; and the speaker will have Mama Bear with to contend with.
“People may tell you that you can’t do this or that because you’re a girl,” Mom would say as her eyes bore into mine.
She wasn’t going to risk my attention wavering. The message was way too important.
“You don’t believe that. You can do anything. You might have to work harder – women just have to work harder than men do to gain the same successes — but you’ll show them. You’ll show them what women can do and how well we can do it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I would obediently reply.
These conversations recurred throughout my childhood and adolescence. They began, I believe, about the time that she went to medical school. The surrounding scenery and our ages changed through the years, but the gist of the discussion did not.
What I needed, though, what my heart craved, was more of her. I needed her time, and I needed her affection. I needed her love to ooze all over me like a thick, flowing ointment. I needed her to be tender towards me, and to laugh with me with chuckles that emanated from the bottom of her belly. I needed her to gaze at me with eyes that spoke of my absolute precious value to her, and to relish in my existence. I needed her to speak poetically about how much she cherished me, and to do so ad nauseam (although I doubt I would have ever gotten enough). I needed her to share with me her heart and soul so that I might know and drink from her feminine, maternal strength. I needed to connect with my mother the way that every child innately does. I needed her to pour all that passion, energy, intelligence, and philanthropy that she so willingly and courageously gave to medicine—to her patients, her colleagues, and her students—primarily into me. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, the huge hole within me that needed my mother never got completely filled.
It turns out that Mom favored her father by parenting like him, too. He was stern, strict, and by today’s standards abusive. He was known to rage, shouting at and striking the four females that shared his life and bore his name. He worked hard at his job, and was the king of his castle. He wasn’t much for emotions. That was just the way it was.
“My Daddy never wrapped his arms around me and told me that he loved me,” Mom reflected. “I guess I didn’t need him to because I knew he loved me.”
She raised me the same way, she said. I know, I responded wistfully.
I ingested Mom’s words, and imagined her as a child. Did she hurt? Did she cry? She had to. How can any child withstand that kind of treatment, year-in, year-out? She must have emotionally shut herself down in order just to survive, I surmised. I wanted to scoop up the Mom-as-a-little-girl I was envisioning and whisk her away. She deserved so much more as a child. But what she got from the hand that fed her was slaps, and from the hand that rocked her cradle she received no protection. Neither of her parents showered her with love, empathy, nurture, nor compassion. They broke her heart, however unwittingly, and she barricaded it.
Silence filled the air between us. It was thick, I believed, with processing and burgeoning awareness. I waited…and prayed.
“I never knew that you were and are so needy,” Mom continued. Her voice, body language, and facial expression belied sincere confusion. More silence.
Eventually she spoke, enunciating with more emotion I’ve heard in her voice in…well, I don’t know. “I don’t understand.”
I am now in my forties and I still ache for her.